Automated Language Analysis Post Christmas FAQ Special

Recently our research received some media coverage. Tom Whipple from The Times wrote an article about language in dementia, published on December 22nd. As a result of the article, Richard Hamilton contacted me to talk about our work for a piece for BBC World Service (follow this link and jump to the ten minute mark). We appreciate the attention not only to our project, but also to research on language in dementia in general (including its clinical potential). However, some more details and a bit of framing don’t hurt, so I put together this layman-friendly FAQ to add information and also credit colleagues who contributed but were not mentioned.

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Automated analysis of language production in aphasia and right hemisphere damage: Frequency and collocation strength.

Zimmerer, V.C., Newman, L., Thomson, R., Coleman, M., & Varley, R.A. (2018). Automated analysis of language production in aphasia and right hemisphere damage: Frequency and collocation strength. Aphasiology, 32(11), 1267-1283. DOI: 10.1080/02687038.2018.1497138

People with aphasia rely on more common words, and more strongly collocated word combinations, in spontaneous language production.

In aphasia, the effects that make a word or sentence easier or harder to process become intensified. Words that take milliseconds longer for a healthy speaker may become out of reach after brain damage. Sentences that are a bit more taxing for grammatical systems may become uninterpretable.

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Trump's cognitive testing in context.

Descriptions of Donald Trump's mental capacities range from "stable genius" (his words, as everyone knows by now) to some kind of mad dementia. It takes intelligence to become a successful businessman and to win the presidency as a relative outsider, say some; just listen to what he says, say others: his lack of knowledge about policy and policy making, his way of putting words together that sometimes challenges the label "stream of thought". The great linguist George Lakoff described Trump's way of speaking as very New York, very common folksy, and therefore politically smart; the great linguist Georger Pullum simply called it "Trump's aphasia". After looking at one excerpt of a campaign speech, Pullum ranted that "this nasty, racist, golden-quiffed, self-publicizing nutcase has barely a coherent thought in his head" and suggested that there was no sentence structure to analyze (I think the majority of linguists will disagree with the latter). Since Michael Wolff's claim that every single person who works with Trump doubts his capacity to carry out his job, questions about Trump's mental health finally became front page material.

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Artificial grammar learning in Williams syndrome and in typical development: The role of rules, familiarity, and prosodic cues.

Stojanovik, V., Zimmerer, V., Setter, J., Hudson, K., Poyraz-Bilgin, I., & Saddy, D. (2017). Artificial grammar learning in Williams syndrome and in typical development: The role of rules, familiarity, and prosodic cues. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1-27.

I heard about Williams syndrome (WS) for the first time when I was a linguistics student in Düsseldorf. The genetic disorder was interesting for one perceived dissociation: People with WS, so the view, had typical language capacities, but impairments of general cognitive abilities, demonstrating that the language system was independent, modular in the sense of (early) Chomsky and Jerry Fodor. Today we know this to be wrong. The language in WS may appear typical at a quick glance, but there are production as well as comprehension deficits, especially at a grammatical level. This study, led by Vesna Stojanovik at the University of Reading, aimed to understand what underlies the language profile in WS.

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"UCL Cognition and Grammar Lab"

In the past months I put together a website for our lab, now called "UCL Cognition and Grammar Lab". Our group has been active since late 2013, but finally decided to build up a stronger presence, especially in light of projects which we expect to involve more public engagement. The lab focuses on language in a range of pathologies (especially stroke and neurodegenerative diseases) and how it relates to other aspects of cognition.

The address is

I again went with Squarespace since I am quite happy with it and it was easy to show other members how to upload content.

Deictic and propositional meaning – new perspectives on language in schizophrenia.

Zimmerer, V.C., Watson, S., Turkington, D., Ferrier, I.N., & Hinzen, W. (2017). Deictic and propositional meaning – new perspectives on language in schizophrenia. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 8, 1-5.

