Watch the replay of this event held September 15, 2021.

For many stuck in Covid lockdowns, learning a new language offered respite — and possibly gave their brains a boost. Studies find that actively speaking two languages later in life may help to delay the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia. Research also suggests that children who grow up using two languages do better on standardized tests than their monolingual peers.

But in many places bilingualism is not always valued. In the United States, for example, white, affluent English speakers are often encouraged to learn a second language, yet many people in poor, minority or indigenous communities are actively discouraged from speaking anything other than English. Join us for a discussion with two leading experts on bilingualism’s role in cognition and how speaking multiple languages may be lauded or frowned on depending on the societal context.


Uju Anya

Uju Anya, Carnegie Mellon University

Dr. Uju Anya specializes in new language learning, multilingualism and developing holistic curricula for language teachers. Her research spans applied linguistics, critical sociolinguistics and critical discourse studies, and examines race, gender, sexual and social class identities through new language learning experiences. Dr. Anya’s book, Racialized Identities in Second Language Learning: Speaking Blackness in Brazil, examines how students shape and negotiate different identities in multilingual contexts, and was recognized with the 2019 American Association for Applied Linguistics First Book Award as outstanding work that makes an exceptional contribution to the field.


Judith Kroll, University of California, Irvine

Dr. Judith Kroll’s research focuses on the cognitive processes that support the acquisition and proficient use of a second language. This includes using behavioral and neuroscience methods to investigate how bilingual speakers speak in one language at a time, how adult second-language learners acquire new vocabulary and how speaking two languages may benefit cognition. Dr. Kroll will be launching and codirecting the UC Irvine branch of Bilingualism Matters, which does community outreach, shares science with the public, debunks myths about bilingualism and creates a bidirectional bridge between the community of bilingual speakers and learners and researchers.


Rachel Ehrenberg

Rachel Ehrenberg, Associate Editor, Knowable Magazine

Rachel has been covering science for nearly 20 years, often focusing on the intersection of research and society. She has a master’s degree in evolutionary biology from the University of Michigan and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. In 2013-14, she was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT.


This event is part of Reset: The Science of Crisis & Recovery, an ongoing series of live events and science journalism exploring how the world is navigating the coronavirus pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Reset is supported by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Knowable Magazine is a product of Annual Reviews, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to synthesizing and integrating knowledge for the progress of science and the benefit of society. Major funding for Knowable comes from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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Rachel Ehrenberg: I’m Rachel Ehrenberg . I’m an editor at Knowable Magazine from Annual Reviews, and this is the 11th conversation in our Reset series, which focuses on the pandemic, its consequences and the way forward. Today we’re going to be talking about bilingualism.

Maybe you grew up speaking two languages, or like me, maybe you took French in high school, or you decided to learn a new language during lockdown. You’re not alone. According to the 2018 Census, 21.9 percent of US residents speak a foreign language at home, some 350 languages in the US. That’s a record 67.3 million residents that regularly speak a language other than English, a number that’s more than doubled since 1990 and almost tripled since 1980.

Beyond regular enjoyment, we know that knowing and using two languages has a lot of benefits. It enriches your life experience, your world view. In some professions it can mean greater job opportunities or a higher salary, and there are also cognitive benefits. Recent research, a large body of research, suggests that kids who speak two languages do better at standardized tests, speaking two languages can delay the onset of symptoms of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But in the US and other places, there’s often a double standard around bilingualism. To be straight-forward it’s typically seen as a benefit and an opportunity for white, affluent kids, but seen as a problem to solve, as something that needs to be fixed, for other kids.

We’re going to get into all of that today and more, and I’m thrilled that we have two great people to help bring us different perspectives, answer your questions and share their research. We have Uju Anya, she’s a professor of second-language acquisition in the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University. She has expertise in applied linguistics that examines race, gender, sexual, and social class identities in new language learning. We also have Judy Kroll. She directs the Bilingualism, Mind and Brain Lab at UC Irvine. Her research focuses on how bilinguals juggle two languages in one brain, and she will be co-directing the UC Irvine branch of Bilingualism Matters, which is set to launch later this year and we will hear more about later.

Welcome to both of you and thank you so much for being here today.

Let’s start with the basics. Why don’t each of you define bilingualism in terms of your particular research lens? Judy, let’s start with you.

Judith Kroll: I think that we think about bilingualism a bit differently than it’s been historically cast. So we think about bilingualism as being anyone who actively uses two or more languages, dialects or varieties of language. We are interested in individuals who are at early stages of learning a second language and those who may be quite proficient, so we take a very broad view. And I think that that’s really quite different than past characterizations that have tended to think that you’re only really bilingual if you’ve learned both languages from earliest infancy and have balance in the two languages, and we know that that’s very, very rare. That, in fact, more people who are bilingual are bilingual in all of these different ways.

Rachel Ehrenberg:  OK, and Uju, how do you define it?

