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.”

Going to Psychonomics in November

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Our abstract was accepted for the Psychonomic Society meeting in Vancouver in November! I’ll be presenting a poster titled Conflict regulation during bilingual lexical production Judith Kroll and Deborah Burke. I will present early data from my postdoc project at UC Riverside.

Here is the abstract of our poster. Hope to see some of you at the meeting!

To plan speech, bilinguals must select appropriate words among competing alternatives both within the target and non-target language. These demands on lexical selection engage regulatory mechanisms, such as monitoring and inhibitory control, but the precise nature of this regulation is not well understood. The first goal of the present study was to investigate the types of regulation that are involved when bilinguals plan spoken words. Spanish-English bilinguals named colored pictures in a task-switching paradigm (naming either the object or the color of the object). Distractors (color and object words) were presented before the picture to enhance attentional conflict or to induce lexical conflict. A second goal was to ask how variation in bilingual language experience influences language regulation ability.  We hypothesized that early age of second language acquisition, high proficiency in both languages, and language immersion experience may modulate the relative contribution of different mechanisms of language control.

ISB11 Presentation


I had a great time in Limerick, Ireland at the International Symposium on Bilingualism. This is one of my favorite conferences to go to because it brings together so many people who are investigating bilingualism in many different ways.

My talk focused on whether the degree of influence that the second language has on the first language is affected by the age of second language acquisition. One might expect that early bilinguals, who learn both languages simultaneously or in short succession, might experience greater influence of their second language on their first because their language systems are still quite malleable. Late bilinguals, who learned the second language in adolescence or older, may not experience as much of a change to their first language upon acquiring the second.

What my data show is that both early and late bilinguals showed the same type of influence of the second language on the first. This finding (along with other studies) suggests that the first language is malleable to language experiences even in adolescence or adulthood. We never stop adapting!

It was a pleasure to hear a keynote presentation from Jean-Marc Dewaele, whose talk was informative and funny, and overall delightful.


University of Michigan fMRI training course


I just found out that I got accepted into the NIH-funded 2-week fMRI training course at the University of Michigan to be held in August. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to learn about the physics of MRI, study design, and data acquisition and analysis. I’m looking forward to using this training to design a neuroimaging study of bilingual older adults that I can run at the new Center for Advanced Neuroimaging at UC Riverside.

Here is info on the annual course:

LSA meeting in Austin


Two weeks ago I attended the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Austin, TX. There were several interesting talks and some really great keynotes. I gave two presentations. One was a talk on second-language influence on first-language sentence comprehension that was part of a session on language processing and acquisition (pictured). I presented some of my electrophysiology results and discussed how the results might lead to models of bilingual syntactic representation. We had a great audience for the session with insightful questions. I’m happy to see the interest in bilingual language processing at this meeting.

The other presentation I gave was a poster on non-native phonemic perception. We looked at allophonic pairs in Spanish that are contrastive in English. Since these allophones have different phonotactic constraints in Spanish, we asked whether those constraints influence the ability to perceive the phonemic pair contrastively in their non-native language, English. If you want to see the poster, head over to my publications page and click on the poster title to download it!

Presentations at ASHA and Psychonomics


Last week I presented my work at two conferences. At the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) annual convention in Philadelphia, I was part of a special session on Bilingual Sentence Processing organized by Henrike Blumenfeld. My talk was titled “Using two languages to understand anomalous sentences.” I discussed how bilinguals have a large linguistic “toolbox” containing what they know about both languages. This toolbox is brought to use when comprehending language, thus allowing bilinguals to interpret sentences using any grammatical tools at their disposal.

I also presented two posters at the annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, which was held in Boston. The first is also based on my dissertation data (pictured above), titled “Learning a second language influences first-language grammar processing.” Here I discuss how early and late bilinguals process sentences in their native language that are ungrammatical based on the native language grammar but grammatical in their second-language grammar. We are in the process of collecting data from Spanish and English monolinguals to use as comparison.

The other poster is a collaboration with colleagues at Brooklyn College and the Australian National University titled “A beneficial effect of orthography on native Spanish speakers’ ability to distinguish non-native phonemic contrasts.” This study looked at late bilinguals’ ability to distinguish four English phonemic contrasts (two consonantal, two vocalic) in pseudo-words with and without printed spellings. Their performance was also related to individual scores on an English decoding task and a second-language proficiency measure.

It was my first time attending ASHA and second time attending Psychonomics and they were both very interesting and stimulating environments. I’ve come home with a lot of research ideas, which I hope will develop into some interesting collaborations and lines of research.

Copies of the posters can be found on my ResearchGate and profiles.