S2 E2: Language and Cognition – Prof. Ellen Bialystok

If you have ever studied bilingualism and/or cognition, you will know today’s guest, and are probably as excited as we are.
Professor Ellen Bialystok is a Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University in Canada, and an Associate Scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care

Her research uses a range of techniques and methods, to help us understand the effects of bilingualism on cognitive processes across the lifespan. Her research has uncovered ways to identify differences in the development of essential cognitive and language abilities for bilingual children, and the postponement of symptoms of dementia in bilingual older adults. Ellen has received several awards for her groundbreaking research such as the Dean’s Award for Outstanding Research, the Donald T. Stuss Award for Research Excellence, the Canadian Society for Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science Hebb Award,  the Killam Prize for the Social Sciences, and the York University President’s Research Award of Merit. Additionally, in 2017, she was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Oslo for her contributions to language research.

Many of us at MLST have been following Ellen’s research for a long time. Among her extensive list of journal publications, books and awards , Ellen has been named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her “contributions to our understanding of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and for opening up new avenues of research in her field”, and she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

In addition to wanting to talk to Ellen about her amazing career, we also invited her to the podcast in anticipation of her giving a plenary talk at the Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium, which is on the 25th and 26th of October.

Listen to the episode here!

Read the transcript here!

[Carine]: Hello and welcome back to Much Language Such Talk today you will listen to me Carine and my amazing co-host Eva Maria.  

[Eva Maria]: Hello.  

[Carine]: Today we’re talking with Professor Ellen Bialystok about how bilingualism affects you throughout your life. Professor Ellen Bialystok is a distinguished research professor of Psychology and Walter Gordon Research Chair of Lifespan Cognitive Development at York University in Canada, and an associate scientist at the Rotman Research Institute of the Bay Crest Centre for Geriatric Care. Research uses a range of techniques and methods to help us understand the effects of bilingualism on cognitive processes across the lifespan. Research has uncovered ways to identify differences in the development of essential cognitive and language abilities for bilingual children, and the postponement of symptoms of dementia and bilingual older adults. Ellen has received several awards for her groundbreaking research such as the Dean’s Award for outstanding research, the Donald T Stats award for research excellence, the Canadian Society for Brain Behaviour and Cognitive Science Heavy Award, the Killam Prize for social sciences, the York University president’s Research Award of Merit. Additionally, in 2017, she was granted an honorary doctorate from the University of Oslo for her contributions to language research. Many of us at MLST have been following Ellen’s research for a long time. Among her extensive list of journal publications, books and awards, Ellen has been named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her… 

[Eva Maria]: Contributions to our understanding of the cognitive benefits of bilingualism and for opening up new avenues of her research in her field. 

[Carine]: And she is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. We invited Elena to talk about her research in anticipation of the Bilingualism Matters Research Symposium on the 25th and 26th of October 2021, at which Ellen is giving a plenary talk. If you’re interested in attending this academic conference, registration is still open and you can find a link to register on the Bilingualism Matters website in the episode description. Hi, Ellen, how are you?  
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[Ellen]: Hi. Nice to be here. 

[Carine]: Thank you so much for being on the episode. Honestly, this is so exciting for both of us. Like we when we saw your response. It made us so excited. I think we were actually together at the time and just started like cheering. Great. So thank you so much. Are you ready to just jump right in? 

[Ellen]: Let’s do it. 

[Carine]: How did you develop your interest in language and linguistics? 

[Ellen]: Well, I guess it started when I was an undergraduate student more than 50 years ago, this goes back some time. I was an undergraduate studying psychology. And I was drawn to developmental psychology. There were a lot of sort of sexual stereotypes at that time about who could study what so I liked science, but girls couldn’t actually do physics and chemistry, so I ended up in psychology. And once you’re in psychology, girls gravitated to this sort of developmental side. So that’s how I got interested in developmental psychology. But once that became an interest of mine, I always thought that the most by far the most interesting part about development, the most interesting thing that little kids do is learn language. I thought this this bar none is the most astounding development. The problem is that if you look at the research on child language acquisition in the late 60s and early 70s, there wasn’t a lot there. So other I thought this was an incredibly interesting problem. It didn’t have a lot of pillars, it didn’t have a lot of foundation. So I was always drawn to those kinds of questions and bad area. So from that, you know, once you are looking at how children learn language, it explodes into everything else about language that becomes relevant.

