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Summer 2017

The Making of Associate Professor Gigi Luk

Gigi LukAs Gigi Luk knows, based on her own experience speaking many languages, as well as her ongoing research on children at the Brain.Experience.Education (BEE) lab at the Ed School, bilingualism shapes our brains for life. In fact, as she has also learned, the ability to speak more than one language in a changing world is not only helpful, but it could actually be a survival skill.

1977    I was born in Hong Kong where English and Cantonese are spoken. My parents and relatives spoke both languages to me.

1980    My parents and I moved to Singapore because my father had a job there. In Singapore, there are many languages: Mandarin, English, Tamil, Malay, and other dialects. I used to live in a very multicultural neighborhood, and my parents sent me to a school that used Japanese as a medium of instruction. I did not speak a word of Japanese. To this day, I still remember the feeling of not being able to comprehend and share my thoughts because I do not speak the language.

1982    Two years later, I moved back to Hong Kong with my family so I could start elementary school. I attended a Catholic school where I heard the story about the Tower of Babel. The story was about how God tried to stop people building a tower that was reaching up to the sky by scattering people around the world and confounding them to speak different languages. As a young bilingual, I wondered why this was a problem because every person can just learn to speak more languages and communicate!

1989    During middle school, we had a choice to take French instead of Chinese. I opted to learn French because having the opportunity to learn about different languages was very important for me. I was fortunate enough to grow up with many opportunities to learn languages, both in everyday life and in classrooms.

1997    I started to study economics as an undergraduate at York University in Toronto. During the freshman summer, I took an introductory course covering a variety of topics in psychology. I was fascinated by the knowledge psychologists accumulated to understand human behavior. In particular, I was drawn to how psychologists study human development and cognition.

2001    During my senior year of college, I completed two research projects and worked as a teaching assistant in a statistics course. I enjoyed the research and teaching experiences as a senior as it was gratifying to engage in knowledge generation and dissemination. With my passion to conduct research on development and cognition, I decided to pursue research to learn about how our mind and brain are shaped by our experiences, particularly bilingualism. My passion to understand language use and behavior has grown from a personal interest to an intellectual curiosity.

2008    After obtaining my doctoral degree, also from York, I started a postdoctoral fellowship at a geriatric hospital to study how lifelong bilingual experiences is related to brain health in the aging population. It is apparent that no single brain region is dedicated to managing multiple languages. Therefore, I examined how different brain regions work together to support the control of multiple languages. It was remarkable that bilingualism, an everyday experience for many, is reflected in our behavior and also makes a mark in our biology.

2011    Learning about the difference bilingualism has on the aging brain, I joined the Ed School to begin understanding how bilingualism, as a life experience, shapes development and learning in children. For children with diverse language backgrounds, there is much emphasis on English proficiency in the United States, which is a narrow representation of bilingualism. Further-more, bilingualism is associated with other socio-demographic factors that may have a negative impact on academic performances. These complexities masked the positive cognitive consequences that I have observed as a researcher.

2013    During a fellowship supported by the Spencer Foundation, I began to think of different ways to study bilingualism, development, and learning. Instead of comparing the absolute performance levels of children with different language backgrounds, I started to focus on change and differences. With these focuses, my research team and I designed studies that include all children with different language backgrounds, not just monolingual and bilingual groups.

2016    During my sabbatical in the fall, I integrated these focuses into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study. Using cognitive neuroscience tools, my research team and I extended the cur-rent knowledge on bilingualism and learning. In addition to conducting research, I traveled to Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, and Luxembourg to learn more about what bilingualism means in different countries. Our ability to acquire multiple languages is a survival skill adapting to the changing world. It’s not a special talent, but an adaptation to the environment. If you live in Europe, you need to be bilingual. I hope that the science of bilingualism will strengthen our embrace for language diversity in education and beyond. Looking back at my early years in Hong Kong and Singapore, I know it did for me.