Uju Anya: So, first of all, thank you for having us here and inviting us for this conversation. It’s really difficult, sometimes, to have these conversations because there are bigger definitions, I believe, or considerations that we have to iron out before we make these definitions. So we tend to look at — and Judy was correct in saying that we used to look at languages a certain way or bilingualism — and the way that we’re looking at it right now, we’re challenging concepts of what language is and … bilingualism, you’re in two languages, a lot of people have this notion that you have space in your brain for one language and then space for another language and these things exist as these separate systems. Too often, people think of bilingualism as being two monolinguals inside one person, and Judy addressed that. That’s that notion of this perfect unity between your expertise in the different languages, and that’s not, anymore, how we think about that.

So we definitely think about bilingualism in terms of expertise, in terms of a continuum of expertise. We think that every human being has a very unique thing we call the idiolect, which is how you understand how to language, in general, how language and communication happens, and the different abilities and tools that you have in this repertoire of yours to be able to do that, be they in varieties and dialects and what we’ve come to know as named and differentiated languages, which tend to be more political projects of ethnostates than actual realities of these different things.

So it’s funny to ask a sociolinguist how to make a definition of bilingualism because we’re going to ask a bunch of other questions like, “What do we consider what?” and that’s where I’m at. Bilingualism is your repertoire, your expertise and your understanding of how to language.

Rachel Ehrenberg: One of you alluded to the expression what is the difference a dialect and a language, and the answer is an army or a navy …

Judith Kroll: Army, yep.

Uju Anya: An army...

Rachel Ehrenberg: Yeah. So, fundamental definitions can be tricky. Well, we’re going to explore that more. Let’s start a little bit with these cognitive benefits that we talked about at the outset. Judy, can you give us some context? Scientists used to think that speaking two languages would hinder cognition, it would sort of muddle you up, especially for young children, is that right?

Judith Kroll: Yes. I can do that. I think that there’s a lot of mythology about bilingualism, and the mythology spans really for the entire lifespan, but starting with the very littlest babies, what we know is that babies, when they’re born, are ready to learn any language to which they’ve been exposed, but what happens over the first year of life is that that ability closes down, and it closes down in a way that’s not a bad way, it’s that they become expert in the language and speech that they’re hearing. So what happens if you expose a baby to more than one language, and many people thought that that was really a bad thing: The babies would be confused, that you would be delaying their development, that you would be putting them at risk on a number of different dimensions. And what we now know is that there’s nothing that could be farther from the truth.

That what we see is that babies who are exposed to two languages from birth seem to tune that space system much more broadly. They’re more sensitive to the sounds of other languages later than babies exposed to just monolingual input from the start. They seem to also possess a set of abilities in terms of looking at, they look at the mouths of speakers rather than their eyes, they tend to be open to attentional change that we see that we think may lay the foundation for the kind of adaptation they have in this more varied environment. So the evidence and the research is really quite positive. It’s not a bad thing, and for children who are the majority bilingual experience in the US, which are heritage speakers where the language other than English has been learned at home, what we now know is maintaining that home language is really a benefit to those children, not only in having that language, but also in using English — so they do better in English. What we see across a lifespan is we see a set of consequences of bilingualism.

People have been arguing a lot with each other about is bilingualism a benefit, is it an advantage, and many of us have been arguing back that that’s the wrong question to ask, that the question we have to ask is, “What are the consequences?” and in some context there’re going to be dramatic consequences and in others they might not be quite as dramatic. But what we know, now, is that the two languages are always active and interacting with one another. To come back to what Uju said a moment ago, bilingual is not two monolinguals in one. Bilingual becomes a person who has a language system that is shared with the two languages, and so the native or first or initially exposed language affects the learning of the second and vice versa, and that happens across the entire lifespan.

What we see at the other end of the continuum in older adults, is that older adults reveal a set of protections cognitively. So cognitive decline is a normal thing, but that cognitive decline appears to be somewhat reduced for individuals who have spoken two languages their entire life, and the most dramatic case that Rachel mentioned a moment ago is for people who are about to develop dementia. Bilingualism does not protect you against dementia, but bilingualism appears to provide dramatic protection against the symptoms of dementia, so that individuals who are going to develop dementia — for example, Alzheimer’s — will show up about four to five years later in the clinic than individuals who are monolingual, suggesting that they have been compensating, that they have been getting along with this disease for a longer period of time.

So there is no drug that has that effect, so there is a tremendous amount of research addressed to just what is it about being bilingual that creates this resilience and what’s been called cognitive reserve or neural reserve, and we think that having this single language system, as messy as it might seem, is a tremendous advantage.

Rachel Ehrenberg: So there’s obviously a large body of research on this, yet despite these benefits, bilingualism still gets a bad rap in a lot of contexts. Uju, please tell us more about this double standard and the ways that it manifests.

