Monday, June 22, 2020

Esti Blanco-Elorrieta (GSAS ’19, ’20), Forbes’ “30 Under 30" Honoree

Esti Blanco-Elorrieta
Esti Blanco-Elorrieta (GSAS ’19, ’20) was a 2020 Forbes’ “30 Under 30" honoree in the area of science. According to Forbes: “Over half of the population on the planet speaks multiple languages, but little is known about the neuroscience behind that. Blanco-Elorrieta aims to change that. Her research is devoted to understanding the neurobiology of multilingualism, and has led to a critical reformulation of the theoretical framework of bilingual language organization.” She sat down with us to talk about her groundbreaking research and her time at NYU.

Can you talk about your NYU department?

I am a PhD student at NYU's Psychology department, enrolled in the Cognition and Perception program. This is a program that researches a wide range of topics within human cognition, from vision, to memory to language.

What was your favorite memory of your time at NYU?  

It's difficult to choose just one memory, so I will share two. One of the moments that I remember the most fondly is the first time I came to NYU. I came for the open house and there was a polar vortex affecting the North East, so New York City was covered in snow and literally frozen. When I walked past Washington Square Park though and arrived at the department I got a feeling that this is where I belonged.

The second memory is the lunch time discussions that I have shared with my lab mates (now dear friends), where we would take a pause in our busy days to talk about anything from life or science, which made me feel very stimulated and supported.

Esti Blanco-Elorrieta: her story continues
Can you explain your research for a non-scientific audience?

My research attempts to characterize the architecture of the multilingual brain; in other words, how is our brain wired such that bilingual individuals can speak in only one language if they are speaking to a monolingual individual but can flexibly switch back and forth between the two (or more) languages they know if they are in conversation with another multilingual person.

How have your findings led to a critical reformulation of the theoretical framework of bilingual language organization?

Up until now there was a widespread belief that there was a bin, so to speak, for each language a person knew in our brains, and whenever a bilingual person was speaking in one language, they were inhibiting the language that they were not using. The main evidence supporting this claim was that when bilinguals were tested in tasks where they were asked to switch languages on demand, there was a cost associated with it, which was interpreted as the cost from going to one bin from the other (i.e., releasing inhibition of one language and applying it to the other language).

Through a number of experiments that I conducted at NYU, I found that this cost was caused by the task demands, not associated with switching languages per se and in fact, bilinguals find it easier to be allowed to switch when they want to. From this, I derived that the underlying premise that languages are separated doesn't hold, and that instead, it's more likely that there is a unified lexicon that contains elements of both languages.

What drew you to this work?

I have always been interested in languages and have been fascinated by how multiple ones can cohabit in a single mind. Hence when I started studying and researching the neurobiology of language, it made sense to me to focus on the study of multiple languages. It is also worth noting that multilingual individuals are actually the majority of the world's population, so if we are going to understand how the brain processes language in general, we have to make sure we understand how it processes multiple languages too.

Do you have tips for alumni who want to learn a new language?

Unfortunately this is not something that my research addresses. The only advice that I can give is that people should try and learn it from as young an age as possible and to the extent possible, they should try to be exposed to native speakers.

What is next for you?

My plan is to continue in academia, although all my future plans (as most other people's) have been currently halted by COVID-19. I am not sure where my next step will be yet, but I will continue to do research for a while.

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