Janet van Hell, a longtime faculty member in the College of the Liberal Arts’ Department of Psychology and director of the Center for Language Science, has been promoted to the rank of distinguished professor of psychology and linguistics by Penn State.
Seven University faculty members were recently elevated to the rank, a special honor bestowed upon a limited number of professors who are leaders in their fields of research or creative activity and have demonstrated significant leadership in terms of teaching and service.
A prominent scholar who explores the neural and cognitive processes underlying language learning, Van Hell has received more than 30 grants during her time at Penn State while committing herself to collaborative and multidisciplinary work. That includes a recent $3 million National Science Foundation Research Traineeship grant to establish the “Linguistic diversity across the lifespan: Transforming training to enhance human-technology interaction” graduate certificate program.
Meanwhile, Van Hell has also developed a reputation as a first-rate teacher and mentor.
“It was a great honor and a big surprise. I didn’t expect it,” Van Hell said of the promotion. “I’m very proud of my research, but I also love teaching and mentoring students and put a lot of effort into it. It’s always great to see when you’ve planted some enthusiasm in your students.”
“We are so fortunate to have Dr. Van Hell in our department,” said Kristin A. Buss, Psychology Department head, Tracy Winfree and Ted H. McCourtney Professor in Children, Work, and Families, and professor of psychology and human development and family studies (HDFS).“She is an exceptional scholar, teacher and mentor, and she gives her time and energy selflessly to service to the University and the field. One key example of this is the establishment of a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship writing workshop that she developed and heads up each fall for our graduate students working on their applications. She does this without reward or recognition because she loves to share her expertise and help her students succeed. She truly embodies everything that a distinguished professor should be.”
Originally from the Netherlands, Van Hell was a faculty member at Radboud University in Nijmegen before coming to Penn State in the fall of 2008 for the first of three visiting professor stints.
When the University made her a full-time offer, she and her husband decided to make the permanent move to State College so that they could provide their children with a consistent school environment. On top of that, Penn State provided all the resources she wanted from an academic home.
“When I first arrived, I was struck by the vital atmosphere here at Penn State — the academic climate fit in better with my philosophy as a scientist,” said Van Hell, who first visited the University as a graduate student in 1997. “I had a very nice and happy life and career in the Netherlands, but what I really appreciate about the American higher ed system is that there’s more academic freedom in a way. There’s more time for collaborative work and interdisciplinary research. I thought, ‘I want to be a part of this.’
“And State College is a great place to raise a family,” she added. “We love nature, we love kayaking, we love hiking. We take advantage of all the wonderful things State College offers.”
Since joining the University faculty, Van Hell has expanded her research, which focuses on exploring the cognitive and neurocognitive processes related to language development, second language learning, and bilinguals' use of two languages.
In Van Hell’s Bilingual and Language Development (BiLD) Lab, she and her postdocs and graduate students combine neuropsychological, behavioral and linguistic techniques to study patterns of cross-language interaction and transfer in child and adult second language learners at different levels of proficiency.
The group’s research also examines how linguistic diversity — whether it’s a foreign accent, a regional dialect, or a stutter — affects one’s ability to interact with technology. And they look at the neural and cognitive mechanisms that factor into code-switching (the alternating between two or more languages in conversation) and comprehending nonnative-accented speech.
“What’s great about doing this type of research here at University Park is that State College and its surrounding communities are home to a wide variety of bilingual speakers and monolingual speakers,” she said. “When I arrived here, I quickly realized that because I’m an accented speaker of English, it informed the way people reacted to me. When I ordered my double espresso at Starbucks, people were not expecting an accent to come out of my mouth, because I ‘looked’ American. Which now fits into our study of linguistic diversity, in terms of examining how listeners process nonnative-accented speech. On the other side, we’ve found that when a bilingual speaker speaks one language during a conversation, the other language remains active at the same time. Bilinguals process language differently than monolinguals.”
Van Hell and her colleagues conduct their research both in a campus lab and out in the community in their mobile lab — aka the “brain bus.” Their focus, she said, is on making the experience as authentic as possible.
“With language science, you’re doing a lot of testing in idealized lab settings,” Van Hell said. “But that’s not how language works in the real world — it’s usually in a noisy environment. So, we’re moving more and more in the direction of conducting language research in more realistic situations, while maintaining experimental rigor. For example, we expose our participants to noise when we present them to foreign-accented speech. Or we might have many different speakers and they’ll have to concentrate on one particular speaker.”
About 12 to 15 undergraduate students typically work with Van Hell and her postdocs and graduate students at any given time. They represent a diverse array of cultures and languages, which makes for “a very happy mix of people,” she said.
In recent years, Van Hell has been recognized for her work with students, receiving mentoring awards from both the University and the Psychology Department. Like many of her students, she was the first person in her family to attend college, which makes it easy to empathize and connect with them, she said.
“When students see me, they see this professor in the classroom they may look up to, but they might not know my background is similar to theirs,” Van Hell said. “There’s more of an emphasis on the mentoring system here than in Europe. Because it’s encouraged here, I can work closely with graduate students on publishing and on their professional development, so that they can get a good start on their own careers. It’s great to serve as a role model to my students, and I love that aspect of my work.”