LSA Summer Institute 2019

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The summer is flying by! For most of July, I am hanging out in Davis, California, to teach a course on the Bilingual Brain with Loraine Obler at the Linguistic Society of America Summer Institute. I have found Davis to be absolutely charming, and my daily runs along the Arboretum trail have been a special treat.


We cover a lot of ground in the course, but there is so much great research out there on bilingualism and the brain that we only barely scratch the surface in each class. The students in our class are mostly graduate students and advanced undergraduates, with a few faculty drop-ins as well. I’m really enjoying getting to know them and learning what their interests are in the field of neurolinguistics.

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If you’re at the institute, please say hi!

ISB 2019 presentation on bilingual inhibitory control

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Last week I was in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada to attend the International Symposium on Bilingualism and present some of the research that I have been conducting at UC Riverside with one of my fabulous undergraduate students, Paulina Vasquez-Rocha. The conference was a wonderful place to meet more bilingualism researchers and catch up with old friends.

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In this study, we explored whether bilinguals exhibit proactive or reactive control of the dominant language when naming a block of pictures in the non-dominant language. We found evidence for proactive control, meaning that bilinguals inhibited the language as a whole rather than specific (interfering) lexical items. The full abstract is below.


When bilinguals plan speech in one of their two languages, the other language is active and potentially competing for production. Bilinguals may inhibit the dominant language (L1) to produce words in the non-dominant language (L2) (Misra et al., 2012). In this experiment we asked whether bilinguals inhibit specific words that might interfere in speaking L2 (local inhibition) or whether they inhibit the L1 lexicon as a whole (global inhibition). Two groups of Spanish-English bilinguals completed a picture naming task in which they first named pictures in separate blocks in L1, then L2, then L1. One group named the same pictures across all the blocks. The other group named novel pictures in the L2. If the L1 is inhibited globally, we expect to see the same patterns for both groups. However, if specific items are suppressed, repetition priming for those who named novel pictures in the L2 is expected. In a final block, they named pictures in both languages depending on a cue. In mixed blocks, switching into the L1 is more costly than switching into the L2 (Meuter & Allport, 1999). However, it is unclear from previous research how that inhibition is affected by prior naming. Data from 59 participants suggest that L1 suppression is global. L1 naming was similarly affected by repeated and novel items. Naming in the mixed-language block was slower in English; however, Spanish naming was faster in the mixed block than in the single-language block for repeated pictures. This pattern suggests that naming the same pictures in both languages led to a greater L2 repetition advantage for the language-mixing condition, but no advantage for the L1. Thus, the scope of L1 inhibition is not limited to the specific items retrieved. Instead, bilinguals inhibit the L1 lexicon as a whole when planning L2 speech.


New paper on cognitive control and language production in aging

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Our new article has just been published in the journal Experimental Aging Research. In this study, we investigated the question of whether word finding difficulties among older adults may be partially due to age-related declines in cognitive control. In a sample of 264 cognitively healthy monolingual older adults, we found that individual differences in executive functions predicted word retrieval speed and accuracy on an object-naming and an action-naming test. In particular, mental set-shifting abilities predicted retrieval accuracy on both tests while fluency (sometimes referred to as “efficiency of access to long-term memory”) predicted retrieval speed on both tests and accuracy for object naming.

This work was done with my colleagues from the Language in the Aging Brain lab at the VA Hospital in Jamaica Plain, MA. I am currently conducting a follow-up study at the University of California, Riverside exploring the relation between cognitive control and word retrieval in bilingual and monolingual older adults to elucidate the independent effects of aging and bilingual experience on word retrieval, cognition, and brain structure and function.

The full-text of the article is available here: and on my Publications page.

Student presentations

This past week a bunch of my students presented at three undergraduate research conferences, and they did AMAZING. They’ve been working really hard on various research projects over the past year, and they finally got to show off some of that hard work. Click on the poster titles below to download a copy of their posters!

The Scope of Inhibitory Control in Bilingualism

Paulina Vasquez-Rocha and Abdiel Lopez-Martinez



Paulina gave two oral presentations on her work: one at the UCR Undergraduate Research Symposium and another at the Southern California Undergraduate Linguistics Conference at UCLA. Abdiel presented a poster at the R’PSYC Research Conference at UCR.

*Vasquez-Rocha, P., Higby, E., & Kroll, J. F. (2019, May). The scope of dominant-language inhibition in bilingualism. Southern California Undergraduate Linguistics Conference, Los Angeles, CA.

*Vazquez-Rocha, P., Higby, E., & Kroll, J.F. (2019, May). How do bilinguals plan the language they intend to speak? University of California, Riverside Research Symposium, Riverside, CA.

*Lopez-Martinez, A., Vasquez-Rocha, P., Higby, E., & Kroll, J. F. (2019, May). Inhibition in bilinguals’ language production. R’PSYC Undergraduate Research Conference, Riverside, CA.