[Carine]: Yeah, I actually think I kind of had a little bit of a similar route myself, my undergraduate degree was in Psychology, I originally wanted to be a language interpreter. So I guess I kind of had a little bit of that. But since I, once I got into my psychology degree is a lot of developmental psychology and like abnormal psychology and child development and all of that. And suddenly I was just like this shouldn’t it feels almost when you start learning about how we learn language, it’s just like, how, where, where does it come from? It almost feels like it shouldn’t happen, but we are just so good at it. So that’s, that’s really amazing.

[Ellen]: I think, you know, you’re actually onto something because as I said, there are not really good theories about it. So what did Chomsky, the only list of record, have to say about it? He said, it’s just too hard to understand how kids could possibly learn this. Therefore, they must already know it. That’s where the most Important linguistic theory came from, from no idea how we could otherwise explain this.

[Eva Maria]: I was actually when you said that you started almost 50 years ago, that literally means that you were there for all of the major developments that happened in linguistics in those years. And that started with Chomsky, which was around that time, right? So you were there, all of it, which is mind blowing. It’s very impressive.

[Ellen]: Well, Chomsky used to come, I was a student at University of Toronto, and Chomsky used to come every year or so, and give a talk. And I would listen to him.

[Carine]: Yeah. It was really interesting when I was an undergrad reading a lot of like Chomsky and Steven Pinker and all of that about the innateness of language and all of that. And of course, like, we’re just like, well, you know, we can always, and then we’re like, oh, no, the things that we could do to find out about these innate aspects of human language, we really can’t do ethically and research. So we just have to, you know, try and figure these out. And I think you’ve done an amazing job within where research is going. Now we are, we’re figuring out a lot even it might look like, slowly but yeah, we’ve figured out quite a lot.

[Ellen]: Progress has been astounding. I mean, we understand so much about the mind, brain, the relation between language and thought, and all of this stuff, that there has been tremendous progress. And the theories evolve and become more interesting.

[Carine]: For sure. I think that’s most likely, Eva it’s the same reason for you why you got into language research, as well. It’s just, it’s so fascinating, honestly. And there’s just so much to look at as well. Speaking of our research, specifically, we both are bilingual researchers, as well. And so we were wondering, what is the most fascinating or most fascinating things about the bilingual brain to you?

[Ellen]: I think the most interesting thing about the brain that we’ve learned, quite recently, is how plastic it is. That was a whole revelation. I mean, until certainly 20 years ago, but maybe even more recently, nobody would believe anything that crazy that what the bilingual brain does, in particular, is seamlessly adapt to more than one language, because it’s plastic. So it’s the adaptation of the brain, to the linguistic environment that I find to be the most astounding thing. And what’s incredible is that this adaptation is seen in the first year of life, in pre verbal infants in bilingual environment, their little brains are working differently, they’re adjusting to the language in their environment in ways that are completely astounding, I think, and would not have really been believed, many years ago. So that, to me, is the most incredible thing about the brain, that it is massively plastic. And the bilingual brain takes advantage of that plasticity to adapt and adjust to the kind of environment necessary to function. 

[Carine]: Yeah. 

[Eva Maria]: That is fascinating. I think we can all agree, yeah, it really is. 

[Carine]: I just want to backtrack really quickly. If you have not heard about the idea of your brain being plastic, or the more technical term neuroplasticity, this is the idea that your brain can grow and change to, as Ellen was saying, to adapt to its environment. Sometimes this can be due to brain trauma, but sometimes it can just be the exposure that you’re in as well. And this is such a revolutionary idea that your brain can regrow or change. And yeah, I remember the first time I read a paper about that, I was just like, how can it do that? It is really cool. Yes, that is. 

[Eva Maria]: Wasn’t one of the first very prominent studies about this, the study about the taxi drivers in London? 

