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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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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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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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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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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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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Artificial grammar learning in individuals with severe aphasia

Zimmerer, V.C., Cowell, P.E., & Varley, R.A. (2014). Artificial grammar learning in individuals with severe aphasia. Neuropsychologia, 53, 25-38.

"Syntactic disorder" can be defined as an impairment of sentence processing, in comprehension as well as production, in spoken language as well as written, despite relatively intact processing of individual words. It is a terrible disorder. Our communication is mostly about who did what to whom, and when. If we lose this ability the complexity of what we can say and understand suffers a lot. People with aphasia can have a complex mental life and above average intelligence, but can find themselves unable to share any of that.

This paper is based on my PhD project.

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Preservation of passive constructions in a patient with primary progressive aphasia.

Zimmerer, V.C., Dąbrowska, E., Romanowski, C.A.J., Blank, C., & Varley, R.A. (2014). Preservation of passive constructions in a patient with primary progressive aphasia. Cortex, 50, 7-18.

"WR" had primary progressive aphasia, a type of dementia which starts out as a language disorder. His grammatical profile showed a pattern that, according to many theories of grammar and aphasia, should not exist: WR was good at understanding passive sentences, such as The lion is killed by the man, but very poor at actives such as The man kills the lion, which are considered easier and more resistant to brain damage. More importantly, many theories predict that if someone has difficulties with actives, that person should find passives at least as difficult.

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Individual behavior in learning of an artificial grammar.

Zimmerer, V.C., Cowell, P.E., Varley, R.A. (2011). Individual behavior in learning of an artificial grammar. Memory & Cognition, 39(3), 491-501.

Artifical grammar learning is supposed to tap into processes so basic to human cognition that many seem to assume that they are "universal", the same for every human. As a result researchers focus too much on group averages and do not look at individual differences in performance. If you do you find out that even healthy individuals do very different things within the same experimental condition. My life would be easier if this were not the case.

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Recursion in severe aphasia.

Zimmerer, V.C., & Varley, R.A. (2010). Recursion in severe aphasia. In H. van der Hulst (Ed.): Recursion and human language. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter, 393-406.

The volume is the result from the first conference on recursion in language hosted by the fascinating Dan Everett at Illinois State University in 2006. About a hundred people got together trying to figure out what Hauser, Chomsky and Fitch were talking about in their seminal, but pretty vague Science paper.

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Intact and impaired fundamentals of syntax: Artificial grammar learning in healthy speakers and people with aphasia

Zimmerer, V. (2010). Intact and impaired fundamentals of syntax: Artificial grammar learning in healthy speakers and people with aphasia. Doctoral thesis. University of Sheffield.

My time as a PhD student had too great an impact for a short post to do it justice. I lived in England for the first time, met incredible people and my experiences with persons with aphasia (language disorder resulting from brain damage or degeneration) changed the way I think about many things in life.

Artificial grammar learning is a fascinating empirical paradigm, but it my a project a tough sell to linguists and speech and language therapists alike. Why test grammar not using words, but nonsensical blobs on a computer screen? The answer is that the human mind is driven by pattern finding, and tapping into core pattern processing mechanisms reveals something about language in healthy speakers and pathologies.

I was supervised by Rosemary Varley and Patricia Cowell, who were simply optimal.

Herrschaft durch Sprachherrschaft (Control through language)

Zimmerer, V. (2006). Herrschaft durch Sprachherrschaft? Was uns die Psycholinguistik über die „Macht der Wörter“ sagen kann. Aptum: Zeitschrift für Sprachkritik und Sprachkultur 2, 137-156.

Zimmerer, V. (2006). Herrschaft durch Sprachherrschaft? Was uns die Psycholinguistik über die „Macht der Wörter“ sagen kann. Berlin: Weißensee Verlag.

These two publications are based on my Masters dissertation. Actually, the monograph is my dissertation with some edits. The project was supervised at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf by Martin Wengeler and Martina Penke.

I did my Masters degree in German linguistics (which for the most part mixed philosophy and sociolinguistics), with psycholinguistics and German literature as minors. Since I became increasingly interested in psycholinguistics, but did not want to change my major, I had to figure out a way to do psycholinguistics in the wrong department.

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