Whole-language and item-specific inhibition in bilingual language switching: the role of domain–general inhibitory control

Judy D. Zhu*, Paul F. Sowman

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    6 Citations (Scopus)
    37 Downloads (Pure)


    A prominent theory of bilingual speech production holds that appropriate language selection is achieved via inhibitory control. Such inhibition may operate on the whole-language and/or item-specific level. In this study, we examined these two levels of control in parallel, by introducing a novel element into the traditional cued language switching paradigm: half of the stimuli were univalent (each required naming in the same language every time it appeared), and the other half were bivalent (each required naming in different languages on different trials). Contrasting switch and stay trials provided an index for whole-language inhibition, while contrasting bivalent and univalent stimuli provided an index for item-specific inhibition. We then investigated the involvement of domain-general brain mechanisms in these two levels of language control. Neuroimaging studies report activation of the pre-supplementary motor area (pre-SMA), a key region in the executive control brain network, during language switching tasks. However, it is unclear whether or not the pre-SMA plays a causal role in language control, and at which level it exerts control. Using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to transiently disrupt the pre-SMA, we observed an essential role of this brain region in general speech execution, while evidence for its specific involvement in each level of inhibition remains inconclusive.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number517
    Pages (from-to)1-38
    Number of pages38
    JournalBrain Sciences
    Issue number8
    Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2020. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


    • bilingualism
    • language control
    • whole-language inhibition
    • item-specific inhibition
    • TMS
    • pre-SMA


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