Uju Anya: So when we think about language, we really have to think about those who language, languagers, and our feelings about languagers have absolutely everything to do with how we perceive their languaging. So, who is the person that’s the bilingual is going to determine how we perceive their bilingualism. For example, here, the context in the United States, we have a large population of bilingual students in our school systems, our K through 12 school systems, that come with expertise in many, many different ways of knowing and being. Culturally, they’re exposed to many different things, and then we bring them inside the school and we try to school them in the language of power and the language of the most powerful in the United States, which is English, and not just any type of English, but a very specific, academic, registered English, a variety that’s most suited and most familiar to the elite, and in this country this would be mostly the white middle and upper classes.

So we come to this group who have many different languages that they’re working with and then we tell them — and these are usually children of color, and they might have some immigrant backgrounds — and we tell them that the way that they language is bad and it’s a problem to solve and we’re going to make sure that we teach English and basically educate them out of their home language practices or other practices that they have in language. Conversely, we have white middle-class and elite children who, many times, come from monolingual backgrounds and then they’re learning world languages and we consider this fantastic and give them lots of support and they have the ability to participate in study-abroad programs and there’s praise and there’s notion that they’re exceptional, and when they do other languages really well, that they’re intelligent.

This has to do with the stigma that we have that’s associated with race and social class and the languaging practices of those who we look upon much less favorably. So there is a huge double standard in how we treat poor, working-class children who come with bilingual abilities and how we try to English them out of their skills, versus how we treat rich, white kids who are learning, let’s say, Spanish or Chinese or French, and we encourage them, give them opportunities, seal of biliteracy, etc.

Rachel Ehrenberg: And you explored this more in a recent paper, in particular the experience of black students, not necessarily bilingual black students, but just how they track in language education, but what does that experience look like for black students in particular?

Uju Anya: There’re many different types of black students in the United States, and a black population that I look at very closely are African Americans, so US blacks. They are the ones that, in my research, I’ve discovered to have actually a very rich history in multilingualism and bilingual practices. Many of them are, at the very least, bidialectal in that they have African-American language in their repertoire in addition to other standardized and mainstream forms of, let’s say, English. So they already come with a bilingual background, many of them, and others in their communities are conversant with, let’s say, Spanish, Haitian Creole, for example, and other, let’s say, pidgins of English if they are in conversations with Africans and Caribbeans.

So I look at this population and I also look at the history that they have in US schools, and the history is a segregation because we understand that social class lines, socioeconomic lines, are also racially drawn and we have racial segregation, so the schools where the majority of these students are schooled in, let’s say, world languages, they don’t have these opportunities to be schooled in world languages and in dual-language programs, for example, that are really popular now in public schools. I’ve seen, in my research and also the work of others, that there’s a stigma against the languaging practices of African Americans, for example, and a stigma against how they language in English and saying, “Well, we can’t really be teaching them in a dual-language or immersion program in a whole other language if they don’t even know their own language, English, well, or they don’t do English well.”

This is just one of the problems that I’ve seen in schools where access is quite limited for them and there’s active discrimination against African Americans, although many of them do manage to advance to more advanced levels in world-language programs and can be able to study, for example, in college, if they make it there, but then there are other barriers there that I’ve seen as well. One huge barrier is in how we teach world languages, how we present them, the materials that we give, classroom instruction and the research has shown that there’s erasure of black identities in these materials. Black students have reported them to be irrelevant instruction and instructors that give a differentiated, a negative treatment, and all sorts of other problems in addition to the structural problems of lack of resources and access.

Rachel Ehrenberg: That irrelevancy, I think, can be pervasive. I took Yiddish in college and we practiced saying sentences like, “Where is Grandma’s goat?” Yeah, often what we’re practicing in language class doesn’t translate, although the problem can be, it’s more problematic in a certain context, for sure.

In both of your areas of study, you discuss navigating two languages, juggling two languages, both in the brain and in various social contexts. Judy, talk a little bit about how the brain navigates bilingualism and what that’s revealing about cognition in general.

Judith Kroll: Sure. So I think that one of the — sort of if we work backwards  — one of the bottom lines here is that it is normal to be bilingual or multilingual, that this is not an add-on as we’ve been saying, and what we’ve learned in the last two decades is that the two languages are actually active all of the time. Now, speakers are not aware of that activity because you would be going out of your mind if you were conscious of all of the activity while it was going on, but the point is that the two languages are dynamically intertwined. So once you sign up to take a world-language course when you’re a high school student or college student, and you don’t know that what’s happening is that your mind and brain are changing immediately because the two languages are going to influence one another.

