Professor Ellen Bialystok was interviewed by The Globe and Mail April 14 about winning the Killam Prize and her award-winning research in bilingualism and brain development across the human lifespan:
Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology Ellen Bialystok, of York's Faculty of Health, is one of five scholars to be awarded this year’s Killam Prize in recognition of her work, which has focused on language acquisition and how bilingualism affects brain development.
Bialystok talked to The Globe and Mail about the dynamics of research, how some ideas have to find their time, and her future projects.
Q: How significant is it as a researcher to receive a $100,000 prize? That seems like a lot of money.
A: As a research prize it is enormous. It really is unprecedented in academia to give such a large prize for a body of work. It doesn’t have any restrictions on it. I can use it as I decide to. I haven’t given that much thought. I have a very active lab. We are in the middle of between 15 and 20 different projects.
Q: How do you decide as a researcher what area you will examine next? How much of it is intuition?
A: Research moves forward in teeny-weeny steps and then sometimes at the end of a very long journey that could last 10, 20, 30 years, these steps produce something that seems to be incredible. You look at that last step and say, “Wow, that’s amazing.” You forget about all the steps that led up to it. This is the real art of research, knowing how to stay on the path and follow the evolution of an idea through all of its twists and turns. When we look at a research finding as a breakthrough, for the person who found it, it is anything but a breakthrough. It is years of tedious small steps.
Q: Is there a finding that you have made that you would put in that category?
A: In some sense all of them.
Q: What about the link you found between bilingualism and warding off the effects of Alzheimer’s?
The research on dementia was a real flyer. We had done work on bilingual children and adults. We thought the chances of it working were small, but we got very powerful results.
I’d been doing research for a long time and it wasn’t particularly noticed. At some point we began to change our ideas about the mind – that the mind really does reflect new learning into adulthood. So it became more interesting to think that an experience like bilingualism could have an effect. I had been saying these things for a long time, and quite honestly nobody believed it. Now we understand that the mind is much more flexible than we thought.
Q: What are the next questions you are thinking about?
We have to start seriously tackling “how come?” We know very little about the why. The other thing we are looking at is the process.
We have always looked at bilingual people versus monolingual people. Now we are looking at people in the process of becoming bilingual. How bilingual do you need to be to see benefits?
Unlike some other major scholarly awards, the Killam Prize recognizes the career contributions of scholars, rather than a single discovery or piece of research. Ellen Bialystok, one of this year’s five winners, is a psychologist best known for her work in language, bilingualism and cognitive development. Here are three areas of her work that gained widespread attention:
Video gaming and the brain: In one study that gained wide media attention, Bialystok examined how a group of undergraduates performed on tricky mental tasks. The gamers in the group were faster and better – and those who were also bilingual were unbeatable.
Bilingualism and dementia: Bialystok was the principal investigator in a study that discovered fluency in two or more languages may stave off cognitive decline because of the mental agility needed to juggle them. The link was far stronger than suspected, and the finding has since been replicated by other researchers.
Bilingualism as a brain boost: Her most widely cited work is a breakthrough study conducted in 2004 that showed bilingual adults had a cognitive advantage over subjects who were fluent in only one language. The study found that edge lasted well into adulthood.
Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.