Psychonomics and CAMP


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Fall is always full of conference-going. It’s an exciting time to share some of your latest findings and get feedback on projects that are in progress. It’s also very stimulating – cool new research happening everywhere, catching up with old friends and networking with others.

This year I presented some research at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society in New Orleans, LA, and at the California Meeting on Psycholinguistics at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

The project that I presented on at this meeting is an analysis that I have been working on with three research assistants in New York. We have been analyzing verbal fluency data from Spanish-English bilinguals in New York City. These bilinguals completed semantic and phonemic fluency tasks in both Spanish and English. We are analyzing their data in order to gain insight into their lexical organization and/or their lexical access. We are comparing their data to two control groups: English monolinguals and Spanish monolinguals (actually, native Spanish speakers with limited English proficiency) living in New York City. In order to characterize their performance, we are looking at number of words produced, average lexical frequency of the words they produced (in other words, are the words mostly highly frequent words in the language or do they also dig into their low-frequency vocabulary?), as well as the percent of words produced that are cognates. Cognates are words that overlap in both form and meaning in two languages, like bicycle and bicicleta in English and Spanish.

What we have found so far is that highly proficient Spanish-English bilinguals produced just as many words during the Spanish trials as Spanish controls and the words they produced were about the same level of word frequency. We included both early and late bilinguals, so this group included bilinguals who were born and raised in New York. However, there were some group differences for English trials. Early bilinguals showed the same patterns as English controls. However, late bilinguals produced fewer responses than English controls on the semantic fluency task and their responses were higher frequency (on average). Late bilinguals also produced a higher proportion of cognate on the phonemic task in English. Interestingly, the early bilinguals were in between the English controls and late bilinguals on all of these measures, suggesting more of a graded effect than a strict difference for late bilinguals.

We also investigated the characteristics of responses given over the course of the trial. Typically, responses in the beginning of the trial are high-frequency and responses decrease in frequency as the speaker searches deeper and deeper into their lexicon for exemplars. An odd pattern that we observed was that early bilinguals did not show this characteristic pattern on the phonemic fluency task. Their responses showed no relationship between frequency and response number (which was used to represent the time course). We are currently investigating why this pattern shows up for the early bilinguals by looking at some background variables that may differentiate them from late bilinguals or may produce interesting variability within the group.

You can find copies of the Psychonomics poster and the CAMP presentation on my ResearchGate profile:


UCR Aging Initiative

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An exciting new development at UCR! UC Riverside is launching an Aging Initiative aimed at bringing together various types of research on aging that are going on around campus. This is a great opportunity for researchers to collaborate across disciplines to study aging and to consider the various facets of the aging process from the psychological to the biological and the social realms. We will be hosting a half-day workshop on November 27th to share ideas about how to develop this initiative and work across disciplines.

New article out in Applied Psycholinguistics

My collaborators and I have a new paper out in Applied Psycholinguistics. This study examines word processing in Finnish speakers in order to explore questions about the factors that influence the speed of lexical recognition. Finnish provides a unique opportunity to investigate stem allomorphy, which is variation in word stems across different forms of the word, such as foot and feet in English. Finnish has rich stem allomorphy, with some words consisting of 3 or 4 stem allomorphs.

In a previous paper, Nikolaev et al. (2014) showed that words with higher stem allomorphy were recognized more quickly than words with lower stem allomorphy. However, there was a confound with allomorphy in that words with higher stem allomorphy tend to come from an unproductive inflectional class (in other words, new words are not created using those word forms) while words with lower stem allomorphy tend to come from a productive inflectional class. In the newly published study, we sought to disentangle the effects of stem allomorphy and inflectional productivity by including a third type of words which has low stem allomorphy but comes from an unproductive class.

The results replicated Nikolaev et al. (2014), showing that participants recognized words with higher stem allomorphy faster than words with lower stem allomorphy. Furthermore, we ruled out the potential contribution of productivity of inflectional class as a predictor of word recognition speed.

This study provided the basis for two follow-up studies. In the first, we compared healthy older adults and people with Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia to determine whether the factors affecting word recognition (including stem allomorphy) change in pathological aging. This paper is currently under a second round of reviews at Cortex. The second study examines cortical structure in the same older adult groups and their relation to the processing of stem allomorphy differences. This paper is currently in preparation.