One of the findings is that what bilinguals have to do, because bilinguals don’t usually make mistakes of speaking the wrong language. You don’t hear people suddenly blurting out words that are in the wrong language. The question is really how do you keep the two languages separate, but how do you actually use them together? What we see, and there is now an extensive body of research showing that bilinguals develop cognitive control, they develop mechanisms and we can see the activity of those mechanisms when we look at brain data that show that bilinguals are able to really — it’s this word “juggle” that I use — that they are able to juggle the two languages, they’re able to suppress the language they’re not going to speak, they’re able to bring the language they are going to speak up into the present.

What happens is that that dynamic is going on all of the time, and what it means is that the bilingual is not a static speaker. Bilingual, I mean, monolinguals aren’t static speakers either, but the bilingual is continually adjusting the language that they’re going to speak as a function of, not only their cognitive state, but as a function of the social environment in which they are speaking. So if a bilingual is bilingual in a context where everyone is bilingual in the same way, they may code-switch with one another frequently, going in and out of the two languages within a single sentence.

If a bilingual is living in a context where maybe they’re immersed in a second language by virtue of travel or immigration or study abroad, and suddenly very few people speak their native language, they may find themselves having to monitor the environment, to be very active about figuring out who they can speak which language with, and when they do that, what we’ve discovered is that that enhances their cognitive abilities, because when you are having to monitor what’s going on, it seems like a bad thing, it seems like something that’s going to impose a load on your memory, but what we see is that it actually produces good results.

So we think that some of the resilience that bilinguals show, especially as they age, is a reflection of this learning the juggling act of, and it’s again, what’s really quite remarkable about it is that you’re not necessarily aware of it at all unless you run into a problem. So what we see is we see a quite skilled, proficient speaking, even in the face of having the languages be active and interacting with one another.

Rachel Ehrenberg: And it seems, I understand what you’re saying about if you were too conscious of it, it would be perhaps totally overwhelming, but, Uju, you’ve explored also changes that kids are really conscious of, sort of the ways that speaking a second language can really be transformative in terms of how you navigate your sort of inner world and the external world. Tell us a little bit about some of the students in your book on speaking blackness in Brazil.

Uju Anya: Sure. I really love what Judy said about how normal it is to be bilingual and to navigate the world in this way, and I really want to highlight how she talks about the flexibility of bilinguals and how we move through things and make on-the-moment adaptations and adjustments, and we do this consciously, unconsciously. We just do it because that’s how we language. I also want to highlight that inherent in this is something that we have, which is a tolerance for ambiguity, which is really helpful, right, because we don’t always need to understand everything 100 percent and control everything 100 percent because — Ofelia Garcia calls this a trans-language and navigating the rugged terrain using sort of an ATV, this four-wheel vehicle, as you sort of go over bumps and grooves and ditches in the road as you’re languaging and communicating, and this entails cognitive abilities and benefits that we have that Judy was talking about.

A big example that I found in my research, language learning, first of all, is personal transformation. So learning, in general, entails transformation and change in any human being, any sort of learning activities. Because when you learn, you change. You change because what you can do changes and that makes you change. So language learning entails a lot of change and transformation because languages are not just vocabulary or grammar or these systems. Behind language is a whole world. Cultural understandings, ideologies, so, specifically, when I look at African-American students who are learning Portuguese and who are doing that, especially, in the Brazilian context, which was the research that the book was based on, they were learning to do themselves and to be themselves, but in this new language and in this new language that entails sort of their own background and their understandings, but then mixed together with new things that they’re learning and new understandings and new cultures.

Race, for example, is something, if you say sort of racial understanding and racial consciousness is a language that black students speak very, very well, quite fluently, but they had to learn how to speak race in this new context where their culture and their understandings are different. So it’s sort of like perfecting your pronunciation in a language you already know very well. So I notice that, something that Judy also said, that a new language that you’re learning is going to affect your previous knowledge and the languages you already work with, very familiar to me. And black students in Brazil that I saw, while they were learning to talk about race in new and different ways as they are learning to language in Portuguese and in Brazil, it affected how they understood English and how they’re going to express themselves in English, especially their racialized identity.

For example, there was a student who had to learn in Portuguese. “OK, how am I going to describe myself racially? Am I going to say, ‘Sou negra’ (‘I’m Black’) — or am I going to say, ‘Sou morena’?” —which is more “dark” or sort of an intermediate category. “How am I going to do this?” There are some black students in my cohort that were like, “No, Black is Black. White is white.” This is sort of an American perception, but then there were others that, through learning Portuguese and learning how to do their Blackness in the Portuguese language in a Brazilian context, found that the sort of intermediate categories were a little bit more accurate and precise for them in how they’re going to describe their vision of Blackness or who they are racially.

So English and the American sort of polar opposites type of thing, or binaries, didn’t feel so comfortable anymore for them, and they felt that morena was a little bit better, parda was a little bit better, and English was thrown off for them a little bit because they started to feel uncomfortable in that, “I can’t really say these things anymore in English. It doesn’t define me as well as I felt that in Portuguese I was being defined, and I was being described and my cultural understanding and my understanding of myself was sort of more accurately represented in this new way.” So that’s an example that I’ve seen in my explorations of how new languaging practices affect our old.

