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Communication Sciences and Disorders Professor Viorica Marian gives 11th Annual Pepper Lecture

That second language you picked up studying abroad in college might just have changed how your brain works.

These are the findings of Viorica Marian, the Ralph and Jean Sundin Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) and Professor of Psychology, who spoke about bilingualism’s effects on the brain and how we understand language at the School of Communication’s 11th Annual Pepper Lecture on April 13. 

Marian discussed how far we’ve come in our research on bilingualism, which has taken off in the last 20 years.

“Fifty-six percent of Europe is bilingual,” Marian said. “And in some countries, like Sweden, that percentage is much higher. Even in the United States, a language other than English is spoken in one-fifth of homes, and that number is rising.”

For a long while, Marian said researchers thought that bilingual speakers simply “turned off” their native language to speak another. Marian’s research, however, showed that the other language never really was turned off.

“It’s just like a computer,” she said. “The software you might not be using right now is still running somewhere in the background.”

The dilemma became how to prove this, as it had been difficult to prove something is “in the background” without activating it, as in by speaking the second language.

Marian got around this problem by presenting subjects with four separate objects that included a marker and a stamp.

Stamp and marker don’t sound alike in English, but in Russian, stamp is marka, which is very close to marker. She tracked the eye movements of her subjects as she asked them to identify a stamp, and the subjects who spoke Russian looked at the marker far more often than subjects who only spoke English, since in their minds “marker” and “marka” were very similar.

This proved their Russian was still “running” in the background, even while they were answering a question in English.

Marian also used brain mapping in her research, and found that monolingual brains had to work harder to resolve linguistic competition than those of bilinguals, who have more experience resolving competition between the two languages. Bilingual people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia tended to exhibit symptoms of the disease later than nolingual people.

“Bilingual brains get a constant workout juggling the two languages, which in turn increases cognitive reserve and improves executive function,” she said.

Marian’s research also found that bilingual subjects tended to learn new languages at a faster rate than monolinguals. She even invented a fictional language, Colbertian, after Communication alumnus Stephen Colbert who gave the 2011 Northwestern commencement address, to test her theory.

But Marian, who speaks three languages herself, is quick to say that even more research needs to be done. “I don’t want you to think that bilingual speakers are better than monolinguists,” she said. “They just do things differently.”

Sumit Dhar, CSD chair, applauded Marian’s work.

“She’s produced useful tools for other scientists, including a bilingual scale that’s been translated into nineteen languages and is quoted in over 300 papers. The depth of her science is remarkable,” he said. “And not only that, but she’s a wonderful human being. She’s worked relentlessly for the betterment of all of us.”

The Pepper Lecture honors Roxelyn and Richard Pepper’s generous gift to Communication Sciences and Disorders to help supplement faculty salaries.

“We are very lucky they are a central player in our community,” said Barbara O’Keefe, Dean of the School of Communication.              

By Cara Lockwood