[Carine]: Oh yes.  

[Eva Maria]: Where brains literally grew with the knowledge they gained because they had more grey matter. And that when I read that I was just blown away. 

[Ellen]: So I want to talk about that, because what happens in science is that studies that have a very dramatic finding, inevitably become sound bites. And that that study, the London taxi drivers’ study is a sound bite that people will explain more or less as you did. But what they actually found is, is more complex, and I believe more interesting. What does this study actually showed is that part of the brain where spatial memory and spatial navigation takes place, is in the hippocampus, which is right in the middle of the brain. It’s subcortical, so it’s deep in the brain. And the hippocampus is essential to memory, and it’s a complex structure that looks like a seahorse. Hence, the hippocampus. But what people are now learning about the hippocampus is that it isn’t one thing, like your liver is one thing, you can slice out any piece of your liver. And it’s precisely the same as any other piece of your liver. That’s not true for the hippocampus. So what they actually found in the taxi drivers’ study was that compared to the control group, the taxi drivers had enlarged regions in one side of the hippocampus, that smaller mass in a different part of the hippocampus. So we adapted, it isn’t just that it grew much more subtle. And this is the point about neuroplasticity, that the adaptation is very precise. It’s very specific. So the differences between the taxi driver hippocampi and the control group hippocampi was not in overall total volume, it was in the distribution of volume, so that it could be the most effective and adaptive source of what these people did every day. 

[Eva Maria]: For their job, very specific. Yeah, that is so interesting. 

[Carine]: And you also have to think about how that’s not something that they were born with, then. I mean, it is possible that they were slightly better at spatial reasoning or something like that, as they were younger when they were first born or whatever. And most likely due to their profession. Well, because of their profession. This is why this adaptation happened. That’s really interesting. Yeah, I think I’m trying to think throughout most of my career, I think I’ve always thought that it was just like, grey matter, or white matter. Sorry, I can’t remember the colours of matter of the brain anymore. Oh, no. Yeah. had just grown more. So thank you for correcting us. That’s honestly, yeah, that is significantly more interesting as well.

[Eva Maria]: Well, yeah, yeah. Thank you. I will update how I elaborate on different studies then. Yes. Perfect. But you kind of already hinted on bilingualism, right. So, you are one of the pioneers, if not the pioneer in cognitive research into bilingualism. What kind of sparked your interest into looking at that specifically?

[Ellen]: Well, to go back to why I got interested in language, it was the next step. What was most interesting about language? Was the connection between language and thought that would that always fascinate me. That was always my, you know, biggest question, how do language and thought connect up? In all these simplistic forms that kids would ask, can you think without words, you know, is, is thinking, just speaking? All of this stuff, I really thought a lot about those questions. The relation between language and thought was really the basis for all my graduate student work, you know, everything I did as a graduate student. And that’s really how I moved from sort of the standard view of that question into bilingualism, there are a few other little steps along the way that you know, connected me to the field of second language acquisition, most notably a recession and I couldn’t get a job. So you know, you did other things. But that’s that’s how it happened. So I trace my interest in bilingualism to my long-standing interest in the question on the relation between language and thought. So that’s how I moved into the kinds of questions I ended up studying. 

[Carine]: So yeah, that that connection that I think that is so great to mention that the child specifically asked you at some point, if you could think without words, because I think you said that, didn’t you? 

[Ellen]: Yeah, I tended to question that I wondered about. 

[Carine]: It’s a really good point, I think, yes, there was recently now people have started to see that there are some people also that when they don’t have any visualisations when they think, and it’s just like simple things like that. Well, it’s just like, obviously, well, yeah, a lot of us who are speaking, we do hear ourselves speak in our head. But we’re thinking that is not necessarily the only way. But how are we supposed to know this unless we do the research on it? So that’s fascinating.