Rachel Ehrenberg: That’s fascinating. So one of the things you do is help language teachers learn how to teach language better and developing curricula, and there is a National Academy’s 2017 report — I just want to pull this up here — basically, saying that schools don’t provide adequate instruction in social, emotional support to acquire a English proficiency or support the continuation of the second language. Early-care and education providers, administrators, teachers aren’t trained appropriately. What’s the state of play today? Has it changed much since 2017? What’s your perspective in terms of teaching people how to teach language?

Uju Anya: Well, we’re definitely talking more about very important things like how are we going to, first of all, recognize and value the languaging practices that our students come with? There are two different sort of areas. We’ve divided language education, or education that focuses on language, in two big camps. There’s the bilingual education that usually has to do with people who have a home language that’s different from English and they’re put into things like ESL, for example, and then we have world languages, which usually ... although, of course, these categories mix, these populations mix a lot  but we make an assumption of some dominance of English and then you’re adding sort of a language that’s perceived as foreign, for example, into the mix, although we don’t call them foreign languages anymore because languages like Spanish, for example, are not foreign to the United States. It existed here before the United States even existed itself.

So we call them now world languages. So when we’re looking at bilingual education, for example, we’re not talking — very happily, I’m so happy to see this change happening — we’re talking more about understanding and valuing the languaging practices that these children come with, and our students come with. So understanding that if a child is deft and agile in how they’re understanding and moving in their flexibility in different languages and expression and their expertise, we’re going to recognize that as a good thing and honor that and try to maintain and build on what it is that they come with.

So a lot of the transitional programs that used to exist — transition meaning transition you into English-only, English-dominant. They tolerate you being bilingual for the first couple of years and then they move you solidly into English-only. So a lot of the transitional programs are now being turned into, let’s say, dual-language programs and programs where, or even the bilingual programs are now saying, “Yes, we’re going to work on your understanding of the mastery of academic English, but we also understand that you are languaging very well and we’re going to know that building up your heritage language and other expertise that you have contributes very positively to how you language in general, including in English.” So that’s a really good thing that’s happening.

Another good thing that’s happening is we’re taking, more seriously, anti-racism in our classes now, and understanding that a lot of our curriculum is white supremacist — let’s start with that — and white supremacist in the sense that there’s a lot of erasure of people who don’t fit a certain mold and there’s a lot of lack of consideration, especially in world languages of the different varieties, the different classes that we may have, and we’re really taking into consideration the fact that values like anti-racism and equity-mindedness are very important, even in a field like language learning that we perceive as well. It’s just we’re all so nice. We learn about different cultures, etc., etc., but we’re also, while we’re doing that, maintaining the same racist ideologies and classes and homophobic ideologies that our societies normally hold.

So that’s really exciting for me to see, is our exploration and questioning the curriculum and the materials now in language education to see what are we doing to promote an unjust status quo and then how do we break that down in order to be more equity-minded and anti-racist, and that’s fantastic.

Rachel Ehrenberg: Well, I’m glad things are changing and it seems part of the ... We’re also perhaps seeing more groups outside of the academy and the institutions getting involved in these issues, and, Judy, you’re preparing to launch a brand of Bilingualism Matters at UC Irvine. Tell us a little bit about what that organization does.

Judith Kroll: Yeah, I’ll be happy to do that. I just want to respond to something that Uju said, which is that I think that in thinking about all these educational issues and instruction, we also need to think about the parents, and this is going to connect to the Bilingualism Matter’s effort, because what we see is that parents often believe, for good reason, they are concerned about their children doing as well as possible in the community and school, in their work, and I think that there is, in the past, there has been a push for parents to get their children into English-only and not to understand that the maintenance of the home language is actually critically important.

So how do we do that? Well, obviously, those who are working in schools have a very direct relation to the teachers, to the kids and to the parents, but those of us working at the university often find ourselves in a context where we’re doing our work and we’re reading about things and we’re thinking about things, but it becomes difficult to have a relationship with the community, and Bilingualism Matters was organized by Antonella Sorace, who is a professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, in 2008 as an information service to try to begin to address the mythology that exists about bilingualism and try to address it in what they called an evidence-based way — so meaning using the research findings that were emerging and making them accessible. But it’s not just about having a bunch of stodgy university professors go out into the world and tell people how they should be doing things, it’s also about creating partnerships: partnerships with different community groups who are involved in everything from bilingual education programs, dual-language immersion programs, looking at parents, looking at educators, looking at the business world and looking at how these things are represented.

