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Lab Notes on: Dr. Gail Holian-Pestana

Updated: Oct 28, 2023

Anika Ajgaonkar's notes on Dr. Gail Holian-Pestana, an adjunct professor in the English Department at Centenary University.


Dr. Gail Holian is an adjunct professor in the Department of English at Centenary University in Hackettstown, New Jersey, whose work spans the fields of the history of the English language, linguistics, and medieval literature. Formerly a high school English teacher in Monmouth County, NJ, she taught at multiple community colleges before later receiving her Master's Degree in English at Saint John’s University. At the time of receiving her Ph.D., she was already an assistant professor/teaching fellow. For 36 years, Dr. Holian was a professor in the Department of English at Georgian Court University in Lakewood, New Jersey, before transitioning to her current role at Centenary University. Her work in neurolinguistics, a unique field that combines aspects of neuroscience with the intricacies of linguistic research, is the accumulation of her background in English that later branched out to explore her fascination with how the brain processes language.

Dr. Holian came to her love of the English language organically. She began reading at age three. While her grandmother, Marie Claudia, was baking delicious cakes in the kitchen, she was peering hard at the books neatly arranged in the Queen Anne bookcase in the hallway, patiently sounding out the letters and words and examining the letter combinations until the sweet cakes came out of the oven.

She read all the ingredients on the cans and packages in the kitchen and read the names on the trucks, buses, taxis that passed by the house. In particular, the ways the letters naturally gathered together was fascinating. When her grandmother left out novels written in French, young Dr. Holian noticed the similar spellings of words that looked a lot like English words, but she could only guess at their meanings. Her fascination with what she would later learn were cognates, words from different languages that have similar spellings and meanings, would be the foundation for her later interest in neurolinguistics.

Though neurolinguistics as a field seems to be relatively new, it actually began in the mid-19th century in Europe, when German scholars began researching the history of how language began and its significance to the brain. Why are there so many languages? How do we learn and speak them? Which is the oldest language of humankind? These were all questions that piqued their curiosity and that they sought answers for. This interest, however, can still be traced further back to the time of the Old Testament and the story of the Tower of Babel, which was the first important discussion regarding the Indo-European aspects of language. Later on, in the 20th century, scientists Broca and Wernicke established the neural side of linguistics through their dissection of cadavers and observations on the human body. (The Broca’s and Wernicke’s regions of the brain are cortical areas of the brain specialized for the production and comprehension of human language, named after these esteemed scientists.)

Jung, the friend and contemporary of Freud, was a Swiss psychiatrist, whose works have been influential in the fields of psychiatry, as well as archaeology, anthropology, and literature, is regarded as the most influential psychologist in history. His revolutionary and accepted theory traced the differentiation of the self out of each individual's conscious and unconscious. Dr. Holian traced this process through the greatest works of medieval literature. Although at this time there were no formal courses in neurolinguistics, the groundwork was being laid by scholars who investigated language and its relationship to psychology and the way the mind processes symbols. Words are symbols, thought most people wouldn't immediately recognize them as one. The image complex was another manifestation of neurolinguistics research throughout Dr. Holian's career.

However, Dr. Holian says, neurolinguistics only became the field it is today after the advancement of brain imaging scans in the 1990s. EEGs, MRIs, and PET scans became much more developed and enabled a more scientific approach to the study of language and the brain. In many ways, this time period forged a union between the historical investigation of languages with the technological developments of the modern era, especially as they concerned aphasiology in athletes and victims of brain trauma.

Aphasiology is the study of language impairment in the brain caused by neurovascular accidents (like hemorrhage, stroke, or concussion), or affiliation with neurodegenerative diseases (like dementia and its variants). Specific deficits in language are called aphasias: deterioration in language production and comprehension skills not linked to mere deafness or oral paralysis. The two best known aphasias are expressive aphasia and receptive aphasia, associated with the Broca’s region and Wernicke’s region of the brain, specifically.

Neurolinguistics has various approaches in its study, such through a linguistic, anthropological, or neurological lens, but Dr. Holian focuses on the approach relating to language and its form. She began her research through an observation of symbolic behaviors and patterns in visual images that become important in the language of medieval literature, and how the brain connects these visual and linguistic aspects. Highlighting this is her doctoral dissertation, carried out under the direction of her famous dissertation director and the chair of the committee, Robert L. Chapman, Ph. D., the world renowned medievalist and linguistics scholar, dictionary editor and expert on language language evolution and cognitive processing. Her original dissertation traced the connection between a familiar image in medieval as well as earlier and later British and Continental literature, the image of the "Lady in the Window" to its origins in Jung's revolutionary theory of the anima and animus phenomenon, where art meets the mind. She says some of the most important research she has done was in the field of medieval literature, especially in the visual complex. Her book, The Romance of the Rose Illuminated, is one specific example of this. It features colored reproductions of the miniatures from unpublished illuminated manuscripts of Le Roman de la Rose in the National Library of Wales, with commentary and discussion, and enables comparisons between the different manuscripts. She was a grantee of the Florence Gould Foundation, which supported her book.

Neurolinguistics also play a role in our everyday lives, Dr. Holian says, especially in the realm of neurolinguistic programming.

Neurolinguistic programming is defined as an approach to communication that emphasizes the connection between neurological processes, our speech, and their consequent impact on our behavior.

The diction and syntax of everyday life, she says, can have certain power structures built into them that unconsciously have an effect on us. The “verbal jiujiutsu” of addressing women by either their maiden or married name, defaulting to male pronouns in everyday speech, and subtle microaggressions in the working world all contribute to an overall behavior of inferiority towards women that must be combatted. As she puts it, “Language does not afford equality.” Dr. Holian is a strong advocate for female empowerment in all fields, and urges that women must take their rightful places in the workplace, especially in fields previously dominated by men, such as STEM. The number of women in academia is slowly on the rise, she says, but still has a long way to go. She urges women not to doubt themselves in pursuing the career of their desire, saying, “If you want it, you’ll get it, and you’ll do it well.”

In the field of neurolinguistics, Dr. Holian says that intense curiosity, facility for language, and an analytical term of mind are the most important skills to have. To see how words connect, process language, and understand concepts such as cognates are paramount skills, especially in the linguistic side of the field. From an anthropological or neurological view, however, these skills must be adapted or replaced with the specialties of their unique approaches, whether that involves understanding the complexities of human societies or a medical awareness of the brain and its vulnerabilities to enable curative methodology.

The future of neurolinguistics will most likely be in a scientific approach, says Dr. Holian, and its medical uses. Observing how the brain reacts when we read to it, play an instrument, or it suffers brain damage will give us valuable insight into its function, especially to help victims of neurological trauma. Most patients today must undergo years of speech therapy to alleviate symptoms of brain damage from years ago, but a medical science based approach backed by hard evidence could be critical to remediating such issues directly in the brain itself without prolonging negative effects.

For those who wish to pursue the field of neurolinguistics, the path will require some key components: application to a linguistics program, specializing in the neurological aspect of the field during graduate studies, but above all, Dr. Holian says, one will require a mentor to guide them. She expressed, “I always remember to value the people who taught me, and be thankful that they took the time to help me learn, else I would be nothing without them.” She also emphasizes the importance of trusting what is to come, whether that be in one’s career or personal life, for she feels it was the unexpected turns in her career that led her to new job opportunities and research avenues. Quoting English poet, William Wordsworth, she said, “I made no plans, but plans were made for me.”

Written by Anika Ajgaonkar

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