Speaking Your Mind
by James MartinThe bilingual, multicultural city of Montreal is a language researcher’s dream. The rich environment has fostered groundbreaking research—such as psychologist Wallace Lambert and researcher Elizabeth Peal’s discovery, in 1962, that bilingualism actually improves, rather than impairs, cognitive abilities. Now, building on McGill’s historic strengths in linguistic research and the neurosciences, the Centre for Research on Language, Mind and Brain (CRLMB) is drawing together researchers from across disciplines, institutions and countries to examine how language works in the brain—and how better to treat people, from babies to the elderly, when language goes awry.
“The centre is all about finding complementary strengths and approaches,” says Shari Baum, a James McGill Professor and the Director of the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders. “If someone trained in theoretical linguistics wants to understand how kids acquire semantic knowledge, for example, they can now collaborate with a colleague who knows about the brain basis of language behaviour.”
Founded in 2001, the CRLMB groups more than 40 language researchers from McGill, Concordia University, Université Laval, Université de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal, as well as international collaborators at institutions including Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, the Institut de la Communication Parlée in Grenoble and the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig.
Much CRLMB research focuses on language and speech disorders in children. McGill professor Elin Thordardottir documents normal language develop- ment and language impairment in preschoolers, school-age children and adolescents, making cross-linguistic comparisons between Quebec anglophones, francophones and bilingual children—and, in research conducted at ReykjavikurAkademian, Icelanders.
“Language impairment doesn’t manifest itself the same way in different languages,” explains Thordardottir, citing language-specific variations in developmental delays. “Here, we can look at various aspects of language development—grammatical morphology, pre-reading skills, etc.—in several languages, and that gives us a much broader understanding of the prevalence of impairment.”
McGill professor Linda Polka studies an even younger population: in collaboration with her CRLMB colleagues, she investigates how early experiences—such as exposure to different languages, noisy environments or ear infections—influence the ways infants in monolingual and bilingual families acquire receptive and expressive language skills (listening and speaking, respectively).
“Until very recently,” she explains, “most of the work with infants looked just at perceptual development, or just at vocal development. These specialized fields are ready to merge, and the centre helps us pull things together so we can start making new connections.”
Shari Baum’s research, meanwhile, strives to improve the lives of adults with speech disorders stemming from brain damage. One such project, a long-standing collaboration with a speech-language pathology professor from the University of Ottawa, explores the role of the brain’s right hemisphere in how stroke patients understand words.
When asked to “activate” the various meanings of a word with multiple denotations or senses, stroke patients with right-hemisphere damage respond differently than those with left-hemisphere damage. CRLMB researchers also make use of neuro-imaging to illuminate the machinations behind linguistic theory, and thereby improve therapies.
“The centre’s researchers have expertise that not too many people have,” Baum says. “By combining different knowledge bases, we hope to better answer fundamental questions and, ultimately, devise better, more effective therapies.”
“That’s the value of the CRLMB,” adds Polka. “It increases interaction among researchers who share mutual interests but have different perspectives. It gives rise to innovation.”
The Centre for Research on Language, Mind and Brain receives funding from the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies, the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture, McGill University and UQAM.