Using verbal fluency to understand the impact of language use and self-rated proficiency on lexical access in bilingualism

Charles Lai, Arlyn Ballesteros, Sam King, and Mariam Morkos

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Charles and Arlyn presented their poster at both the UCR Undergraduate Research Symposium and the R’PSYC Undergraduate Research Conference.

*Lai, C., *Ballesteros, A., *King, S., *Morkos, M., Takahesu-Tabori, A., Higby, E., & Kroll, J. F. (2019, May). Using verbal fluency to understand the impact of language use and self-rated proficiency on lexical access in bilingualism. University of California, Riverside Research Symposium, Riverside, CA.


Effects of implicit word retrieval in bilinguals

Monica Martinez, Ziomara Machado, and Daniela Ayon

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Monica and Daniela presented their project at the UCR Undergraduate Research Symposium.

*Martinez, M., *Ayon, D., *Machado, Z., Higby, E., & Kroll, J. F. (2019, May). Effects of implicit word retrieval in bilinguals. University of California, Riverside Research Symposium, Riverside, CA.


Subjective task difficulty in two languages and its effect on task ordering

Guadalupe Mendoza and Samantha Ramos

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Samantha and Guadalupe went to Beijing, China, for two months this past winter to conduct their study on native speakers of Mandarin Chinese. They presented some of their findings from that project at both the UCR Undergraduate Research Symposium and the R’PSYC Undergraduate Conference.

*Mendoza, G., *Ramos, S., Higby, E., & Rosenbaum, D. (2019, May). Subjective task difficulty in two languages and its effect on task ordering. University of California, Riverside Research Symposium, Riverside, CA.


Investigating the relationship between paracingulate sulcus patterns and executive functions

Gold Osita-Ogbonnaya, Madeline Finnegan, Melissa Rico, and Faredun Dungore

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Gold and Madeline presented their project at the R’PSYC Undergraduate Conference.

*Osita-Ogbonnaya, G., *Finnegan, M., *Rico, M., *Dungore, F., Atagi, N., Rupp, M., Macbeth, A., & Higby, E. (2019, May). Investigating the relationship between paracingulate sulcus patterns and executive functions. R’PSYC Undergraduate Research Conference, Riverside, CA.


Understanding the effects of predicción in bilinguals

Jose Calderon, Blanca Bautista, Berenice Velazquez, and Natalia Rzeslawski-Gamboa

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Jose and Blanca presented their project at the UCR Undergraduate Research Symposium.

*Calderon, J., *Bautista, B., *Velazquez, B., *Rzeslawski-Gamboa, N., Higby, E., Zirnstein, M., & Kroll, J. F. (2019, May). Understanding the effects of predicción in bilinguals. University of California, Riverside Research Symposium, Riverside, CA.

New article in Cortex

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My colleagues in Finland and I have published another paper on morphological processing in Finnish, a language with a highly complex morphological system. In this paper we look at how morphological and lexical processing differs for healthy older adults and people with Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, compared to healthy younger adults. The paper is available here:

Individuals with Alzheimer’s disease often show declines in semantics (a word’s meaning). It is unclear whether this semantic decline affects morphological processing. In order to answer this question, we tested to what degree word recognition in Finnish was influenced by semantic and form-based (spelling) factors and how the reliance on these factors changes with age and with neuropathology. In line with previous research on Alzheimer’s disease, we found decreased reliance on semantic aspects of word recognition for these patients. However, what was particularly interesting in this study was that healthy older adults and individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment showed similar patterns to what was found for patients with Alzheimer’s. In other words, all three of the older adult groups showed greater reliance on form-based factors for word recognition than younger adults.

Full abstract:

Reading a word activates morphologically related words in the mental lexicon. People with Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) often have difficulty retrieving words, though the source of this problem is not well understood. To better understand the word recognition process in aging and in neurodegenerative disorders such as MCI and AD, we investigated the nature of the activation of morphologically related family members in 22 Finnish speakers with AD, 24 with MCI, and 17 cognitively healthy elderly. We presented Finnish monomorphemic (base form) nouns in a single-word lexical decision experiment to measure the speed of word recognition and its relation to morphological and lexical variables. Morphological variables included morphological family size (separate for compounds and derived words) and pseudo-morphological family size (including the set of words that have a partially overlapping form but that do not share an actual morpheme, e.g., pet and carpet, or corn and corner). Pseudo-morphological family size was included to examine the influence of words with orthographic (or phonological) overlap that are not semantically related to the target words. Our analyses revealed that younger and elderly controls and individuals with MCI or AD were influenced by true morphological overlap (overlapping forms that also share meaning), as well as by the word’s pseudo-morphological family. However, elderly controls and individuals with MCI or AD seemed to rely more on form overlap than young adults. This demonstrates that an increased reliance on form-based aspects of language processing in Alzheimer’s disease is not necessarily due to a partial loss of access to semantics, but might be explained in part by a common age-related change of processes in written word recognition.

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.