Jyotsna Vaid

My research in general examines how language experience affects broader cognitive functioning. I define “language experience” in terms of a) knowledge of multiple languages vs. a single language, or b) experience with a language that has certain characteristics or makes certain distinctions in its grammar vs. a language that does not have those characteristics or those distinctions.

With regard to the first issue – knowing a single language vs. two or more languages – a large body of work, including my own work done over many years, has supported the idea that there are measureable cognitive repercussions (usually positive ones) associated with multiple language experience. Bilingualism, for example, appears to accelerate awareness of the arbitrariness of the symbol-referent relationship (e.g., that the word “moon” represents the moon; there is nothing inherent in the word that requires us to use it for a particular referent). Learning a language becomes a matter of figuring out what the particular symbols and conventions of a given  language are. Also, having learned two languages makes it easier for people to acquire a third, since it becomes a matter of looking for the regularities/the rules of the new language. Interestingly, other repercussions of multiple language experience turn up in measures of creativity or cognitive flexibility (higher in bilinguals) and in attentional ability (being less distracted by irrelevant aspects of a task). My past work in bilingualism focused on how early vs. late acquisition of two languages affects language lateralization (cerebral hemispheric specialization for language). Across a number of studies my students and I found that early onset of bilingualism appears to be associated with significantly more bilateral hemispheric involvement in both languages, as compared to the greater left lateralization found in monolingual speakers and across the two languages of late bilinguals.

In my current work I am interested in exploring what might account for the distinct cognitive and neurocognitive repercussions of early bilingual experience. One way we are exploring this in the lab is to compare different subgroups of early bilinguals. Specifically, we are interested in seeing whether early bilinguals who regularly translated for family or community members show greater cognitive and metalinguistic skills than those who did not need to translate for others. Some preliminary research conducted with my student, Belem Lopez, suggests that those with translation experience (known in the literature as “language brokers”) are faster than those without such experience on translation judgment tasks, but also show a more integrated conceptual organization across their two languages (as assessed by category exemplar generation tasks). So what this suggests is that effects previously studied by comparing bilinguals vs. monolinguals can be extended to examine differences across subgroups of bilinguals. The early experience of moving between two languages (language brokering) appears to be an important source of variation among bilinguals and appears to have distinct cognitive effects.

With regard to the second way of thinking about language experience, I am looking at an interesting structural property that certain languages like Turkish has but English doesn’t have in quite the same way. This property is known as evidentiality.  If you are a Turkish speaker and you want to tell someone about a friend having missed her flight, you would be required to note the source of your “evidence” for this statement: did you yourself witness firsthand the friend missing the flight,  did you hear about it from someone else, or did you infer that that must have happened? Turkish grammar requires different suffixes attached to the past tense of a verb to distinguish between first-hand and non-first hand assertions about a narrated event. English allows these distinctions to be made at the lexical level (e.g., one can say, “Mary apparently missed her flight”, vs. “Mary missed her flight”) but their use is up to the speaker – the distinction is not obligatory in English.   With one of my graduate students, Sumeyra Tosun, I am exploring the implications of this distinction for Turkish vs. English speakers’ memory of narrated events and their judgements of certaintly and their subsequent decision-making when presented with text containing direct vs. indirect source information. We are also comparing Turkish monolinguals with Turkish-English bilinguals to see if there are carry-over effects in the bilinguals.

A final line of work in the lab currently examines how script direction (experience in reading and writing from left-to-right vs. from right-to-left) influences directional biases observed in the facing of drawn objects (e.g., a bicycle drawn with the handles to the left or to the right) and in the spatial depiction of scenes (e.g., two houses, a near house and a far one).