Saima Malik-Moraleda, a fifth-year PhD student in the Harvard/MIT Program in Speech and Hearing Bioscience and Technology, tries to help answer this question. In doing so, she hopes to find ways to alleviate some of the cultural and political tensions surrounding bilingualism, especially in cultures where certain languages have clear political connotations. As a member of the McGovern Institute lab of Ev Fedorenko, PhD ’07, who studies how brains create language, Malik-Moraleda studies bilingual brains in a new way.
Neurobiologists typically focus on the relative involvement of different brain regions in bilingual activity. Malik-Moraleda goes one step further by studying neural networks — the specific pathways along which information travels in the brain. Rather than simply observing which areas of the brain light up during a particular activity, she uses what’s known as a localized approach, tracking the responses 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 questions that bilingualism poses. 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 traveled to Kashmir with her father during summer vacations.
By splitting her year between the two places, Malik-Moraleda revealed how differently they treated bilingualism. Both regions are culturally distinct from surrounding areas and have historically fought for independence, so residents often speak a region-specific language and the primary language of the surrounding country (or countries). For example, on street signs in Barcelona, ”You’re going to see Catalan first, then Spanish, then English,” says Malik-Moraleda. But while Catalans prefer Catalan and tend to only speak Spanish when necessary, parents in Kashmir generally discourage their children from even learning Kashmir. Instead, they urge them to speak the most commonly used languages, Urdu or English, to better prepare them for schooling and careers.
Malik-Moraleda sat like a polyglot child watching her relatives neglect Kashmiri. More than sadness or anger, she felt confusion—why wouldn’t someone, given the opportunity, seize the opportunity to speak two languages? “It has always amazed me,” she says. She decided to pursue a career to discover how bilingual brains actually work so she could show her community that bilingualism could also have some valuable benefits.