Why we research

Angela De Bruin

An endless puzzle

I have always been fascinated by languages, how they work, how people learn new languages, and how bilinguals communicate in multiple languages. In school, I considered different career options, but none really got to the core of what I wanted to do. I did not necessarily want to study a language. I wanted to understand how languages work! I did not even know what “doing research” meant or what a research job could look like, I just wanted to do something with that curiosity of understanding how people communicate and learn and use languages.

Growing up in the Netherlands, I was taught several languages at school. I personally enjoy learning new languages, but this also opened my eyes to the possibilities language learning and bilingualism give us. Speaking multiple languages allows you to get to know more people from different cultures and to learn about those new cultures and countries. My research mostly focuses on how bilinguals (which I define as anyone who can have a conversation in more than one language) communicate, how they choose which language(s) to use, and when and why they switch languages. Given that over half of the world can speak more than one language, this research can tell us a lot about how people communicate. I am very interested in more theoretical questions but studying bilingualism is also very important from a more practical or applied perspective. Communication between people is a core part of our lives. Just imagine not having access to any form of language at all – suddenly it would be far more difficult to share our thoughts!

Bilinguals can communicate in a lot of different ways. For example, when talking with another bilingual who speaks the same languages, language choice can depend on a lot of variables. Which language you use might depend on the message you want to convey, or on certain words only existing or being easier to produce in one of the languages. We are also often influenced by the language patterns of the person we are interacting with. Studying different types of interactional contexts, in relation to the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying language understanding and production, can tell us a lot about how people interact with each other. In my upcoming research, I hope to better understand how language production can change with healthy ageing as well as in people with cognitive impairment.

I love the topics I am researching, but I also very much enjoy how varied the day of a researcher can be. One of the most exciting parts is thinking about new research questions and developing the best possible studies to address those questions. Collecting data is a core part of experimental research, but without a solid and well-thought through study design, it can be difficult to interpret data and answer your research questions. My work includes both experiments that are very strongly controlled to address a specific theoretical question as well as more naturalistic studies that attempt to look more at the way people actually use language. The latter can include looking at interactions between people, rather than purely studying production of individual words without context. It can be difficult to strike a balance between ensuring study designs are well controlled and still making sure you are studying processes that somewhat resemble real life processes. To me, this is one of the main challenges as well as one of the most exciting parts of my job.

Once the data have been collected, another exciting part of the research cycle starts: seeing what your study shows. Before the study, you think about your hypotheses: what you expect to find and what it would tell you about your question. Although we always hope that our data support our hypothesis, it is not actually that common. However, often the most interesting studies are the ones that give you unexpected data. A lot of my week is therefore spent thinking about research findings, but especially also discussing them with others – doing research is not as isolated and individual as often portrayed! A core part of doing research is being passionate about what you are researching though. For me, my curiosity about language and the brain has never gone away and the main thing I absolutely love about doing research is that I get to think about interesting questions, develop studies to explore them, and work with amazing people in the process of studying those questions.

Studies never give you a full answer to any question. In the same way language allows us to formulate endless sentences to convey our thoughts, there is an endless number of pieces of the puzzle to explore in research. And that is what keeps doing research so exciting to me.

At the time of writing, Angela de Bruin is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of York, UK.