[Ellen]: Well, I think one of the really important formulations of the question actually came very early from someone who I don’t think has ever given enough credit for his contribution. And again, when he is given credit, it’s reduced to a sound bite that’s not quite right. And that’s the Vygotski. I mean that was his whole point, and language and thought are part of the chart, the little monograph that was published in 1962. That’s what he examined. And his solution was interesting. It’s probably wrong, but it was incredibly interesting. That thought develops on one stream and language develops on one stream, and at some point at around two years old, they kind of come together for the child. And what Vygotski says is thought becomes verbal, and language becomes meaningful, because they come together. So I, you know, I think he had really interesting things to say about the question. 

[Eva Maria]: That’s an interesting approach as well, yeah. But in your academic career, you did a lot of language research on different populations, right? Children and adults, as well as healthy and impaired populations. And we were wondering what the journey was like to develop this kind of projects and research questions. Can you tell us a bit more about that? 

[Ellen]: Well, first, we don’t really study language very much anymore. We study cognition. So we’re not using a lot of, although I mean, that’s kind of unfair, we do study language. But mostly we study cognition. And the methods are incredibly diverse because as the research questions have expanded, we’ve had to develop new ways of thinking about it. So, for example, up until around the end of the 1990s, all of my research was with children. Most of it was using language as outcome measures, and some cognitive tasks. So that research was based on pretty standard methodologies in developmental psychology, where you, you know, give children various kinds of tests, sometimes they’re standardised and so on. But that’s very mainstream. But in around 2000, I was fortunate to receive a fellowship that gave me two years leave. And the reason I wanted the fellowship was, because I had been studying the consequences of bilingualism for a long time at that point, almost 20 years already at that point. And I, you know, found whatever I found, and we found that bilingual children do these things better, but not those things better. But it kind of reached a dead end. Because the kinds of things that bilingual children were doing better the kinds of cognitive tasks we gave them, that bilingual children were doing better, where things that if you sit back and wait six months or a year, all the children were going to do them anyway. So did it really matter? Was there anything more enduring here? So really, what’s the rush? Well, the more important question was whether there was anything about bilingual experience that had a more enduring effect on cognition. So the purpose of this fellowship I had was to design, create, establish a methodology to translate that research for adults. So that’s what I did. And I was very fortunate because I got to work with a wonderful group of people. And we developed techniques for looking at this research. And out of the early days of these kinds of developments. We made some interesting discoveries. So, for example, in 2004, we published the first paper showing that on executive function tasks, we could find better performance by bilingual adults, and older adults than monolingual counterparts is it never been shown before. So something about cognition, not only change but lasted throughout the lifetime. Now, I mean, looking back 20 years later, there were lots of problems with that study. But it did, it was able to give us this piece of information that was brand new. And then of course, it’s been replicated many times. And it also has not been replicated. And that’s because what we understand now is that these concepts are way more complex than we thought that… 

[Carine]: Oh, wow, that’s amazing. I feel like that study was so influential. What was the its full impact on your academic journey in and in the field? 

[Ellen]: So we published that paper in 2004. It made a huge splash, and it did a number of things. One is it led to a lot of other labs, trying to adapt the method we had created and do their own studies. And as I say, sometimes they replicated our findings, sometimes they didn’t, that’s not the point. The point is it became an active area of research. And you need a lot of people with a lot of different approaches to get it right. Because it is so complex. So that’s one thing that happened. The other thing that happened is that it got enormous attention in the press, and I was doing like 30 interviews a day with the media. But that led to something incredible. So I’m talking to, I must have spoken to 300 science writers. Now science writers are very smart people. Most of them have PhDs, and they’ve chosen communication instead of research. They really are smart people. And every single one, every single one, without exception, asked me the same question. And the question was “so I see that in your older adult sample in this study, the bilinguals did better than the monolinguals. But what about dementia?” And so for 300 interviews I’d say “No idea. We only looked at healthy older adults. Why would bilingualism affect dementia? It’s kind of a crazy idea. No idea”. But when 100% of a large group of smart people ask you the same question, you have to take the question seriously. And so that’s what we did. And that led to our next big breakthrough. So we thought “first of all, why would bilingualism affect dementia? Dementia starts in the hippocampus in the medial temporal lobe, and it’s a memory disorder. We had no evidence that bilingualism impact memory. So there shouldn’t be any effect”. But all right, you know, let’s use those 300 science writers. And so the study was just very simple. It was hard to do. But it was a very simple idea. I was working in a memory clinic in a geriatric hospital. And all we did is look through records. We had whatever information was provided in the intake interview, we had the physicians’ notes, we had the diagnosis. And the very simple question was “is there any difference in the onset of diagnosis of dementia in patients who come in who are monolingual or bilingual?” And the astounding finding that there is, and that’s really been replicated a lot. I mean, that one has been replicated all over the world. So that was pretty astounding. And you can see the point here is that questions lead to the next question, you don’t set out in advance what you believe are all of the important issues. They evolve dynamically from where you are. 

