Bilingual brain | MIT Technology Review

Saima Malik-Moraleda, a fifth-year graduate student in the Harvard/MIT Program in Biological and Aural Sciences, is trying to answer this question. In the process, she hopes to discover ways to alleviate some of the cultural and political tensions surrounding bilingualism, especially in cultures where certain languages ​​carry a separate political opinion. As a member of Ev Fedorenko’s McGovern Institute lab, PhD ’07, who studies how the brain produces language, Malik-Moraleda is studying the bilingual brain in a new way.

Neurobiologists often focus on the relative involvement of different brain regions in bilingualism. Malik-Moraleda is taking it a step further by studying neural networks – the specific pathways through which information travels in the brain. Instead of just observing which areas of the brain light up during a particular activity, she uses what’s called a focal approach, which tracks the response of specific groups of neurons within — or sometimes between — those regions.

Malik-Moraleda herself speaks Spanish, Kashmiri, Catalan, English, Urdu, Hindi and French, and she is learning Arabic. She is always aware of the cultural questions that bilingualism raises. Her mother is from Spain and her father is from Kashmir, a disputed region in South Asia claimed by both India and Pakistan. Growing up, she spent the whole school year in Girona, a city in the Catalonia region of Spain, and traveled with her father to Kashmir during summer vacation.

Splitting her years between the two revealed to Malik-Moraleda how they treat bilingualism differently. Both areas are culturally different from the surrounding areas and have a history of fighting for independence, so residents often speak the regional language as well as the main language of the surrounding country. around (or countries). On street signs in Barcelona, ​​for example, “you will see Catalan first, then Spanish and then English,” says Malik-Moraleda. But while Catalans prefer Catalán and tend to speak Spanish only when necessary, in Kashmir, she said, parents often discourage their children from even learning Kashmiri. Instead, they encourage them to speak more common languages ​​than Urdu or English to better prepare them for school and career.

As a multilingual child, seeing his loved ones abandon Kashmiri upset Malik-Moraleda. More than sadness or anger, she felt confused – why wouldn’t someone take the opportunity to speak two languages ​​when given the opportunity? “It always blows my mind,” she said. She decided to pursue a career exploring how the bilingual brain really works so she could show her community that being bilingual can also have some valuable advantages.

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