Saima Malik-Moraleda, a fifth-year doctoral student in the Harvard/MIT program in the biosciences and technologies of speech and hearing, tries to help answer this question. In the process, she hopes to uncover ways to ease some of the cultural and political tensions that surround bilingualism, especially in cultures where certain languages have distinct political connotations. As a member of the McGovern Institute lab of Ev Fedorenko, PhD ’07, which studies how brains create language, Malik-Moraleda is studying bilingual brains in a new way.
Neurobiologists generally focus on the relative involvement of different regions of the brain in bilingual activity. Malik-Moraleda goes even further by studying neural networks, the specific pathways by which information travels in the brain. Instead of simply observing which regions of the brain light up during a particular activity, it uses what’s called 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 she is learning Arabic. She has always been aware of the cultural issues raised by bilingualism. Her mother is Spanish 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 traveled with her father to Kashmir during the summer holidays.
Splitting his year between the two places revealed to Malik-Moraleda how differently they deal with bilingualism. Both areas are culturally different from surrounding areas and have historically fought for independence, so residents often speak a region-specific language as well as the primary language of the surrounding country(ies). On street signs in Barcelona, for example, “you’re going to see Catalan first, then Spanish, then English,” says Malik-Moraleda. But while Catalans prefer Catalan and tend to speak Spanish only when necessary, in Kashmir, she says, parents generally discourage their children from learning even Kashmir. Instead, they urge them to speak the most commonly used languages, Urdu or English, to better prepare them for school and a career.
As a polyglot child, seeing his relatives neglecting Kashmir bothered Malik-Moraleda. More than sadness or anger, she felt confusion – why, if given the chance, wouldn’t someone seize the opportunity to speak two languages? “It always upset me,” she says. She decided to pursue a career discovering how bilingual brains really work so she could show her community that bilingualism could have valuable benefits too.