The idea, and one of the brilliant things about the network that Bilingualism Matters has created — there are at least 30 branches in different places in the world, in the US, in Europe, in Asia, in Latin America, so this has become a very big effort — the brilliant part of it is to recognize that in each of these contexts bilingualism takes a different form and there are different issues. There are some issues that are common to everyone and then there are some issues that are quite unique to particular environments, and so what happens in Bilingualism Matters is that a different university or branch will then identify those issues that are most critical in their community. So it might be in some communities, it might be a matter of identifying parents of kids who speak a language other than the community language and determining how they might get those parents and kids together to support each other if there are no formal mechanisms in place already in the community or through the school.

So there are many, many different things that are done, and the wonderful part about it, is that it provides an opportunity for those of us who are university faculty to involve our students. So our students— I teach at University of California Irvine — our undergraduate student body are largely students from underserved groups who, most of them, are bilingual, many of them are first-generation college students, and they come to research and science with the mythology themselves that Uju was talking about, where the idea is that there’s something bad about the way they code-switch, or the way they use language, and what Bilingualism Matters does is that we can train them to go back out into the community and to share their work with others in the community and to partner with the community in a way that’s listening to what the community’s telling us the problems are.

So we can both think about bringing that back into the university, into the laboratory, and we can think about this as a bidirectional relationship. So we are very excited to be able to do this, and we’re hoping, if it works, that we will be able to go beyond UCI and create a consortium across all of our California campuses because California is a very linguistically and culturally diverse environment.

Rachel Ehrenberg: Great. Well, we’re already almost ... It’s time for questions or we’re going to run out of time, and I know there’s a lot of people eager to hear what you guys think. Before we get to that, I just want to thank everyone for tuning in, and if you’re enjoying the event and you want to join future ones, our registration just opened for our next one, which is on the politics and psychology of conspiracy theories. That will be October 27th, but please sign up for our newsletter. There will be a link in the chat, and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Those links are in the chat as well, and, of course, we offer this event for free because we have philanthropic support that we’re grateful for, but if you’d like to support our work you can head to to the “donate” button.

With that, we will get to the first question from the audience. So one, let’s start with does learning a second or ... So one thing, actually, I want to get at because this is a question, and Judy, you talked about this. Does it matter — let’s get this out of the way — does it matter what language you’re learning? Are there benefits to learning one language over another in terms of these cognitive consequences?

Judith Kroll: OK, this is a good question and it’s a question that we get asked a lot, and the evidence suggests that there are benefits in being bilingual regardless of what the two languages are. That doesn’t mean that there are not going to be different consequence if you are, for example, a native English speaker and want to learn to speak Mandarin versus a native English speaker and want to learn to speak Spanish, but the idea is that if we look at the research that’s been done, the findings are really remarkably similar across all of these different language pairings. So we see interactions and dynamics that occur regardless of which language pairing, and perhaps the most dramatic are the example of bimodal bilingualism where a person may be either deaf or hearing and use a sign language in addition to a spoken or written language and, again, it’s not that it’s identical across all pairings of language, but the dynamics of these bilingual exchanges are pretty similar. So I think that whatever advantages or consequences there are, are going to be seen throughout.

I’ll just say, again, that some of this is going to depend upon where you’re doing the learning and where you’re living and what kind of support there is in the community for it. So whether or not it’s a language that people perceive to be kind of hard or easy, it’s going to be a functional. So we know from the research that the diversity, the linguistic diversity in your community, even if you don’t speak all or even any of those other languages other than the community language, affects your brain, and it affects it in a good way. It affects it in a way to make you more open to new language learning, and that’s something that needs to be …

Rachel Ehrenberg: Can you elaborate on that? We’re getting some questions about ...

Judith Kroll: Yeah, it’s something that needs to be explored in more detail. We’ve done studies where ... and these results were not anticipated. They were serendipitous results of the research. We’ve done research in different parts of the country, in the US, and what we find is that individuals who self-identify as monolingual but who live in a diverse place like Southern California, actually have the ability to take more from new language information than individuals who live in a very monolingual environment.

Rachel Ehrenberg: What do you mean by “take more”? Can you, are there…

Judith Kroll: Well, that we’ve done experiments where we can show that if we teach someone a new, novel language to which they’ve never been exposed that has some properties that English doesn’t have as their native language …

Rachel Ehrenberg: Like grammar?

Judith Kroll: In this case, we’re looking at a feature of speech. It’s a grammatical feature of speech, and what we’re able to show is that they are able to generalize from what they have learned. So everyone can learn new rules and new examples from other languages, but it seems, in this initial set of studies we’ve done, that individuals who live in linguistically diverse environments, which, of course, we have to note are also culturally diverse, may be better able to take that information and run with it, to generalize from what they’ve learned and to go beyond what the monolinguals in that homogenous environment do.

So the point is that the diversity itself may be an advantage. We don’t know whether this is a passive or active phenomenon. We don’t know whether it’s just about being exposed to a lot that you hear or whether it’s also about the strategies, cognitively, that you would adapt in this environment because you’ve had to then respond differently to people who speak different languages, and it’s something that will be very exciting to pursue in the next line of research when we get ourselves out of the pandemic.