While schizophrenia is generally considered a thought disorder, its symptoms are to a large degree observable through language. We learn via language about a person's thought disorder and delusions, and most hallucinations in schizophrenia concern hearing voices. Negative symptoms (for example lethargy, aphathy) as well go with changes in communication.

One question that may turn out to be important for understanding schizophrenia, and possibly clinical practice, is whether people with schizophrenia only differ in what they say (for example, if they claim that the Queen is their aunt), but whether they also differ in how they say it.

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"He is looking at Muslim pictures on his phone."

I spent a wonderful week at the Science of Aphasia conference on Lido di Venezia. I was looking forward to write a post about a number of great presentations and inspiring ideas, and about spending lunch breaks swimming in the Adriatic Sea. I would be writing this post now if, on the way back to London, I hadn't joined a sad little club.

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Language formulas - for your convenience.

Let's say you know about 30,000 words in your language, which, according to some studies, makes you slightly above average. Some of these entries are everyday words, such as "you", "door", or "go". Others are more rare, like "aghast" and "triptychon". Some of these words are easy to access, usually those that we use often and have a more concrete ("dog") than abstract ("democracy") meaning. There is also an effect of "age of acquisition" in that words that we learned earlier in life seem cognitively more anchored. It is difficult to tell this effect apart from frequency of use, since children tend to learn everyday words first.

If your language system works like the majority of language models suggest, it is based on "words and rules". All words, or at least their roots, are stored in a mental lexicon, and when you utter a sentence your system retrieves each needed word and applies combinatorial ("grammatical") principles to generate the utterance. This needs to happen within fractions of a second. Our system must work like this at least to some degree since we can use our word and combinatorial knowledge to generate a virtually infinite number of sentences.

But how often do we need this procedure?

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Formulaic language in people with probable Alzheimer's disease: a frequency-based approach.

Zimmerer, V.C., Wibrow, M., & Varley, R.A. (2016). Formulaic language in people with probable Alzheimer's Disease: a frequency-based approach. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 53, 1145-1160.

The claim that "language is a window into the mind" has been made in so many contexts. We all use language to show what's in our minds. Steven Pinker and others argue that language shows how the human mind is structured. I focus much on the clinical side: We look at language to see if the mind of an individual is working as it should. Brain lesions, psychosis, intellectual disabilities, dementia - all are likely to have an effect on how we produce and understand language.

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This is the wrong Brexit.

When I started working in the UK, I handed HR my German ID card for photocopying. That was it, the toe-high hurdle between me and employment in another EU country. I now live in London with my wife and my 9-month-old son. England is not perfect. Germans like to complain, mostly about bread and windows (and they are right). Still, the UK allows us a good life. Immigration was that easy because I ticked the "EU citizen" box when I provided my information. For those who cannot do so truthfully there are UK immigration procedures. Stories from academics about sudden deportation from the UK have become its own sad literary genre.

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Der Mann war etwa Ende vierzig. Er hatte kurzes, graues Haar und ein helles, großnasiges Gesicht mit dünnen, tiefen Falten. Er stand vor mir in der Schlange in einem kleinen Supermarkt gegenüber vom Bahnhof St Pancras in London. Er trug eine orangene Sicherheitsweste, auf die er hinten mit schwarzem Edding geschrieben hatte. „UKIP“, stand dort, und darunter: „Save our country“.

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Grammatical impairment, historical accidents and silver bullets.

In 1973, the neurologist Eric Lenneberg made two statements about the nature of language: 1) The rule systems described by Noam Chomsky cannot possibly reflect neurological reality. At best, they serve as metaphors for what the biological language system may do. 2) What is called "Broca's aphasia", the language impairment which results from damage to the frontal lobe of the brain and is characterised by very impoverished and non-fluent speech output, is not a disorder of language per se, but of speaking. It seemed obvious that people with Broca's aphasia could understand language, so Lenneberg believed in the consensus at that time that people with Broca's aphasia found it so difficult to produce speech sounds that they would limit their expressions to the bare minimum.

Lenneberg died two years later, too early to see both statements refuted in the mainstream.

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The language profile of behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia.

