When you see a picture of a wooden, four-legged piece of furniture that you sit on, what’s the first word that comes to mind?
If you’re a monolingual English speaker, the first word is probably “chair.” And you could probably come up with the word pretty quickly. But if you are fluent in more than one language, the story might be a little different. Colorado State University freshman and neuroscience major Luis Gomez Wulschner is hoping to find out just how different that process is.
He and a team of students and faculty have designed a study to learn more about what happens in the brain when we turn images into language. For a poster describing their project, “Basic Word Processing and Recognition in Bilingual and Monolingual Individuals,” they were awarded College Honors at CSU’s Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity (CURC) this spring. He was one of more than two dozen students from the College of Natural Sciences to receive CURC honors at the juried event – for everything from gene expression to art to solid-state chemistry.
Research is personal
Our brains are extremely quick processors. But previous studies have found that language processing can be ever so slightly slower in people who are fluent in more than one language. And it is this short delay that piqued Gomez Wulschner’s curiosity. In multilingual individuals, “neurologically, we actually see the processing of a word is more complex,” he says.
Gomez Wulschner’s interest in the topic is both scientific and personal. He himself is bilingual. Having grown up in Mexico City, he began learning English in elementary school and was already fluent by the time he moved with his family to Boulder, Colo., in high school. One day, he says, William Gavin, associate professor in Human Development and Family Studies and director of the Brainwaves Research Laboratory (BRL), where Gomez Wulschner is an intern, quizzed Gomez Wulschner and a few other bilingual students on some images. “We saw the delay, and I was like, ‘This is so cool!’” Gomez Wulschner immediately set to work on assembling a plan to understand it further.
Gomez Wulschner and his fellow researchers at CSU’s Brainwaves Research Lab plan to conduct their study in the fall.
They will test two groups of subjects, one group who is only fluent in English and another group who became fluent in a second language between the ages of six and 12. Study participants will wear electroencephalography (EEG) caps, which measure electrical impulses from the brain. Subjects will also be wired up with a microphone on the throat and other sensors on the lips and tongue to detect precisely when they start to say a word.
The results from this study could pave the way for more research into the ways bilingualism changes the way the brain works. For example, for a monolingual English speaker, an image of a chair is pretty much just a “chair,” Gomez Wulschner explains. But for those fluent in more than one language, “an image can have more meaning. That expanding of processing is what I’m interested in,” he says.
Such nuanced processing also has implications for brain development in children. “In the U.S. we don’t really push our kids to be bilingual,” he says. But “if we understand the benefits of being bilingual, we can explain why [to push it].”
This sort of hands-on research – with big implications – is just what drew Gomez Wulschner to CSU’s new neuroscience major, which is a joint program with the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
But when Gomez Wulschner began applying to schools in 2014, he says, “I wasn’t going to go into neuroscience – I didn’t even know about it.” So he was filling out applications for universities around the country as a biology major – until he spotted a neuroscience program for undergraduates somewhere else. “And I thought, ‘that sounds way more interesting.’ I went back and looked, and CSU had a really great neuroscience program.”
Gomez Wulschner just declared his Cell and Molecular Neuroscience concentration (one of two offered in the department, the other being Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience). And he is deeply interested in his classes. “I’m constantly thinking about my genetics class, about chemistry. I definitely want to do this for the rest of my life.” He appreciates that the neuroscience program meets premed requirements, and he considers medical school an option after he graduates in 2019. But for now, he says, “I’m leaning more toward getting a Ph.D. because I love to do research – and, like at CURC, I love presenting.”
Gomez Wulschner is not alone among neuroscience majors in diving headlong into research. “We encourage all of our students to engage in experimental learning,” says Phillip Quirk, assistant professor and advisor for neuroscience undergraduate majors. “Working in laboratories is a fantastic way to deepen understanding and cultivate interest in scientific discovery,” he says, noting that he is pleased that Gomez Wulschner’s work with faculty mentors is gaining well-deserved recognition.
And these faculty are a key part of his success thus far, Gomez Wulschner adds. “It’s such a great experience when you have really great mentors helping you out along the way,” he says. “You learn from it. You grow from it. I’m really grateful.” And in engaging in real research like he is, mentors become collaborators.
The CURC poster included Gomez Wulschner and fellow student Brittany Taylor in the lead, along with two faculty members, Gavin and Patricia Davies, a professor in occupational therapy. “It’s a team effort – everyone at the BRL helps everyone out,” Gomez Wulschner said.