Saima Malik-Moraleda, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Harvard/MIT Program in Bioscience and Technology of Speech and Hearing, is trying to help answer this question. In the process, she hopes to discover ways to ease some of the cultural and political tensions surrounding bilingualism, especially in cultures where certain languages have different political connotations. As a member of the McGovern Institute lab of Ev Fedorenko, PhD ’07, which investigates how brains create language, Malik-Moraleda is studying bilingual brains in a new way.
Neurobiologists generally focus on the relative involvement of different brain regions in bilingual activity. Malik-Moraleda is going a step further by studying neural networks, the specific pathways through which information travels in the brain. Instead of simply looking at which brain regions light up during a particular activity, he uses what’s known as a localized approach, tracking the reactions of specific sets of neurons within, or sometimes between, those regions.
Malik-Moraleda herself speaks Spanish, Kashmiri, Catalan, English, Urdu, Hindi and French, and is learning Arabic. She has always been aware of the cultural issues that bilingualism presents. Her mother is from Spain and her father is from Kashmir, a disputed region of South Asia claimed by both India and Pakistan. Growing up, she spent the school year in Girona, a city in the Spanish region of Catalonia, and she traveled with her father to Kashmir for the summer holidays.
Splitting her year between the two places revealed to Malik-Moraleda how differently they treated bilingualism. Both regions are culturally different from surrounding areas and have historically fought for independence, so residents often speak a region-specific language as well as the main language of the surrounding country(ies). On street signs in Barcelona, for example, “first you’re going to see Catalan, then Spanish, then English,” says Malik-Moraleda. But while Catalans prefer Catalan and tend to speak Spanish only when necessary, in Kashmir, he says, parents generally discourage their children from even learning the Kashmiri language. Instead, they urge them to speak the most commonly used languages, Urdu or English, to better prepare them for education and a career.
As a polyglot child, seeing her relatives neglect Kashmiri annoyed Malik-Moraleda. More than sadness or anger, she felt confusion: why, when given the chance, wouldn’t someone jump at the opportunity to speak two languages? “She always blew my mind,” she says. She decided to pursue a career in discovering how bilingual brains really work so she could show her community that bilingualism might have some valuable advantages as well.