Science for All

Looking for something a little lighter than a peer-reviewed journal article?
I've compiled the pieces I've written for popular audiences here. 

 
 
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How memory research can help you learn a new language

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you just turned off the light, your head is on the pillow, your eyes are closed, and yet, instead of drifting off to dreamland, you find yourself thinking about something that happened earlier in the day. Surprisingly, this process of reactivating your memories occurs even when you aren’t aware of it, and not only is it normal, it might actually improve your memory. 

As a second-language researcher, I am especially interested in harnessing this phenomenon to help people learn new languages. 

 
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Some people really are wired better for learning languages

Remember the last time you took a language course? No matter if it was online or classroom-based, immersive or translation-focused, I’d bet a large sum that your language abilities when you left that course were different from those of your peers. Perhaps you are like my husband, better at reading and writing than speaking in a second language. Perhaps you are like me, a whizz in the classroom but a bit shy in real life. Maybe you’ve got the basics down, but not much else.

These types of individual differences exist in every field, from mathematics and music to art and athletics (consider the difference between Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles and the rest of the United States women’s gymnastics team). But in my own field, the psychology of second-language acquisition, the reason for the difference has remained unclear: why does learning a new language come easier to some than to others?

 
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The bilingual brain: why one size doesn’t fit all

Over the past few years, you might have noticed a surfeit of articles covering current research on bilingualism. Some of them suggest that it sharpens the mind, while others are clearly intended to provoke more doubt than confidence, such as Maria Konnikova’s ‘Is Bilingualism Really an Advantage?’ (2015) in The New Yorker. The pendulum swing of the news cycle reflects a real debate in the cognitive science literature, wherein some groups have observed effects of bilingualism on non-linguistic skills, abilities and function, and others have been unable to replicate these findings.

Despite all the fuss that has been made about the ‘bilingual advantage’, most researchers have moved on from the simplistic ‘is there an advantage or not’ debate.

 

The Bilingual Brain

Written for the Penn State chapter of Bilingualism Matter's newsletter, this piece addresses whether using two languages affects the brain, how listening and speaking two languages affect the brain differently, and what families can learn from research on bilingualism.


A fun interview with me and Ben Zinszer about the movie Arrival , its depiction of language scientists, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.