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Hackman Scholar Researches the Cognitive Benefits to Being Bilingual
To determine whether there are cognitive benefits to being bilingual, a Franklin & Marshall College professor and her Hackman student scholar are examining research participants in areas such as linguistic processing and memory recall.
"There's a theory that bilinguals may have enhanced attention control, that they're better at ignoring irrelevant information to focus on the relevant information for completing a task," said Jessica Cox, assistant professor of Spanish and linguistics who began piloting the research last year.
This separating of information is the mental process bilinguals go through when they switch between languages or choose which language to speak at a given time, Cox said. "It's something that bilinguals do all the time."
As a bilingual speaker, rising senior Bendjhi Villiers agrees. A major in scientific and philosophical studies of the mind whose focus is cognitive science, Villiers speaks Haitian Creole and French.
"The way I view it is there are cognitive differences when you speak two languages," he said. "If you hear a word, you will consider it in two different languages to determine the right response."
Villiers runs a computer program for measuring participant responses that he helped Cox write. He works individually with about 50 volunteers from the campus and community.
"We have two different sessions: one is for Spanish, and one is for English," said Villiers, who finds the experience beneficial to his post-graduate plans to study psychology or cognitive science.
One of the sessions for memory recall involves asking research participants to consider a word shown to them on a computer screen.
"We ask them to use that word to think of a memory of something that happened to them in the past," Cox said. "It's a different aspect of the project to see if those affect your retrieval of memories."
Funded by Language Learning: A Journal of Research in Language Studies and by the American Philosophical Society, Cox said her research is about the "possible positive effects speaking two languages on a regular basis can have in terms of language-related effects, increased facility with language, increased ability in learning new languages, but also nonlinguistic effects."
For Villiers, the research is "right up my alley." He will do an independent study project next spring in linguistics and emotion and the philosophy behind it. "This project gave me a chance to actually see the linguistic side of it," Villiers said. "I can see how memory factors into language."
The Franklin & Marshall Fund 2015-2016 Interactive Report