For a free PDF of the article, click here.

New book chapter on brain and language in aging


I am excited to have a book chapter with Loraine Obler and Dalia Cahana-Amitay on brain and language in aging in the newly published Handbook of Communication Disorders, edited by Amalia Bar-On and Dorit Ravid. The handbook offers a rich collection of papers on language acquisition and language decline, literacy, as well as the effects of socioeconomic status, multilingualism, and speech and hearing impairments on language learning and use, among many other interesting and relevant topics.


I’m proud to be featured in yesterday’s #FirstGenFriday on UC Riverside’s social media pages. First-generation college students face significant difficulties in college. Just because you got into college doesn’t mean you know how to navigate the system. First-gen students are highly resilient and learn to figure it out eventually. But it can be frustrating and can delay graduation and you can miss a lot of opportunities along the way. I am quoted in the UCR post talking about volunteering in labs while in college. I didn’t know that was something that people did until I started grad school! There’s a lot of things that I found out too late – including scholarships that I would’ve qualified for. Now that I teach and supervise undergraduates, I try to tell them about every opportunity that I come across. I also make sure they know that they can ask me about anything without fear of feeling stupid. There’s a lot of things that we’re *supposed* to know but we just don’t. First-gen students need to know that there is someone with an open door who won’t judge them for not knowing all the unwritten rules.

It took me 7 years to finish my B.A. after I graduated from high school. My senior year of high school I lived in Germany as an exchange student. I had planned to apply to college while I was there, but it was too confusing, and I was too far away. So when I got back to Michigan, I started working full-time. I don’t even think I applied to universities that year. I just decided to enroll at Grand Rapids Community College the following fall. I was intimidated by the sticker price of attending a university. What I didn’t know then was that I probably could’ve gotten a full scholarship with my grades and ACT score. While attending GRCC, I worked full-time to support myself (I was living on my own), and I paid my tuition in full every semester. One semester I didn’t have the money saved up to pay the tuition. Rather than borrow money, I just took the semester off and resumed the following semester.

After graduation, I decided to move to Miami. I wanted to move abroad again so I could learn Spanish, but it was too expensive. I had heard that Spanish was so prevalent in Miami that it was like living in another country, so I moved there. I was accepted into Florida International University, but I couldn’t justify paying the out-of-state tuition price, which was almost 4x the in-state tuition price (about $14,000 compared to $4,000). So I waited a year to resume school so that I could claim Florida residency. I finally finished 2 1/2 years later. In my last year of school, I was encouraged by one of my professors to consider going to graduate school. I had no idea what graduate school involved, but I had heard it was expensive, and therefore concluded it was not for me. I looked into it and realized that a Ph.D. was a great fit for my ambitions – I wanted a career where I would never stop learning, and the rigor of science and research always appealed to me. I always enjoyed academics and in-depth study, so years of intensive study did not seem intimidating. I wondered why I didn’t know about this before… I think it was because I didn’t know anyone who had gotten a Ph.D., besides my professors, who I considered to occupy a social level wholly different from my own.

It took me 3 more years after graduating from FIU to apply for graduate schools. I wanted to be 100% sure of my decision and of the programs I would want to join. And it was a period of financial and emotional instability as I went through a drawn-out break-up with a long-term partner. I ended up applying to only three programs, and my ideas about what I wanted to study in grad school had evolved from studying linguistics to the science of how the brain uses language. I only got into one of the three programs, at the City University of New York, which luckily was my first choice. I was thrilled that I would get to work with Loraine Obler and Valerie Shafer, whose work I had read, and to join a program with a strong focus on bilingualism.

The year after I joined the program, some of the faculty had a brief chat in the hallway about a couple of the applicants, and I happened to be there. One of them said, “That one says he wants to work with me, but he hasn’t reached out to me yet. Everyone knows that you need to contact the faculty person during the application process.” I interjected, “I didn’t know that. And I didn’t contact my future faculty mentors.” This was just one example of an expectation that some people, in particular first-generation college students, are not aware of. They may read all the documents carefully, submit everything on time, follow all the rules, demonstrate good grades, excellent GRE scores, but in the end they may be cut out of the process because they didn’t know to email someone. Or they may not have established a relationship with their undergraduate professors and thus have weaker letters of recommendation. Or they may not have gotten research experience as an undergraduate, because they didn’t know they could or should, and this may be interpreted as lack of initiative, or worse, of laziness.

