a picture of Giuli Dussias

An interview with Giuli Dussias

I am a Professor of Spanish, Linguistics and Psychology in the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, with affiliate appointments in the Department of Psychology and in the Program in Linguistics. Since 2012, I have been the head of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, a department that serves more than 5,000 students per year—with 17 tenured and tenure-track faculty, approximately 50 full-time teaching faculty, and 30 graduate students. I also directly supervise three staff members. My goal has been to create a culture of cross-disciplinary scholarship, and to assert the right to work and learn without fear of persecution based on race, gender identity and expression, language, culture, religion, and all other rights put forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

I completed my doctoral studies in the interdisciplinary program in Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona, with a specialization in syntactic analysis and a minor concentration in second language processing. I then held a faculty position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for four years (1996-2000), where I was a primary collaborator in pioneering a computer-enhanced hybrid language instruction model consisting of two hours of classroom instruction and two hours of computer-assisted asynchronous instruction. The model—which we devised to respond to a university-wide 3-semester language requirement in the context of challenging budgetary and space constraints— is now widely used in institutions across the US. Prior to assuming my current position at Penn State, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Mississippi (2000-2001), where I was hired to implement the model for language instruction that we developed at Illinois.

My research program is highly collaborative and brings together efforts that bridge bilingualism, linguistic diversity and neuroscience, and takes a cross-disciplinary approach to language processing using converging methodological tools from linguistics, experimental psycholinguistics, and second language acquisition. I conduct experiments using a range of behavioral and neuroscientific methods to examine the way in which bilingual readers and speakers negotiate the presence of two languages in a single mind. In my work, I investigate bilingualism not as a topic of interest in and of itself; rather I employ bilingualism as a tool to investigate aspects of language acquisition and processing that would be difficult to uncover by studying speakers of one language. Recognizing that bilingualism is the rule rather than the exception globally, research from this perspective is now understood as providing evidence that complements monolingual and cross-linguistic research.

The primary focus of my research, and of the undergraduate research projects and graduate students whose work I have directed, concerns how second language (L2) speakers process the sentences they read or hear. The central question is whether information from one language influences decisions in the other language. In the area of syntactic processing, which has been the focus of my work for the past twenty years, most studies have mainly examined questions concerning the influence of the first language on the processing of the second language. There is now compelling evidence for overlapping syntactic systems between the first language (L1) and the second language, and for the claim that at least some syntactic information is shared between a speaker’s two languages. One important question in this context is whether knowledge of a second language affects the processing of the first language. My students and I have examined the consequences of bilingualism on the native language. Our findings demonstrate that the bilingual’s two languages are open to each other in a way that demonstrates a high level of plasticity, even for structures in the L1 that might have been considered relatively immutable once the native language is acquired.

In 2006, Penn State established the Center for Language Science, which until 2015 was directed by Professor Judith F. Kroll (now at the University of California, Irvine) and co-directed by Professor Janet van Hell and me. We are now 28 faculty across five academic departments and two colleges (Liberal Arts and Health and Human Development) who represent diverse interests in linguistics, psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and speech and language pathology, and who supervise and co-supervise the work of approximately 50 doctoral students and more than 40 undergraduate students. We developed a dual-title doctoral degree in language science that enables students entering Ph.D. programs in French, German, Spanish, Psychology, and Communication Sciences and Disorders to include training across the language sciences, which allows them to pursue cross-disciplinary research and teaching. A consequence is that I have worked directly with a diverse group of undergraduate and graduate students who are committed to the intellectual pursuit of issues dealing with linguistic diversity and linguistic rights, and who are drawn to the topic by virtue of being bilingual speakers, second language learners, or bidialectal speakers.

To promote the international engagement by U.S. undergraduate and graduate students to conduct research in the language sciences, in 2010 a group of us at the Center for Language Science was awarded a 5-year grant ($2.8 million) from the National Science Foundation Partnerships in International Research and Education (OISE 0968369: Bilingualism, mind, and brain: An interdisciplinary program in cognitive psychology, linguistics, and cognitive neuroscience; PI, Judith F. Kroll; Co- PIs, Giuli Dussias, and Janet van Hell) The program is know known by the acronym PIRE. We also obtained funds from The College of the Liberal Arts to provide similar experiences to non-US undergraduate and graduate students. During the award period, we sent over 50 undergraduate students to our partner sites in Beijing and Hong Kong (China), Bangor (Wales), Granada (Spain), Tarragona (Spain), Leipzig (Germany), Nijmegen (The Netherlands) and Lund (Sweden).

As a result of the mentorship that I have provided to my undergraduate students, I received the 2012 Outstanding Faculty Adviser Award from the College of The Liberal Arts. In addition, my efforts to internationalize bilingualism research and increase diversity were recognized with the 2012 Penn State’s Spirit of Internationalization Award.

In 2016, we applied and were again awarded a second 5-year grant ($5 million) from the National Science Foundation Partnerships in International Research and Education (OISE 1545900:Translating cognitive and brain sciences in the laboratory and field to language learning environments; PI at Penn State, Paola E. Dussias; PI at UC Irvine, Judith F. Kroll; Co- PIs at Penn State, Janet van Hell and John Lipski), this time to create an international network of translational research on language learning for undergraduate and graduate students. So far, we have trained a combined 109 undergraduate students (50 at PSU and 59 at UC Riverside and UC-Irvine).

In December 2014, the Center for Language Science at Penn State became the first US chapter of an organization founded in Europe, Bilingualism Matters, that translates findings related to bilingualism for parents raising bilingual children, for teachers and educators implementing new curricula for language learning in schools, and for policy makers.