Language & the Brain, in Research and the Classroom

Edna Andrews Honored with University Scholar/Teacher Award

Through DIG and FOCUS, Edna Andrews has brought students along in her research at the intersection of language and brain sciences.
Through DIG and FOCUS, Edna Andrews has brought students along in her research at the intersection of language and brain sciences.

When Professor Edna Andrews decided she needed to become a student again, it made all the difference in the world for her teaching.

Trained as a linguist but interested in learning more about how advances in neuroscience were affecting her field, Andrews felt she needed to brush up on some brain basics.

From working as a beginning student in neurobiologist's Gillian Einstein's lab to shadowing a team of neurosurgeons, Andrews works in the field of cognitive neurolinguistics, which is changing our understanding of language and the brain.  Her latest book, "Neuroscience and Multilingualism," coming out with Cambridge University Press at the end of this year, is the culmination of the past 10 years of her research.

Through all of this learning, Andrews has made sure her undergraduate and graduate students came along with her.

"I think it is important to teach your research, so if I am working on a project in cognitive neurolinguistics that includes brain imaging, then it is essential that my co-authors are specialists in fMRI and general linear analysis," said Andrews, the Nancy & Jeffrey Marcus Professor who holds appointments in Slavic and Eurasian studies, cultural anthropology and the Institute of Brain Sciences.

This approach earned Andrews the 2013 University Scholar/Teacher Award, presented to her by President Richard H. Brodhead Thursday at the Academic Council session. In 2012, the award went to Helen Ladd of the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The honor is the only university-wide award that recognizes excellence in the combination of scholarship and teaching. Andrews said that connection seems natural to her. "I'm lucky to find pockets of interaction and have wonderful colleagues to be here willing to collaborate if presented with an interesting intellectual problem.” 

In May of this year, Andrews was the lead author on a collaborative publication in the journal Brain Sciences devoted to a longitudinal fMRI analysis of second language acquisition and multilingualism.  This paper is one of the only longitudinal fMRI studies published to date that includes not only a statistical multivariate analysis of covariance (MANCOVA), but also internationally recognized proficiency testing results.

Until recently, there weren't "a lot of linguists involved in neurolinguistics," Andrews said. The results of bringing theoretical linguistics back into the field of neurolinguistics is progress in designing and empirically testing new, more complex models of language and brain that incorporate a more interactive view of the brain as it is embedded in the cultural context.

The good news for the rest of us is that empirical linguistic research coupled with important discoveries in neuroscience provides evidence that language learning is not a phenomenon restricted purely to the first years of biological life.

"Most people on Earth speak more than one language," she said. "That is, the norm for humans is to be bi- or multilingual. Yet a lot of linguistic theory overlooks this fact. If most humans learn two or more languages, why are our linguistic models still based on learning a single language?"

This interest came together with one of her innovative teaching ventures: Duke Intense Global (DIG), in which students spent the fall, spring and summer semesters of the 2011-12 academic year traveling between Durham and St. Petersburg, Russia, with Andrews.  It combined intensive Russian language training with courses related to Andrews' neurolinguistic interests.

The experience was thrilling for both instructor and students, but, almost as a lark, it became a way to involve her students in her research. A key element of her new book involves data from a longitudinal fMRI study she conducted tracking acquisition of Russian.

"DIG became all of the things I do at Duke that made me happy," Andrews said. "I taught a course in language and the brain and one on Slavic linguistics, but I happened to ask the students whether they were interested in being part of my longitudinal study. And they were all eager."

Since 2010, Andrews has also been director of FOCUS, Duke's signature first-year seminar program.  She's taught in the program almost since its start in 1992, and she still finds the first-years eager to tackle challenging studies of brain and language.

"Working with first-year students is so rewarding. They do everything; they come to class excited and they always thank you. It's a fabulous program -- I really believe in it."

Andrews was in St. Petersburg when she heard from Provost Peter Lange that she had won the award. Previously a winner of the Lublin Teaching Award in Arts and Sciences, Andrews said she recognizes many people have contributed to creating an environment where she can journey from her first love of being a Slavic linguist to someone who is studying language and brain.

"It's really amazed me sometimes of how generous Duke faculty are. We're all too busy and yet if you have an intriguing intellectual issue, they are willing to find the time to get involved."

The University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award was established by the Division of Higher Education of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church to honor faculty excellence in connecting teaching and research.