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$1.4 million NIH grant to fund study of bilingualism

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders a $1.4 million, five-year grant for the purpose of studying bilingualism.

“The project focuses on cognitive architecture of bilingualism and examines consequences of bilingualism for cognitive and linguistic processing and language learning,” said Viorica Marian, associate professor in communication sciences and disorders.

Marian’s work in bilingualism is increasingly important in a country where one-fifth of American households spoke a language other than English at home in 2000, according to the last U.S. Census. “The proportion of non-native English speakers in the United States is rapidly growing,” Marian explained.

One of Marian’s studies looks at how individuals learn a new language, examining the differences of how bilinguals and monolinguals learn that new language.

“What I’m trying to do is see what are some of the benefits and advantages that bilingualism confers,” she said.

Another study uses the tracking of eye movements to make inferences about cognitive processing in bilinguals vs. monolinguals. The researcher observes where the subject’s eye movements go toward specific objects. For example, a monolingual English-speaking subject hears the word “marker” and might look at a marker and marble on a desk, but a bilingual subject who speaks English and Russian may look at the marker, marble and stamp, which is “marka” in Russian.

“We see if language is activated based on where eye movements go,” Marian explained.

The NIH grant will allow Marian and her colleagues to purchase new eye-tracking equipment for their laboratories as well as hire post-doctoral fellows who can conduct further research.

A third project benefitting from the grant examines the consequences of bilingualism for cognitive function, studying how being bilingual changes what people remember and their ability to inhibit thoughts.

“We now have the opportunity in the next five years to fund a lot of interesting and promising projects that help us understand what are the consequences of bilingualism, what are the advantages, and how are they different from monolinguals,” Marian said. “We wouldn’t be able to do as much without this grant.”