Hardy, C.J., Buckley, A.H., Downey, L.E., Lehmann, M., Zimmerer, V.C., Varley, R.A., Crutch, S.J., Rohrer, J.D., Warrington, E.K., & Warren, J.D. (2015). The language profile of behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, 50(2).

Dementia is still a new area for me. I approach it from a language perspective. While dementias, such as Alzheimer's or, in this case, behavioral variant frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD) are not primarily language impairments, they can be associated with particular language profiles. I am certain that with further research these profiles will end up looking unique to the respective pathology. Investigating language in dementias is not just a way to learn more about the pathologies or about how language is anchored in the brain. Linguistic behaviour, in particular naming, memorization and fluency, are substantial in diagnosis.

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Chester, Liverpool and Wales.

"Mom, I have a new website."

"I know. It's green and has too few pictures."

I added a bunch of pictures from a trip to Chester (where my wife and I visited our lovely friends and colleagues Blanca Schaefer and Frank Herrmann), Liverpool and Wales this summer. Wales was exactly what we needed at that time. Peaceful, beautiful and almost boring. I say this with enthusiasm and a strong recommendation.

When passives are easier than actives.

I met WR when I helped set up a recording session in a clinic in Sheffield. I was a PhD student at that time. WR had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, which is a type of dementia that first manifests as a language impairment. WR was a friendly, gentle person who looked young for being 62. His language production was poor. When he spoke, he had the tendency to connect words with "is a" in an ungrammatical manner ("Mary is a holiday is a Turkey"). He preferred using pen and paper, and while his written language was also poor, communication was better through it. There was no sign that WR had problems beyond language. His non-verbal IQ was above average and as far as I can tell he was leading a very active life. At the time we carried out our research, WR's brain showed relatively small signs of degeneration. When Rosemary Varley and I discussed MRI scans with a radiologist at Royal Hallamshire Hospital, he said that if WR had come in with different problems, such as chronic migraine, it may have gone undetected at first glance. But it was there. Scans showed grey matter reduction in frontotemporal areas both left and right.

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A case of “order insensitivity”? Natural and artificial language processing in a man with primary progressive aphasia.

Zimmerer, V.C., & Varley, R.A. (2015). A case of "order insensivity"? Natural and artificial language processing in a man with primary progressive aphasia. Cortex, 69, 212-219.

This is the second (and certainly final) paper reporting data from WR, a man with primary progressive aphasia who showed a very atypical sentence comprehension profile. This paper unites one strand of my research, artificial grammar learning (a paradigm that looks at processing of sequences), with more classic clinical work (showing patients pictures and sentences).

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Language and Mental Health

The project website is not ready at the time I publish this, so I would like to talk a bit about the big project for which Rosemary Varley and I at UCL are currently recruiting aphasic and non-aphasic participants in the London area.

Broadly, there are two questions that drive all research on language: first, how does this complex and powerful apparatus work, and second, how does it interact with, or form the basis of, human thought? These questions are inherently related. Whether we are investigating how children learn language or how language changes in dementia, whether we are looking at language in the brain or trying to get computers to make use of it, whether we are interested in how a language changes over time or search for properties of language that never change, all work makes assumptions about the relationship between our ability to use language and our ability to think.

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Chandler House and Bloomsbury.

I added to the photos page some pictures of Bloomsbury.

My office at UCL is in Chandler House, which houses departments that mostly focus on language: Linguistics; Language and Communication (where I work); Speech, Hearing and Phonetics Sciences; and Developmental Science, with whom we will soon be merged. The merge is very promising in so far that it will encourage communication (and collaboration) between research groups. Chandler House is a fascinating place with some great research, but sometimes it is easy to get encapsuled within the bubble of your little department.

Chandler House is in Bloomsbury, one of central London's few wonderful pockets of quiet. I work just south of the impressive St Pancras International Station, in which you can board the Eurostar towards Paris and Brussels, and King's Cross Station, in which you can board some kind of wizard train to Hogwarts. The British Museum is just a short stroll from Chandler House.