Rachel Ehrenberg: We have a lot of questions, but I want to just push you for a few more details if you can briefly talk about — people are asking a lot about, specifically about — when we talk about these cognitive consequences, do we know about, for example, brain regions that are more flexible or tasks, memory, executive function ...

Judith Kroll: Yep. OK, so let me just say that, in framing this, that there is controversy out there, and in my personal opinion, it is controversy and not debate. So people do not really have alternative views about, “Oh, bilingualism is really good for your brain. It tunes the areas of your brain that produce advantaged executive function or memory or whatever it happens to be.” I think the point is that there are people who are trying to argue that there are limits to the consequences, and we had — and others — have been arguing that that is a too limited way of thinking about these things, that we need to really consider the idea that bilingualism takes so many different forms, and certainly in what’s been said already this morning.

So we have African-American children coming to school with a dialect that may or may not be supported in the context they’re in. We have children coming to school with a home language like Spanish or Korean and they may be in an environment where it is or isn’t supported. What we see is that the form in which bilingualism develops and the way it is placed in the social world turns out to be very, very important. So, yes, areas of the brain, there’re very specific areas of the brain. There are many, many studies that have looked at neuroimaging to look at structural and functional imaging of the brain.

Many studies in our lab, we do a lot of electrophysiology, so we wire people up with, you know, they have electrodes on their head, and there’s just no electricity going in, it’s only looking at what the activity is coming out. And what we see is that we sometimes see that the brain is telling us some things even before behavior reveals those things. So we see that people are affected by being exposed to another language right away. We see the changes in the brain that occur right away, and one of the research questions is to try to understand which of those changes are enduring and which are not, and then, related to these cognitive consequences, we need to understand that some kinds of dynamics are going to place a lot of demands on individuals.

One line of research, where we’ve talked about this a lot, has to do with what happens to people when they’re immersed. And so we’ve done studies on college students who are immersed in some other context abroad, and what we see is that they appear to begin to lose their native language, and you might say, “Oh, my goodness. I didn’t know that I had to sign a contract when I was doing study abroad to say I might be putting myself in danger that I’m going to lose my language” — especially if you’re not that proficient in the other language, you may feel like, “This is all I have and I’m putting myself at high risk.”

What we know is that, in fact, that change we see in the native language, where we see this reduction in the native language, turns out, we think, to be a benefit in language learning because what it’s doing is it’s saying, “You’re regulating your native language to open yourself up to new language learning,” and we are really very much at the beginning of understanding how that process might work, but, again, it suggests that all of these changes or consequences, where if we look at any one individual thing we might say, “Oh, this is really a bad thing,” or there is really, “There’s harm being done here.”

If we step back and look at the entire picture, what we see is that this is about individuals not only acquiring another language, which is going to have all sorts of other benefits to them, but it is about engaging in a dynamic set of changes that, in the end, result in greater cognitive and neuro resilience. And I think the question then is how to capture the complexity of bilingual experience and the fact that not all speakers live in the same environment. So understanding how to characterize those environments, understanding how the social environment, the cultural environment comes to shape the sorts of cognitive demands that are placed, is really the question that’s being asked now.

Rachel Ehrenberg: And, Uju, I think there are several questions. I think this partly relates to how schools are doing with bilinguals, and I’m trying to figure out how to get a couple of questions into one here because ... so someone, Chrissa, asks, “Students who are expected to perform to state or federal standards in L2 are often faced with code-switching.” Can you first talk a little bit about what code-switching is, Uju, and then is there evolving pedagogy to address this? In terms of ... Maybe we can broaden it a little bit too because there are a couple of questions about, “My kid attended a bilingual school in the early years, there was worry about them getting behind in reading. If you are bilingual early on and then not later, are you losing something?” How is the education system and, yeah, please address.

Uju Anya: Oh, gosh. So code-switching, we have this notion of code-switching and then we also have a very important psycholinguistic component of trans-languaging, which is — code-switching has this notion underneath it that you’re switching back and forth between independent systems of languages that have nothing to do with each other or they don’t inform each other in any way and you’re just switching off and on, or back and forth. We understand now that that’s not what’s going on. So when we look at people’s languaging practices, it may seem from the outside, right, that we are doing separate things and separate languages are appearing because we’ve identified them as such, but when we focus on the practices of the languager, the person that’s actually doing this, we understand that more as trans-languaging, which is focusing on the fact that they have this repertoire and they’re able to navigate and be flexible and move and produce it however they need to.

It’s very important to bring this focus back, number one, on the languager and what it is that they’re doing and what their brain is doing and the social practices and the value of what it is that they’re doing. So you won’t hear me, as much, say code-switching because I don’t understand languages as these different systems that you’re going to flip back and forth from. So what we’re really trying to do now in our schools is value what the languagers are bringing with them and try to support how it is that they’re languaging and understand that it’s very important to support all the skills and all the knowledge that they bring with them while we’re working on adjusting to them being able to do what it is that we ask them to do in schools.

