For a bilingual human, every utterance requires a choice about which language to use. This choice is commonly regarded as part of general executive control, engaging prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices similarly to many types of effortful task switching. However, although language control within artificial switching paradigms has been heavily studied, the neurobiology of natural switching within socially cued situations has not been characterized. Additionally, although theoretical models address how language control mechanisms adapt to the distinct demands of different interactional contexts, these predictions have not been empirically tested. We used MEG (RRID: NIFINV:nlx_inv_090918) to investigate language switching in multiple contexts ranging from completely artificial to the comprehension of a fully natural bilingual conversation recorded “in the wild.” Our results showed less anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex involvement for more natural switching. In production, voluntary switching did not engage the prefrontal cortex or elicit behavioral switch costs. In comprehension, while laboratory switches recruited executive control areas, fully natural switching within a conversation only engaged auditory cortices. Multivariate pattern analyses revealed that, in production, interlocutor identity was represented in a sustained fashion throughout the different stages of language planning until speech onset. In comprehension, however, a biphasic pattern was observed: interlocutor identity was first represented at the presentation of the interlocutor and then again at the presentation of the auditory word. In all, our findings underscore the importance of ecologically valid experimental paradigms and offer the first neurophysiological characterization of language control in a range of situations simulating real life to various degrees.
SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Bilingualism is an inherently social phenomenon, interactional context fully determining language choice. This research addresses the neural mechanisms underlying multilingual individuals’ ability to successfully adapt to varying conversational contexts both while speaking and listening. Our results showed that interactional context critically determines language control networks’ engagement: switching under external constraints heavily recruited prefrontal control regions, whereas natural, voluntary switching did not. These findings challenge conclusions derived from artificial switching paradigms, which suggested that language switching is intrinsically effortful. Further, our results predict that the so-called bilingual advantage should be limited to individuals who need to control their languages according to external cues and thus would not occur by virtue of an experience in which switching is fully free.