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Doctoral project: Language processing: domain general or domain specific? ERP studies of verbal and visual language processing in children with typical and atypical language processing

The purpose of the PhD project is to investigate whether language processing is specific to language or general for processing other types of sequences that contain hierarchical structure. The project will focus on children with typical development and developmental language disorder (DLD).

The results, from comparisons of electrophysiological measurements of the brain's processing of spoken language and of visually presented comic strips, are expected to be particularly important in increasing the understanding of DLD. An increased understanding of this disability, which affects as many as two children in each school class, is essential for innovative interventions.

Project information

Doctoral student
Hanna Lindfors
Annika Andersson, Linnaeus University
Assistant supervisor
Kristina Hansson, Lund University
Stiftelsen Marcus och Amalia Wallenbergs Minnesfond
August 2020 – August 2025

More about the project

Language is crucial for participation in social interactions and for academic success. Much research has been devoted to how the brain process language in its various forms, as spoken, signed, and written. Even so, it is not yet clear whether children's processing of language is specific to language (domain-specific) or similar to processing of other sequences with hierarchical structure (domain-general). The purpose of the PhD project is to investigate this.

To investigate whether 10-12-year-olds' linguistic processing is domain-specific or domain-general, we will perform neurophysiological measurements of so-called event-related potentials (ERP). Unlike behavioral measures, such as reaction time, that provide indirect measures of processing at a given point in time, the recording of ERPs can show how the brain processes stimuli continuously millisecond by millisecond. We will compare ERP effects recorded for auditory language in the form of spoken narratives with ERP effects recorded for complex visual sequences in the form of comic strips without any language. Previous research has shown that adults process comic strips in the same way as they process language. This has been explained by the resemblance between comic strips and language in that comic strips, just like language, symbolize meaning and contain sequences with hierarchical structure (as how sentences consist of clauses, which in turn consist of phrases). To date, children's processing of comic strips has not been studied.

The PhD project is expected to provide increased insight into children's language processing, with a potential to influence future language teaching. Of particular importance is the project's goal to increase the understanding of DLD, as this common disorder (prevalence of approximately 7%) affects language learning and consequently social interactions and academic progress. A confirmed hypothesis, that children with DLD have domain-general processing difficulties, could greatly affect the development of innovative and more effective interventions focused on training hierarchical structures in general.

The project is part of a reaserch project led by Annika Anderson.