Big Question 4

Variability in language processing and in language learning:

Why does the ability to learn language change with age? How can we characterise and map individual language skills in relation to the population distribution?

We aim to characterize variation in language processing and learning skills and to determine how these variations relate to variations in the underlying biology of individual participants. The project has two strands: Strand A focuses on language processing skills in young adults, and Strand B on language learning skills in children and adults. Strand A will develop a comprehensive battery of language tasks targeting sound, meaning, and grammatical processing of words and longer utterances during speaking and listening. In addition, we will select or develop tasks assessing general cognitive skills that are likely to affect performance in language tasks. After extensive piloting, a demographically representative group of 1000 young adults will be tested on the battery. DNA will be obtained from all participants and used for genome-wide genotyping. About a third of the sample will also participate in neuroimaging studies in order to map the variation in neurobiology across the population. Advanced statistical modelling will be used to derive underlying core dimensions of linguistic ability, to situate each participant in a multidimensional skill space that maps population variation, and determine the manner in which these skills map onto structure and function of underlying brain circuitry. Integrating our new sample with Nijmegen’s existing Brain Imaging Genetics cohorts, we will carry out focused investigations of genes and biological pathways that have been previously implicated in language ability, test how polygenic scores relate to performance on the task battery, and perform mediation analyses to bridge genes, brains and cognition.  

Strand B uses variability in learning ability to investigate why second-language (L2) acquisition can become harder in adulthood. Do age-related differences in L2 learning reflect maturational changes in neural plasticity and in the schema-based mnemonic processes used for learning and consolidating linguistic knowledge and skills? We will examine age-related changes in the relative contributions of the medial temporal lobe and the medial prefrontal cortex and in the interactions between these pathways and the perisylvian language network. 360 children aged 8-17 and 360 adults from the Strand A sample will complete batteries of behavioural and neuroscientific tests on L2 learning. Analyses will seek to uncover associations between language-learning abilities and maturational changes in the brain and to characterize individual variability in these associations.

People involved

Steering group

Prof. dr. Antje Meyer
PI / Coordinator BQ4A
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Florian HINTZ | PostDoc Position | PhD | Max Planck Institute for  Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen | MPI | Department of Psychology of Language

Dr. Florian Hintz
Coordinating Postdoc BQ4
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Vijf Radboud-hoogleraren benoemd als lid van Academia Europaea - Radboud  Universiteit

Prof. dr. James McQueen
PI / Coordinator BQ4B
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Team members

Prof. dr. Christian Beckmann
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Prof. dr. Barbara Franke
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Talking Headlines: Simon Fisher |

Prof. dr. Simon Fisher
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Dr. Gabriele Janzen
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Prof. dr. Jean Vroomen
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Dr. Atsuko Takashima
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Nina Wyman
Research Assistant

Jiska Koemans
Research Assistant

Dr. Clyde Francks
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Prof. dr. Guillén Fernández
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Prof. dr. Peter Hagoort
Programme Director
PI / Coordinator BQ2
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Loop | Annet H. De Lange

Prof. dr. Roy Kessels
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Dr. Clara Ekerdt

Dr. Willeke Menks
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Romy Verhoeven
Research Assistant

Merel Koning
Research Assistant

PhD Candidates

Christina ISAKOGLOU | PhD Candidate | PhD Candidate in Clinical  Neuroscience | Radboud University, Nijmegen | RU | Donders Institute for  Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour

Christina Isakoglou
PhD Candidate
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Dr. Esther Janse
Dr. Kristin Lemhöfer
Dr. Beate St Pourcain
Dr. Julia Udden
Dr. Evan Kidd
Dr. Andre Marquand
Prof. dr. Jan Buitelaar


Merel Burgering – PhD
Marjolijn Dijkhuis – Research Assistant
Katharina Gruber – Research Assistant
Carlo Rooth – Research Assistant
Jelle de Boer – Research Assistant
Bob Kapteijns – Research Assistant
Vera van ‘t Hoff – Research Assistant
Milou Huijsmans – Research Assistant
Jana Thorin – PhD
Shruti Ullas – PhD
Dr. Xin Liu – Postdoc
Lot Snijders Blok – PhD
Dr. Olha Shkaravska – Developer
Suzanne Jongman – Postdoc

Research Highlights (2021)

Highlight 1

Literacy enhances spoken word comprehension and word production

Team members: Florian Hintz

The project used data from the publicly available ‘Megapilot’ dataset (Hintz et al., 2020, Scientific Data) to investigate whether and, if so, how varying levels of literacy influence spoken word comprehension and production. The project also addressed the relationship between language comprehension and production tasks, which recent theories regard as facets of a unitary skill.

Extensive exposure to written text has vast consequences for one’s ability to use language. Recent research showed that the positive effects of enhanced literacy extended to spoken language comprehension. Some theories of language processing assume that comprehension and production are facets of a unitary skill. On such an account, the effects of literacy should transfer and also enhance language production skills. We tested this hypothesis by re-analysing a large publicly available dataset suitable for studying individual differences in language and general cognitive skills. Literacy explained substantial portions of variance in spoken-word comprehension (measured through a speeded semantic categorization task) and in word production (measured through a speeded picture naming task), even after accounting for non-verbal processing speed and IQ (see Figure 1). Experience with written text can thus enhance language use in the spoken domain, including word comprehension and word production. Our data are in line with the notion that word comprehension and word production draw on shared linguistic knowledge and access processes.

Figure 1. Correlations between word-level processing skills (comprehension and production) and literacy (and the control variables non-verbal IQ and processing speed).

The dataset provided in this project offers the possibility to quantify the degree to which participants align their behaviour at different levels of analysis (phonetic, lexical, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic or gestural). It iThe project would not have been possible without the ‘cumulative science’ approach, that is, exploiting previously acquired and published data for addressing a new research question. We hope that next to the new scientific insights, this project will inspire others to also make use of the ‘Megapilot’ data resource.