Atypical Interaction Conference 2019 in Helsinki - a short report

A bit belated, but here is Claudia’s report on the Atypical Interaction Conference 2019. It was included in the British Aphasiology Society Summer newsletter 2019.

The Atypical Interaction Conference 2019 (AIC 2019) is an event for researchers interested in studying atypical interactions, for instance by using Conversation Analysis. The AIC 2019 took place in Helsinki, Finland from 17 to 19 June 2019. This year’s title of the conference was “Resources and Challenges in Participation”. Participants came from all over the world and presented on a variety of topics, including autism, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), classroom interaction, and aphasia and dementia research. Keynote speakers were Douglas W. Maynard (University of Madison-Wisconsin), talking about concrete competence to inform diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorders, Charlotta Plejert (Linköping University), presenting on dementia assessment and care in relation to minority ethnic groups, and Mike Clarke (University College London), showing fascinating examples of interactions involving children with disabilities using AAC, and discussing asymmetry, timing and competence. The abstract booklet can be found here.

Thanks to the BAS Conference Support Fund, I was able to attend this conference, where I presented a poster (“I don’t know” as a resource for turn construction in aphasia) on day 2.

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For people with a language or cognitive impairment, the difference between "know" and "think" can be the difference between understanding and not understanding a sentence.

Podcast on Language & Communcation in the Dementias

Rosemary Varley and Vitor Zimmerer were invited by lab affiliate Anna Volkmer to contribute a podcast to the NIHR-funded dementia early career researcher network. The discussion was ably chaired by Lakshini Mendi and can be found here:

New project funded by the Stroke Association

Our new Reconstructing Sentence Processing in Aphasia project started in March 2019.

This project develops and tests the effectiveness of a new sentence-level therapy for aphasia. It employs a usage-based Construction Grammar framework. We will develop a new computerized intervention for sentence difficulties in aphasia, and investigate if brain stimulation - tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) - boosts the results of the behavioural therapy.

The project is funded by the Stroke Association. The research team is multidisciplinary. The UCL team of Rosemary Varley, Jane Warren and Claudia Bruns (UCL Language & Cognition) are joined by Professor Ewa Dąbrowska (Birmingham / Erlangen-Nürnberg) and Dr Amir-Homayoun Javadi (Kent).

You can read more about this study on our Intervention Research site.

Automated Language Analysis FAQ

Recently our research received some media coverage. Tom Whipple from The Times wrote an article about language in dementia, published on December 22nd. As a result of the article, Richard Hamilton contacted me to talk about our work for a piece for BBC World Service (follow this link and jump to the ten minute mark). We appreciate the attention not only to our project, but also to research on language in dementia in general (including its clinical potential). However, some more details and a bit of framing don’t hurt, so I put together this layman-friendly FAQ to add information and also credit colleagues who contributed but were not mentioned.

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“I don’t know”: a usage-based approach to familiar collocations in non-fluent aphasia.

Our paper on familiar collocations in Broca’s aphasia is published!

Bruns, C., Varley, R., Zimmerer, V.C., Carragher, M., Brekelmans, G., & Beeke, S. (2018). “I don’t know”: a usage-based approach to familiar collocations in non-fluent aphasia. Aphasiology. DOI: 10.1080/02687038.2018.1535692

When you talk to someone with Broca’s aphasia, you will find that they predominantly produce single words when trying to get their message across. Despite this non-fluent language output, however, you may also hear short phrases such as “I went to”, “I don’t know” or “it’s alright”. These phrases are a feature of everyone’s language ‘inventory’ – we use them all the time when we converse. It is interesting that individuals with Broca’s aphasia have difficulty to produce grammatical sentences, but that such familiar phrases seem to be preserved. Familiarity of phrases is important to my PhD work, and to this paper.

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Automated analysis of language production in aphasia and right hemisphere damage: Frequency and collocation strength.

Zimmerer, V.C., Newman, L., Thomson, R., Coleman, M., & Varley, R.A. (2018). Automated analysis of language production in aphasia and right hemisphere damage: Frequency and collocation strength. Aphasiology, 32(11), 1267-1283. DOI: 10.1080/02687038.2018.1497138

People with aphasia rely on more common words, and more strongly collocated word combinations, in spontaneous language production.

In aphasia, the effects that make a word or sentence easier or harder to process become intensified. Words that take milliseconds longer for a healthy speaker may become out of reach after brain damage. Sentences that are a bit more taxing for grammatical systems may become uninterpretable.

With regards to word processing, theories have long been “usage-based”. How common a word is, when it is typically acquired in development, how abstract its meaning is, all these factors are understood to have an impact on how it is represented in the brain. In a nutshell, common words that were learned early and have concrete meanings (e.g. dog) are easier than rare words that are learned later in life and have abstract meanings (e.g. levity).

However, suggesting that the same factors also play a role at the level of word combinations is still considered crazy in some circles. The field has gotten used to describing grammar using abstract phrase structure rules that have no place for usage patterns. Our paper makes a good argument for rules not being the entire story. We focus on usage frequency as a variable and assume that combinations of words that commonly co-occur are easier to process: I don’t know is easier than I can’t row. Some people with aphasia may find it impossible to produce rarer, or entirely novel, combinations.

(full post on

Congratulations, Claudia!

Congratulations to Claudia Bruns for passing her PhD viva last Tuesday! Claudia’s dissertation is titled “A usage-based approach to language processing and intervention in aphasia”, her project was supervised by Dr Suzanne Beeke, Prof Rosemary Varley and Dr Vitor Zimmerer. She was examined by Dr Paul Conroy (University of Manchester) and Dr Carolyn Bruce (UCL) and passed with no corrections! This reflects the experience we had with Claudia, who has been an excellent student and colleague.

Below are pictures from our celebration in our weird little kitchen.

Blurry and from left to right: Dr Carolyn Bruce, Dr Paul Conroy, Dr Claudia Bruns

Blurry and from left to right: Dr Carolyn Bruce, Dr Paul Conroy, Dr Claudia Bruns

Rosemary, Vitor, Claudia and Suzanne

Rosemary, Vitor, Claudia and Suzanne

- Vitor