Ways We Make Sense of Multiple Languages
t’s easy to take for granted that whenever we want, we need only open our mouths, forcing air
from our lungs and over our moving tongues to form intelligible sounds that almost everyone
around us can hear and understand.
People speak constantly. We do it in person, over wires, and through the air. We record songs,
books, news programs, and our lives. And while researchers find instances of animals using sounds
to communicate with each other, our language differentiates humans from any other living being.
Yet language is still a mystery. We don’t understand how attention and memory function in
learning new languages. We don’t know why some people can learn new languages with ease while
others struggle. We don’t know how people separate multiple languages in their minds, putting
words into language silos and accessing them separately when needed.
Two researchers in the School of Languages and Cultures, Daniel Olson, an assistant professor
of Spanish and linguistics, and Olga Dmitrieva, an assistant professor of Russian and linguistics,
are trying to answer some of those very basic questions about how our brains navigate language,
and in the process, unlock new keys for teaching languages in classrooms.
Imagine sitting in a boardroom around a table where everyone is speaking English. It takes
very little for you, as a native of the English language, to process the words coming from the
speakers’ mouths. But then someone drops a Spanish phrase into the middle of her presentation.
Your brain switches from English to Spanish, processes the Spanish words, then switches back to
English. That this switch can happen in a matter of milliseconds is amazing.