BAS Conference 2011, Day 1

While the first day’s keynote speakers offered interesting insights into neural reorganisation following phonological therapy (Alex Leff, UCL) and a retrospective and prospective review of therapy in aphasia (Anna Basso, Uni of Milan), i found myself more intrigued by the parallel presentation sessions looking at ‘conversation’ and ‘verbs’.

Elizabeth Armstrong (Edith Cowan Uni, AUS) presented a fascinating analysis of evaluative language by PWA (e.g. statements such as ‘I loved the movie’). This analysis showed that PWA are perfectly able to express their opinions and emotions, regardless of severity, through a range of types of evaluative language. Although, those with more severe aphasia may require scaffolding from conversation partners where spontaneous lexical resources are severely restricted. This was investigated in the context of a music appreciation group for PWA where it was highlighted that evaluative language in PWA was most effectively elicited by the group facilitator when they offered their own opinions as opposed to when asking directed questions. So, as my clinical work currently involves group therapy for PWA this will cause me to further reflect on my use of questioning in group activities especially when the aims of the task are for discussion and sharing of opinions.

See: Armstrong, E., & Ulatowska, H. K. (2007). Making stories: Evaluative language and the aphasia experience. Aphasiology, 21, 763-774.

Following on from evaluative language, Suzanne Beeke (UCL) presented the results of a therapy study where PWA and their conversation partners received conversation training involving discussion on the mechanics of conversation and also questioning strategies (e.g. reducing the use of test questions, such as how’s the weather today?, where the questioner already knows the answer but which adds extra pressure on the PWA because there is very often only 1 correct answer). Across a number of conversation dyads (i.e. the PWA and their conversation partner), various outcomes were observed including an increase in the number of turns and number of topic initiations by the PWA and a reduction in the number of test questions by the conversation partner. What struck me was the anecdote given by Suzanne that conversation partners commented that they had been using test questions as a consequence of observing previous therapists employing them during assessments and throughout sessions. I think this example demonstrates the importance of SLTs making clear our rationales for doing what we are doing when we are working with PWA especially when significant others are present. This should involve explaining our reasons for doing things, to avoid a situation where people don’t assume that just because we do something within an assessment that this is a good strategy to facilitate speech and language outside of the therapeutic context.

See: Beeke, S., Maxim, J., Best, W., & Cooper, F. (2011). Redesigning therapy for agrammatism: Initial findings from the ongoing evaluation of a conversation-based intervention study. Journal of Neurolinguistics, 24, 222-236.

In the second parallel session about verbs (a personal interest/obsession of mine) I was particularly intrigued by the talk given by Lizet van Ewijk (Universiteit Utrecht, Netherlands) on an information-theoretic account of verb retrieval in aphasia (and healthy speakers). She gave a very clear account of what is obviously a very complex measure of verbs’ complexity based on measures derived from the predictiveness of realising a verb in a particular morphological form. For example, where verbs within verb families (i.e. all morphological variations of a base verb form, e.g. run, ran, running, runs) have relatively equal frequency within the language, in other words where they appear equally often, it is difficult to predict which particular form will be required within production (within the context of a single word task), and therefore this verb family is ‘complex’. In comparison, where one particular morphological form is more frequent than others, then this family is less complex because it is easier to predict which form of the verb is required. In the actual experiments reported, this measure of complexity within verb families was shown to influence response time within a lexical decision task in speakers with aphasia, as well as younger and older healthy control speakers. My feelings were that this is a very interesting aspect of verbs that should be considered further, especially in other languages (original study was using Dutch). I’m not sure about the ease of transferability to English given that morphology may be more restricted and less predictable so this is something I’d need to get my head around. I’m also not sure on the assumption that all inflected verb forms are constructed as opposed to pre-stored within the mental lexicon – I’d imagine there is a bit of both going on but it’s been a while since I’ve gone into that literature. Finally, the main issue I have, and something that I have increasingly become appreciative of during my own PhD is the difficulty and sometime artificial nature of conducting psycholinguistic experiments at the level of single words. I’m not an expert in Dutch, but I can imagine that predictability of verb form would be affected by what precedes it in sentence level contexts so it may be interesting to see whether effects of complexity and predictability can be reversed in other experimental paradigms, in other words to see whether speakers can be misled by syntactic and grammatical cues given by other words. Anyway, this is something I’ll be looking into further even though I’ll expect it to be a bit of a tough mission to get my head around.

See Lizet van Ewijk’s homepage for a (probably more accurate) description of her research

Realising the need for blog posts to be short and snappy I’ll bring my personal day 1 highlights to a close, and it’s also about time when I put some time into finishing off the final chapter in my own PhD. Day 2 highlights to follow shortly.

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About chrissp1980
Currently a lecturer in speech pathology in North Queensland, Australia. I'm lecturing in acquired disorders of speech and language and also attempting to enthuse students in conducting clinically-relevant projects using principles of Evidence-Based Practice. Wish me luck!

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