The relation between speech and action

25 Nov 2019

In a BMBF-funded project, LMU linguist Julia Büttner-Kunert plans to assess the quality of interpersonal communication in individuals with dementia and people traumatic brain injuries, with the aim to develop new approaches to therapy.

People who suffer from dementia or other cognitive deficits often have severe problems in interpersonal communication. With a view to tracing and understanding the origins of deficits in communication that develop in association with such disorders, clinical linguist Julia Büttner-Kunert of the Institute of German Philology at LMU has, over the past several years, developed a novel language-based screening procedure. Within the framework of a new project with the acronym NEUROPRAG, which is funded by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) and has just begun, she will now put this method to the test. More specifically, she will systematically investigate the degree to which persons who have suffered traumatic brain injuries or developed dementias of various types, retain a knowledge of what linguists call ‘pragmatics’. The term refers to the ability to handle the practical aspects of language in interactions with others, i.e. the ability to evoke an action by means of language. For example, when someone says “There’s a draft,” what she really means is “Please close the window.” The meaning of the expression becomes apparent only with reference to the specific context in which it was made. This capacity to relate utterances to their wider context is one of the aspects of language use that can be lost as a result of neurological damage.

Büttner-Kunert and her colleagues plan to study 120 patients and 120 healthy subjects over a period of 3 years. The primary goal is to analyze how the pragmatics of language use are altered by chronic pathological processes or in the normal course of aging. Traumatic brain injury in younger individuals and Alzheimer’s disease in the elderly are two classes of neurological disorders that can lead to deficits in the comprehension and use of language. “Unfortunately, speech and language therapists have developed very few validated approaches to the diagnosis and treatment of such conditions,” says Büttner-Kunert. “In fact, linguistic expertise is a crucial requirement for research in this area, because one must be able to recognize the semantic structures in a given text or conversational context.” For this reason, her screening method asks whether experimental subjects are still capable of comprehending the metaphors in a text, and whether and how a given neurological disease leads to changes in the use of language in normal conversational settings. “We also want to explore the question of age-specific changes in language use. Very little research has been done on the effects of old age on language,” she adds.

The broader purpose of the project is to make use of the insights obtained to help affected individuals to understand the central message conveyed by a written text or a spoken conversation. The idea is to find ways of enabling patients to distill the essence of the statements made by their interlocutor. The ability to consistently recognize the core structures in sentences can permit persons with progressive cognitive deficits to follow the gist of conversations and thus maintain their ability to communicate by means of language.

The project is part of a new BMBF funding line devoted to “Little-Known Disciplines with Great Potential” (Kleine Fächer – große Potentiale). “The greatest potential benefit lies in the prospect that identifying the causes of deficits in linguistic pragmatics by systematic analysis will lead to enhancements in the quality of life of patients,” says Büttner-Kunert. “In the next step, we can develop individually tailored forms of language therapy.” A better understanding of disturbances in the neural processing of the pragmatic aspects of language should contribute to improving the quality of care available to these patients.

The BMBF project is specifically intended to promote interdisciplinary and international collaboration between researchers in the fields of linguistics, cognition, medicine and therapeutics. Specialists based in Australia and Canada, who have long experience in the dissecting the effects of traumatic brain injury on language use, will also participate in the project. NEUROPRAG will also assess whether investigative tools such as questionnaires, which are well established in English-speaking countries, can also be employed in studies of native speakers of German. The project will last for 3 years.

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