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Department of Human Communication Sciences 
Research Seminar Programme – Semester 1, 2019-20

Seminar in Health Communication Sciences

Seminar: Why our brains crave languages

Date: Please note this seminar has been postponed - planned to be rescheduled for Spring 2020 (TBC)

Speaker: Dr Thomas H Bak, University of Edinburgh 

Venue: TBC

Time: TBC

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Abstract: Language learning has been traditionally approached mainly from the perspective of applied linguistics or pedagogy. However, recent studies suggesting that knowledge and regular use of more than one language could slow down cognitive ageing, delay the onset of dementia and improve the cognitive outcome after stroke, open an entirely new perspective, linking multilingualism and language learning to evolutionary psychology, cognitive neuroscience, public health and wellbeing. 

Why should language learning have a positive effect on mind and brain? In my talk I will argue that multilingualism is the natural state of human mind and brain and that learning and speaking different language is one of the most natural and most effective ways of cognitive training. I will argue against the idea of a strict “critical period” and in favour of the concept of a “healthy linguistic diet”, a lifetime exposure and use of different languages with different levels of proficiency. 

Short Bio: Born and raised in Cracow, Poland, Dr Thomas H Bak studied medicine in Germany and Switzerland, obtaining his doctorate with a thesis on acute aphasias (language disorders caused by brain diseases) in Freiburg, Germany. He worked clinically in psychiatry, neurology and neurosurgery in Bern, Berlin, Cambridge and Edinburgh, with a particular interest in the relationship between language, cognitive and motor functions. 2010-2018 he was president of the World Federation of Neurology Research Group on Aphasia, Dementia and Cognitive Disorders (WFN RG ADCD). 

In recent years, Dr Bak’s work focused on the impact of language learning and multilingualism on cognitive functions across the lifespan and in brain diseases such as dementia and stroke. His studies include a wide range of populations, from students to elderly, from early childhood bilinguals to second languages learners, from Scotland, through India to Singapore.

The research seminar is a recent addition to the HCS programme and is being organised with the School of Education. The seminar is followed by a discussion led by Dr Ozge Ozturk, School of Human Communication Sciences, University of Sheffield and Dr Juliette Taylor-Batty, Leeds Trinity University.

Past events

Seminar: Developing an evidence-based template and guidelines for producing accessible health information for people with aphasia: methods, findings and implications for practice. 

Date: Thursday 10th October 2019

Speaker: Dr Caroline Haw, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and University of Sheffield

Venue: Elmfield Lecture Theatre 1 

Time: 1.00pm - 2.00pm

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People with aphasia require information about their health. Guidelines and policies highlight the importance of providing accessible information to this population to support their health literacy (Intercollegiate Stroke Working Party, 2016; NHS England, 2015). Studies suggest, however, that people with aphasia continue to feel under-informed after stroke (Hinckley et al., 2013).  Furthermore, healthcare workers report difficulties producing accessible information, and a need for coherent guidelines.

This study aimed to develop a template for presenting information to people with aphasia and to develop guidelines to support the production of accessible information. Firstly, we reviewed the literature and extracted principles for the design of a prototype template, which we developed with graphic designers.  Fourteen people with a range of aphasia severities collaborated in an iterative design process to finalise the template (Sears & Lund, 1997). Participants attended two facilitated focus groups to give their views, after each of which the template was modified according to feedback, and the criteria for the template agreed.

The group discussions were recorded, transcribed, and analysed using Framework analysis (Richie & Spencer, 1994). To develop guidelines, the research team then translated the template criteria into a series of practical steps, accompanied by worked examples, and presented in an accessible format to model best practice.   Speech and language therapists and voluntary sector staff then tested the draft guideline, using it to make some information for people with aphasia. They then completed an online survey, providing feedback and qualitative data. The draft guideline was modified according to participants’ feedback and the data analysed using Framework Analysis. The literature reviews and iterative design process resulted in the development of the template.

The focus group findings informed the final version of the template, including relevant topics, use of language to maximise comprehension of text, optimum number of concepts per page, facilitative features of typography, use of images, and layout of information.  The development and user-testing process resulted in the final guideline (Herbert et al., 2012), published by the Stroke Association. I will share the results of the qualitative data, providing an understanding of the issues from the perspectives of people with aphasia and of people using the guideline. I will show additional outputs from the study, including information materials published by the Stroke Association, and examples to demonstrate the impact of the guidelines on practice.  

The evidence from this study indicates that designing information materials for people with aphasia requires attention to visual, cognitive, and language processing demands, and consideration of the personal experience of aphasia.  Health professionals and others welcome the provision of clear, practical, evidence-based guidelines for producing accessible information for people with aphasia. There are implications for clinical practice, for example to support health professionals to adhere to national standards and guidelines when providing written information, and to support health literacy in people with aphasia (Nutbeam, 2000). These will not, however, ensure that all people understand all information. Given the varied nature of aphasia, translation of these research findings into practice will require further training for healthcare staff and others who provide information to people with aphasia. Further research will be needed to evaluate the impact of the template and guidelines on the outcomes of people with aphasia. 

For further information please contact Catherine Dutton, tel: 0114 2222444, or e-mail:

Seminar: How communication disorders create problems in conversation.

Date: Thursday 7th November 2019

Speaker: Professor Ray Wilkinson, University of Sheffield 

Venue: Medical School Lecture Theatre 3

Time: 1.00pm - 2.00pm

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Traditionally, approaches to the analysis of communication disorders have been primarily medical, neurological or psychological in nature. The findings these approaches produce are based largely on testing within institutional contexts (such as hospitals or schools) and are typically quantitative in nature. Over the last two decades, however, the primarily qualitative approach of conversation analysis (CA), with its focus on talk and other aspects of conduct in naturally occurring conversation and other forms of social interaction, has provided a markedly different method for investigating communication disorders.  

Here I draw together this work to discuss what makes these interactions ‘atypical’, i.e. how the talk of the person with the communication disorder may be seen to not adhere to the normative conventions that ‘typical’ communicators follow, and also how in this situation interactional participants may recurrently treat this as a particular form of problem. Using these findings I present a framework for comparing how a range of types of communication disorders, including aphasia, dysarthria, stammering and dementia, lead to problems in conversation for the participants. More generally, I highlight some of the analytic consequences of using a CA approach compared to more traditional approaches within this area, specifically: (1) the shift from elicited test data (and the theoretical perspectives underpinning the testing) to conversation data; (2) the shift in analytical focus from that of the test/tester to the participants’ own interactional conduct and orientations; and (3) the shift from the test/tester’s notion of error, omission or inappropriacy to the participants’ treatment of some aspect of the interaction as a ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’. 

For further information please contact Catherine Dutton, tel: 0114 2222444, or e-mail:

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