Pathways to Language: From Fetus to Adolescent
The identification of unique neural features that might predict language development is not only of scientific interest to explain the cognitive success of the human species, but also of growing importance in clinical settings. Identifying children at risk for later language developmental deficits may help in counseling parents and providing early interventions. In this talk, I will introduce the current state of scientific knowledge and present recent studies from our Lab. We use structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging in healthy fetuses and fetuses with neurological diseases to investigate the very early development of language-associated brain areas, examine neural speech discrimination abilities in neonates with functional near-infrared spectroscopy, and follow these children in their first years of life with neurodevelopmental and language examinations. While some of these studies are still ongoing, first results contribute important information about the neuronal underpinnings of the development of language during the prenatal period. Furthermore, neural language discrimination at birth may serve as a biomarker for later language development.
Lisa Bartha-Doering is Associate Professor at the Department of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria, where she heads the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. She is a neurolinguist and clinical linguist, was trained at the University of Innsbruck, Austria and the University of California Irvine, USA, and worked at the University of Münster, Germany. She has received several research awards, managed several third-party funded projects, published numerous scientific papers, and is a member of the ethics committee of the Medical University of Vienna.
Pragmatic Impairments and Resources in Patients with Neurocognitive Disorders
Pragmatic refers to the ability to act with language. Pragmatic skills contribute significantly to the success of communicative interaction and information processing. In addition to linguistic functions, skills that enable flexible adaptation to the context are also needed in understanding and producing texts and conversations. Cognitive functions that can organize the communication process play a special role. Here, mainly abilities from the spectrum of executive functions, social cognition, or theory-of-mind are involved.
With few exceptions, discourse-pragmatic disorders have not been studied in German-speaking regions. This is all the more surprising because it is precisely the context-specific communicative skills that are crucial for successful individual participation.
The talk presents the main results from the research project NEUROPRAG (2019-20022) in which various pragmatic and cognitive assessments were used in people with different neurocognitive disorders (Traumatic Brain Injury (PwTBI), Alzheimer Dementia (PwAD), Fronto-temporal dementia (PwFTD)).
Depending on the underlying cognitive disorders, pragmatic disorders as well as resources were apparent. For each of the subgroups studied, specific profiles can be identified that should be used for treatment planning. Due to the close interaction of cognitive, linguistic and behavioral symptoms, the diagnosis and treatment planning should always be done in an interdisciplinary way. The examination of pragmatic abilities should be an integral part of the treatment of people with neurocognitive disorders due to their high relevance for communicative participation.
Lifelong Language Learning and Significant Life Events: Re-Examining Threshold Hypotheses
The possible existence and nature of thresholds in the process of language learning and use across the lifespan raises many questions. For instance, although the existence of thresholds has often been suggested in various fields of linguistics – prominent examples being the Critical Period Hypothesis (Lenneberg 1967), the Linguistic Threshold Hypothesis (Alderson, 1984), the Activation Threshold Hypothesis (Paradis 1997), thresholds in language maintenance and shifts (Grin 1993), thresholds for cognitive and brain reserve capacities (Stern 2002) as well as thresholds for a diagnosis of dyslexia (Cilibrasi & Tsimpli 2020) – the search for the most likely location for a threshold has turned out to be difficult. In part, this has to do with the fact that, more often than not, the relationship between language (be it L1 or L2) and some ID variable (such as age) has largely been examined using linear methodologies, such as correlation or regression modeling.
In this talk, I propose novel ways of detecting and estimating thresholds in the association between a continuous independent variable and a continuous dependent variable. My main focus is on retirement as a socially determined and linguistically constructed concept that potentially alters the process of cognitive aging and language acquisition, use and attrition later in life. Life course theory (Elder 1992) emphasizes that retirement, like so many other significant life events, is not an isolated event, but rather a transition and process embedded in a person’s biography of prior and current roles and relationships. I suggest that this requires not only more complex, non-linear statistical models to estimate the point of change in a slope as a function of retirement, but also qualitative approaches that examine how L2 learners interpret their experiences ‘here and now’ as being coherent with their own internal frameworks, and how socially constructed categories are changing. I will also propose that apart from its analytical relevance, a clear concept of ‘threshold’ could provide a powerful tool for planning and intervention.
Simone E. Pfenninger is Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Zurich. Her principal research areas are (variationist) second language acquisition, psycholinguistics and multilingualism, especially in regard to quantitative approaches and statistical methods and techniques for language application in education. Recent books include SLA and Lifelong Learning (2023, co-authored, Routledge), The Changing English Language: Psycholinguistic Perspectives (2017, co-edited, CUP), and Beyond Age Effects in Instructional L2 Learning: Revisiting the Age Factor (2021, co-edited, Multilingual Matters). She is co-editor of the SLA book series for Multilingual Matters, President of the International Association of Multilingualism (IAM), and Vice President of the European Second Language Association (EuroSLA).