[Carine]: 100%. I also really liked that at the beginning, you were talking about how you ran these studies 20 years ago, and how you found that there are definitely problems with it. But you adapted all these things. And I think, especially in this time of science, understanding and research and everything, it’s important to recognise that research is ever changing. And we’re always being reflective on it. So while something that like in that moment, you’re like “Well, why, of course, we didn’t look at it, because that’s not what we’re thinking of”. But you’re just like “Well, now we can, we have another basis”. So what’s a good now we have a good point of comparison. 

[Eva Maria]: Yeah, I wanted to point that out as well, because I really like when people acknowledge that science has evolved, and that it should evolve. Because if you work on something for 20-25 years, and you do not change your opinion, you’re probably doing something wrong, because there’s always going to new findings and new outcomes and new research questions that will either, you know, advance our understanding, or maybe even prove a different point. But I really liked that you pointed that out because I think a lot of people don’t even consider that. Yeah, perfect. So you already kind of mentioned what populations you looked at. You looked at children and you mentioned that you know that you found very early on that some bilingual children, maybe perform better and different than monolingual children. Now you mentioned of course that dementia has a, bilingualism has an effect on dementia. Some people of course call this the bilingual advantage, which is debated, of course. Controversial term, but so yeah, for example, it’s been found that, like you mentioned already, executive functions like inhibitory control or attention switching, for example, have been suggested to be better than those who speak multiple languages than those who do not, right? But first of all, maybe we can elaborate the term bilingual advantage. What does that even mean? And, um, can you maybe give us a brief I mean, you’ve been doing research for such a long time that it might not be easy to give a brief overview, but can you give an overview from what your research team has found? 

[Ellen]: I can, yes. So first, let’s talk about this term. I never use it. I never use it. I think it is the biggest part of the problem in the field for several reasons. But the main one is that once you give something a name, it is a thing and a thing exists or it doesn’t exist. And if it doesn’t exist, then it’s wrong. It just doesn’t exist. So you take this incredibly complex set of ideas and experiences and abilities. You give it a label, and then you say “Let’s see if we can find it. Is it under the table? Is it behind the curtain? Nope, not there. I did an experiment, I really looked for it, and it wasn’t there. Therefore, it doesn’t exist”. And that’s where this so-called debate has come. Even calling it a debate is wrong. When researchers say I couldn’t find it, they don’t say, here’s another idea about why I didn’t find it. Or here’s another suggestion about what those other results might mean, no. radio silence. All they say is “Nope, doesn’t exist”. So simplifying complex ideas, and then putting a label on them, and treating it as a problem of hide and go seek does no service to science. And unfortunately, that is where we are. 

[Eva Maria]: Right and not just amongst researchers, but also how we communicate research to the general public, right? So they might think it’s a black and white thing, where it definitely isn’t, right? Yeah. 

[Carine]: There’s this whole replicability crisis in psychology, which kind of lends itself to this a little bit. But at the same time, it is really interesting how you could see studies that run the same types of methods have different outcomes. And I think that you mentioned this before, how especially with bilingual children, sometimes bilingual children have an advantage six months earlier, and then six months later, the children catch up. So it could just be something like it is this timeline. But yeah, it is. So I guess it can be very confusing to look at the research to see how conflicting both sides can be on “Is it an advantage? Or is it just something that happens? Is just the difference?” So but yeah, it is this term that we’ve created, and we do repeated quite a lot. Yeah.


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