So, this is very important. It sounds like pie in the sky, but we have not been doing this. We’ve been actually doing a lot of harm to students, especially younger ones, by shutting them down and telling them that the way that their language is illegitimate, and how they understand that their flexibility and the skill that they bring with them in understanding, the benefits that they bring in their cultural abilities and their expertise, are bad. So what it is that we’re doing is we’re doing a lot of adjusting on our end to, first of all, understand, and the testing actually, for better or for worse, bears out that children who are educated, for example, in dual-language programs and dual-language — bilingual program is another thing. If it’s a bilingual program that supports all the languaging practices that the child brings with them, it will produce these results, but in dual-language programs, we’re seeing that when you have the standardized test, they’re actually doing much better than the children that were not educated this way.

So we see very, very clearly that there are benefits to supporting the languaging practices that the children bring with them, and this requires an adjustment on our part in what it is that we value. Right now, we value English dominance and we value monolingualism and this is how we’ve been teaching.

Rachel Ehrenberg: I mean, it’s so tragic and surprising to hear you talk about it. I mean, it just seems the notion of a kid, a child, being able to navigate two languages, doing this trans-languaging, and that adults would think that skill and flexibility is something bad.

Uju Anya: We’ve come up with awful names for them. We’ve called them semi-linguals. We’ve said that they don’t even know either language at all, or they’re semi-lingual. If we could all …

Judith Kroll: If I could just add one thing to this, which is that ... and this hasn’t come up, I think, explicitly in what we’ve said, but the entire model is about, if you look at the history both from linguistics and psycholinguistics and the science and teaching, has always been about the native language, that what’s the goal of language learning? It’s to become a native-like speaker, and what everything we’ve been saying today in different ways is that that is not, that is a false goal because the point is-

Rachel Ehrenberg: Well, and there isn’t any native speaker, right?

Judith Kroll: There isn’t and well, the point is that ... but even if you take the monolingual native speaker of English who’s been mythologized here as the goal, and now we show, all of this work shows the two languages are in the same system together and they’re influencing each other. So what should the goal be? The goal should be you want to achieve competency in the language that’s like a bilingual speaker, and the truth is that the system hasn’t quite caught up with us. So we still talk about the native-speaker model, and it very much underlies a lot of the research that’s been done. I think that thinking about how that will be adjusted in this next period is really quite interesting and exciting.

Uju Anya: And not just any native speaker, by the way. Not only do we value and ratify a native speaker, there’s a certain native speaker that we like the most, which is the rich native speaker, the elite native speaker, the native speaker that has a formal education that’s able to do high academic registers in the language. So, once again, we have to understand that we’re talking about human beings and we’re talking about politics, we’re talking about ideologies, and who we favor and who we elevate as the model, and we teach to that model and we build entire systems around this model, is themselves just a population of languagers that we’ve prioritized and said that they’re the best because, for example, the African-American children that we vilify their languaging skills and say that they don’t know how to speak their own language — English, right? — for example, they’re native speakers of English as well, but that’s not the native speaker that we say that everyone should be emulating and we’re teaching to them, right? They come with languaging skills that are very, very elite, in my opinion, and they come with very, very rich languaging traditions and understandings of very complex ways of communication and languaging that we discard entirely, and actively do so. So much so that we equate how they language with their supposed lesser abilities or lack of intelligence, etc.

So it’s a lot of harm that we have been doing based on wrong science, based on racism in science and elitism as well, and we’ve also allowed racist practices to inform our language policies all the way back from the example of Native Americans. How have we treated Native Americans in education, for example, Indian boarding schools, the way that we’ve stripped entire languages from people and culture because linguists and anthropologists and sociologists established this model of how it is that you’re supposed to be and the right way to be and we’re following that.

Rachel Ehrenberg: And it bleeds into so much. I mean, we didn’t even get into accents, but the idea of unaccented English, as if that’s a thing. And I’m afraid we don’t have time to get into any more. We’ve reached the end of the hour. This was a such an interesting conversation. Uju is very active on Twitter, if you want to hear more about what she thinks. It’s wonderful to just get a taste during the day. I want to thank everyone for joining the event. Please consider donating, signing up for our newsletter. I want to also thank the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for their wonderful support of Knowable Magazine, and, of course, special thanks to Uju and Judy for this fascinating discussion.

This conversation will be posted on the Knowable website where it’ll be free to view and share. Look for the Reset collection, and there’s also, on the page, there are additional resources, links to research books by the speakers, articles, projects. The best way to keep up with what we’ve got going on and this discussion is to sign up for the newsletter and you can also follow us on Twitter and on Facebook. Thanks again very much. That’s all from me and have a good day, everyone.