Associate Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences
AB, Harvard College
PhD University of California, San Diego
Dr. Catherine Caldwell-Harris's research concerns long-standing questions about the importance of emotional arousal for language learning and use, and why acquiring a foreign language is difficult in adulthood. Her empirical work has documented that bilingual speakers have reduced emotional responses, including reduced skin conductance amplitudes, when listening to emotional phrases in their less proficient language. Drawing on life-history theory from evolutionary psychology, Dr. Caldwell-Harris proposes that language learning in adulthood poses opportunity costs that are either absent or more variable than those in childhood. This theoretical framework explains why young children are poor second/foreign language learners outside of immersion settings. It also explains why immersion contexts, and especially immigration, are the contexts where young adults have the best chance of learning well a new language.
A current application of these empirical and theoretical approaches is the question of whether emotional engagement in virtual reality environments (include those on mobile apps) can be an effective intervention for facilitating foreign language learning for older teens and adults. A second project concerns how low English proficiency places immigrants and others at risk during police encounters. In a third ongoing project, Dr. Caldwell-Harris collaborates with School of Education colleagues to investigate how profoundly deaf children acquire English as a second language via print.