This week, Mona’s guest is Holly Branigan, Professor of Psychology of Language and Cognition and Head of the School of Philosophy, Psychology & Language Sciences.
MS: How long have you been Head of School and how has that impacted your research?
HB: I’ve been Head of School now for three and a half years. I started off doing the job for interim Head of School for a year and then took on a substantive role, so it’s actually had a major impact on my research. The role is meant to be four days a week but of course lots of things have been happening over the last couple of years in particular so I’ve not been able to keep up with my research as much as I would like to.
MS: Can you tell us a little bit about the research that you do?
HB: My research is on how people represent and use language. I’m especially interested in how what we say is influenced by the language that we hear around us and especially what our conversational partners say. For example, you may have noticed that when you’re talking to someone you find yourself using the same kinds of words that they do. One of the things I’m interested in is how this tendency to imitate our partner’s language use can help us to communicate effectively, and in the case of children or second language learners how it can help us to learn language, for example new words or new grammatical structures.
MS: Talking about children, is there any consistency would you say – at least in the developed countries – as to when children start to develop language skills?
HB: There are fairly well understood trajectories for learning language but one thing that does seem to be important, and one thing of the things I’m interested in, is the language input that children get. The rate at which they learn language is quite strongly affected, it seems, by the kind of language that they hear. That’s one of the questions I’m interested in – how the kind of language input they get affects their language development and the impact that can have later on their educational outcomes.
MS: I’m interested in the connection you make to how children learn languages and maybe bilingualism. I brought up my children learning Urdu at home. When they went to school they picked up English and they became completely bilingual but now they’re in their twenties, because they are surrounded in the English speaking world and they’ve moved away from home, they speak English all the time. I find that I’m constantly having to remind them to speak Urdu.
HB: I grew up in a household where my mother’s first language wasn’t English. She’s a native Thai speaker but she didn’t speak Thai to us when we were growing up because at the time it was thought that learning two languages might be confusing – we know that’s not the case now, but I think she thought it might be difficult for us because my father wouldn’t understand what we were saying. That is a regret actually that I don’t speak Thai because I think it does disconnect you in some ways from your heritage. I think that was potentially quite a big problem, as you found, because it does matter about using a language doesn’t it? Being exposed to it is important but you have to also be using it really.
MS: Talking about languages and still staying on this theme, how do people forget language? Speaking a language is an acquired skill, it takes time, but is it just simply that you’re not using it so you forget it?
HB: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure. We have experts at the University who work on these questions but it’s not something that I’ve done any research on. Anecdotally I’m aware that for the languages that I learnt at school for example, that I retain the grammar at some level but I’ve completely forgotten the vocabulary. And speaking to my mother, I think she feels that her Thai isn’t necessarily completely fluent anymore.
MS: Just moving away slightly, do you think effective communication is a reflection of good cognitive skills?
HB: I think it can be. One of the things that seems to be important for effective communication is the ability to put yourself in your listener’s shoes, in the sense of being able to think from their perspective and think what they do and they don’t know. That’s one of the reasons, for example, why young children may sometimes find it difficult to communicate well.
At the same time, again, one of the things that my research is interested in looking at is how far can you get without those explicit skills of modelling what your partner knows, how far can quite low level, automatic, reflexive processes get you up until the point where you’re able to do that modelling. So cognitive skills seem to be important for effective communication, particularly in difficult circumstances, but it seems to be that you can get quite a long way without having that.
MS: Is there one regret, either from your recent or distant past you might be able to share with us?
HB: Well, like everyone else, I have made a lot of mistakes and done an awful lot of things that I wish I’d done differently but I try to learn from the past and the mistakes I’ve made and use them constructively to do better in the future rather than harbouring regrets. I always think regret is a rather negative way of thinking about things – it’s the past is fixed whereas I think you can always learn from what you wish you’d done differently and find you’re better in the future so that’s what I try to do.
Having said that, one thing I very much regret is the impact the last two years have had on our ability to meet other people and the impact on our relationships, across the University as well as more widely. I think it’s brought home to all of us how important all these relationships are, not just the close relationships, but the peripheral ones as well. I do regret all of those opportunities we’ve not had to welcome new colleagues and students and make them part of our community when they join us in the way that we usually do.
MS: And what is your one hope for the future?
HB: My hope for the future is very much linked to that. The one positive thing that has come out of the last few years is, I think it has really helped us to value the people around us and where we’ve taken people for granted in the past. I think we’ve really now seen what it is that people do and I think we appreciate them much more.
I hope this sense of appreciation for others will continue and that we’ll take time to nurture our connections and build an even more welcoming and inclusive and diverse community.
Image: Stuart Boutell