I hope sharing my experience encourages other first-generation students to persist in their dreams. It may take time (I got my Ph.D. when I was 34), it may seem daunting at first, but it can be done. And there are people who want to help you. I thought I had to do it all on my own, make my own way. I thought asking for help was a weakness, a sign that I shouldn’t be there at all. But now my perspective is completely different. I am thrilled when I am asked to help my students get a job, apply for grad school, design a research project, apply for a scholarship. I love answering questions about grad school options, career options, what skills and training are needed, whether to go abroad, how to pay for more schooling. I offer everything I’ve learned over the years for free. Just ask.

I also hope that I can give some perspective to faculty members, staff, and students at higher-ed institutions about the first-generation experience. My path may be unique, but a lot of the struggles and insecurities are shared by many first-generation students. The biggest frustration is not even knowing what you don’t know. Not knowing what questions to ask. Not knowing how to behave. Feeling stupid when someone says “Everyone knows that.” Be explicit and transparent. Level the playing field. Don’t make assumptions. Ask students what they’re dealing with and how you can help. I’ll never forget in my first semester in grad school when my new advisor, Loraine Obler, asked me what I was most worried about, entering the grad program. “I don’t know how this whole thing works.” I was in completely unknown territory and scared that I would mess up, reveal my ignorance about higher ed, realize that I wasn’t supposed to be there after all. “Be explicit about everything,” I said. And she was, for 5 more years, asking what I needed to succeed and supporting me the whole way.

The picture I’m holding shows me and my father right before I graduated from Grand Rapids Community College in 2004. I have a cast on my hand because of a bad car accident I was in a couple weeks earlier that totaled my car but left me with only a small fracture in the left hand.


Bilingualism Matters launch at UCR

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Last week we launched a chapter of Bilingualism Matters at UC Riverside. Bilingualism Matters is an organization that helps to communicate research on bi- and multilingualism to members of the local community. Many people are dealing with questions related to bilingualism, including educators, speech-language pathologists, and parents. Community members who don’t have access to the published research, much of which sits behind expensive journal subscription paywalls, are curious about what bilingual language development is like, what the best age to learn another language is, and whether speech errors during language development are normal or indicate some type of developmental issue. Bilingualism Matters focuses on outreach efforts, Q&A sessions, and a reliable resource for information on bilingualism.

The UCR chapter is the 3rd Bilingualism Matters chapter in the United States and the first one on the west coast. The co-directors of the new UCR chapter are Dr. Judith Kroll and Dr. Covadonga Lamar Prieto. They kicked off the launch with a full day of training on Bilingualism Matters by Dr. Antonella Sorace, the founder and director of Bilingualism Matters and a research professor at the University of Edinburgh. Then we held a one-day workshop showcasing a wide variety of research on bilingualism conducted by researchers all over Southern California.

I had the opportunity to present some of my new research in the poster session at the workshop. The poster explains the study design for the experiment that I just started this week as well as pilot data that I collected last spring on a simplified version of the design. The goal of this study is to investigate the use of cognitive control during word retrieval and to see how this may be different for bilinguals and monolinguals (or for different types of bilinguals) and in the context of aging.

To see a copy of the poster, click here: Higby_BilMatters_Oct 2017

NSF Postdoc Fellowship

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It’s official! I’ve just started an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship. The project is an extension of what I began when I came to UCR a year ago. I’ve been looking at the engagement of cognitive control mechanisms during word retrieval. The NSF fellowship allows me to relate language and cognitive performance with brain changes in aging, specifically white matter tracts. It will allow me to get training on Diffusion Tensor Imaging and also gives me more time to work on this project. I’m grateful to the NSF for the funding and my many mentors on this project: Judy Kroll, Debby Burke, Chris Chiarello, and Lani Bennett.

The project is titled “Neural and cognitive changes in aging and bilingualism: Implications for language production and executive function.”