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Language Dynamics across the Life Span - Research Objective

Efficient language comprehension is essential for successful social interactions for both young and older adults. The acquisition and maintenance of linguistic skills is, however, strongly modulated by cognitive and perceptual factors.
Moreover, linguistic skills and cognitive abilities change over the life span. The aim of this multidisciplinary project group is to explore the dynamics of language comprehension across the life span, starting with adolescents (16 - 18 years of age) and up to older adults (60 - 80 years of age).

By its very nature, cognitive aging research is fragmented across multiple disciplines (psychology, neurology, linguistics, cognitive sciences, among others), making it hard to arrive at an integrated understanding of the dynamics of language comprehension across the life span. As a result, many questions around the presumed resilience of language comprehension to aging still await interdisciplinary treatment: Are all aspects of language comprehension (phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic levels of processing) equally spared across the (adult) life span? Does broadly similar behavioral performance between age groups in comprehension tasks result from similar neuro-functional processes, or does the performance of elderly people rest on compensatory reorganization of the language comprehension system? How do the dynamics between language and other cognitive functions (executive control, working memory) develop with age? How do sensory deficits affect language comprehension? How do typical experimental tasks (e.g., button-press tasks under time pressure, tasks with high working memory load) affect, and maybe even bias, the outcome of cognitive experiments in general comparing younger and older subjects? And finally, how does age interact with other demographic variables such as gender and socio-economic background? Our research objective is to gain a more systematic and comprehensive understanding of these issues, with a special focus on differentiating the effects of age on different levels of language processing. This will be achieved through common experiments of the team members and by exchanging ideas with internationally renowned researchers within the context of an interdisciplinary workshop and a guest lecture series. Specifically, the project will examine differences concerning a) pragmatic aspects of language comprehension (e.g.,
discourse comprehension, verbal humour, Evelyn Ferstl; and speaker identity, Adriana Hanulikova), b) the comprehension of variability in meaning and grammar (Alice Blumenthal-Dramé, Adriana Hanulikova), c)  neurobiological changes affected by compensatory processes and the oscillatory dynamics underlying them (Tonio Ball, Evelyn Ferstl, Adriana Hanulikova, Alice Blumenthal-Dramé).
The experiments will build on the team members’ previous research interests, and will essentially involve adapting and combining formerly successful paradigms (including behavioral methods such as eye-tracking as well as electrophysiological methods) into a comprehensive test battery that will be tested on different age groups. For example, while there is some evidence for age-related differences in humor comprehension and appreciation, the
particular mechanisms have not been well studied (see Greengross, 2013, for review). Using verbal jokes and a variety of non-funny control texts, Hunger et al. (2009) have been able to disentangle cognitive and emotional aspects of joke comprehension. Recently, we used eye-tracking during reading to study individual differences in the processing of these texts (Ferstl et al., submitted). In the proposed experiment, the eye movement data of younger adults will be compared to that of a group of older adults (about 65-80 years). Similarly, to date, although there have been extensive sociolinguistic studies of variables related to the production and perception of dialectal varieties, relatively little research has been conducted to uncover the dynamics of meaning and morphosyntactic comprehension across language varieties and across ages. Hanulikova et al. (2012) and Hanulikova & Carreiras (2015) have shown that young listeners model speakers’ productions based on their accent, and take into account speakers’ characteristics (such as gender or accent) during online speech comprehension. The question how older adults integrate speaker identity during language processing is outstanding and will be addressed in this experiment by means of electroencephalography (EEG). EEG will also be used to contribute to another hotly debated issue: The question of whether adults’ sensitivity to statistical cues in the language input increases or decreases with age (Blumenthal-Dramé, 2016).