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It’s on the Tip of My Tongue

May 24, 2023

It happens to all of us. You start to tell someone something and suddenly you can’t remember an important word.

People often say it's right on the tip of their tongue. However, scientists believe your brain merely activated the meaning of the word; but not the audio. When your brain skips the phonological level, it can cause your recall to short circuit.

As a result, you have the whole idea in your head, and all sorts of sensations about the word in question but you just can’t retrieve how the word sounds.

Lethologica is not a sign of memory loss..

People often incorrectly associate tip-of-the-tongue situations as being related to memory loss due to aging. But, forgetting the word you are trying to use in a conversation is a fairly common experience at any age.

Whereas a young person may experience a loss of words sometimes, it is likely an older adult will experience lethologica more often.

Fortunately, the science behind this phenomena suggests there is nothing to worry about when you experience an occasional “brain fart”. Lost words can happen regardless of chronological age both when communicating with others as well as when you are trying to recall information internally.

Language Is Amazing But Complex

Without doubt, language is one of the most amazing accomplishments of humankind. After all, there is so much going on in your brain from the first thought to the end of a conversation. Neuroscientists say different areas of your brain are responsible for different functions whenever external or internal communication occurs.

Lost words are just a breakdown in the activation process from the semantic meaning to the phonological sound. You may have noticed when you can’t remember a word, you can often describe it in great detail. That is likely due to the fact that your brain recalled the appearance of the word without the enunciation. In addition, studies have concluded new words that are learned later in life might be more easily forgotten than those learned early on.

One area of the brain makes it possible to recollect the word, but it is another area where the audio signals are assigned. As a result, your brain cannot easily activate the corresponding sounds of the lost word. Scientists also say there are physical, mental and emotional causes that increase the probability of this happening, such as being fatigued, consuming too much alcohol or caffeine, or being emotionally upset.

How Recall Happens in the Multilingual Brain

Cognitive studies suggest that bilinguals experience tip-of-the-tongue incidents more often than monolinguals, even in their native tongue. It has long been believed that bilinguals start to forget their first language due to a lack of use. After all, it is common for someone who has learned a new language to be using it at their workplace, in their social life, and even in the home. So, language attrition seems to be a plausible explaination for why sounds start to fade away.

Scientists also suggest that people who speak two or more languages have twice as many words in their brain compared to those who speak only one language. Although that might explain how double words could act as phonological blockers, it wouldn’t explain the tip-of-the-finger issues bilingual English speakers using American Sign Language often experience. And, cognitive experiments have shown that both bilingual groups experience about the same results.

Since semantic and phonological processes are separated during language production, neuroscientists point to how dual or multi-language activation may explain an increase in twisted tongues. Monolinguals have only one activation pathway where bilinguals must recognize the word in one language context (syntactical) and meaning (semantical) while searching for phonological form by activating several other pathways in their brain.

Bottom line, utilizing a “use it or lose it” strategy may be the best way to enhance word recall and avoid lethologica in any language, whether spoken or signed.


Multilingualism is fraught with nuances that can make communications a double-edged sword. Although it is often more complex in its delivery, it can prove highly beneficial in delivering your message. For cost-effective solutions that are correctly localized for each target language, contact ProLingo at 800-287-9755 to speak with one of our language specialists.

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