Seminar: Language Comprehension and Aging
Winter 2014 / 2015



Course Information

Course taught by Dr. Vera Demberg
Participants: course is open to BSc and MSc students in Computational Linguistics and Psychology.
Room: Seminar Room C7.2
Slots: Thursday, 10-12; first meeting: 30th Oct 2014
Contact: vera at
If you want to participate in the course, you need to subscribe to our course mailing list.


In this course, we want to review and discuss relevant literature for a currently ongoing research project within our new SFB. The goal of the project is to design the natural language generation component for a spoken dialog system which can adapt to the user (young versus older adults) and the situation (using the system while being able to fully concentrate on it versus using it while driving a car at the same time). We here want to focus on the aging aspect.

Aging affects the brain's cognitive functioning, and therefore also affects older human's ability to process language. From the perspective of dialog system design, it is important to understand which aspects of language processing are affected to what extent. From a perspective of psycholinguistics, a better understanding of the effects of aging on language comprehension can inform us regarding general language cognition, and from the perspective of psychology, the effect of aging on language comprehension is particularly interesting as language is one of the very high-level cognitive functions, which nevertheless remain relatively well-preserved during aging.

The course is open to students with background in linguistics as well as students with background in psychology. The intention is for students to profit from the diversity of backgrounds and knowledge, through active discussion following the paper presentations.

Format / Requirements

We will form groups of 2-3 students, ideally mixing students with background in linguistics and students who have a background in psychology. Each of the small groups will pick a topic or question, that they will try to answer by doing a literature search and giving a presentation (20-25 min each presenter) to the rest of the group. The groups can decide themselves on the focus of the presentation, based on the original research question and their interests. Each group will choose one or two papers that the rest of the course can read to prepare for their presentation. During the first few weeks we will hold regular meetings in the form of lectures, to lay the foundations that will help you understand the papers, and bring students with different backgrounds up to a common level of understanding.
MSc students can choose between a 4CP and 7CP version of the course. For the 7CP version, students additionally need to write a term paper. BSc students have to write the term paper.

Link to the peer review form, which you should fill in after each student presentation:
peer review form. (More information on intent and purpose of the peer review form will be given during the introductory meeting.)

Preliminary Schedule

Date Topic Speaker
30.10. Introduction to the Course, Administrative Information, Distribution of Topics
Covering the problem we want to tackle: Safe driving with smartphones in an aging population.
Vera Demberg
6.11. For Psychology students: Introduction to (Psycho-)linguistics
Covering and overview of basic notions in linguistics, linguistic structure, ambiguity, garden path sentences, center embedding, surprisal
Vera Demberg
13.11. Multi-tasking in the brain: how much parallel processing is possible? Serial bottlenecks. Vera Demberg
20.11. no meeting, but help with literature search and feedback on slides for presentation available on appointment
27.11. Measuring Processing Difficulty: Naming latencies, reaction times, ERPs, fMRI, eye-tracking in reading, self-paced reading students
4.12. Effect of aging on the brain -- which general skills and regions of the brain are affected? In how far are language regions affected? How can good performance levels in language comprehension be maintained? Melanie Schmitt, Lukas Schmitt, Elodie Banse
11.12. Effect of sensory impairment on language processing (problems with eye sight or hearing) Aline Becker, Anke Hirsch, Manisha Gandhi
18.12. Working Memory: What's the effect of aging on working memory? How is working memory used during language processing? Fabio Lu, Julia Dembowski, Sarah Schnebelt
8.1. Long term memory: Naming latencies in younger vs. older people; Is retrieval generally slower in older adults, or is it just an effect of vocabulary size? Lisa Jaguschewski, Max Paulus, Simon Ostermann
15.1. at 16:15 The Myth of Cognitive Decline: Non-Linear Dynamics of Lifelong Learning. Michael Ramscar (Prof. in Tuebingen) at 16:15!!!
22.1. no meeting, but help with literature search and feedback on slides for presentation available on appointment
29.1. Multi-tasking and Aging: how is multi-tasking performance affected by aging? (suggested focus: driving and language processing) Dave Howcroft, Marina Oberwegner, Enny Agamez Pajaro
5.2. Language processing at different linguistic levels in younger vs.~older adults. Synatx, semantics, textual comprehension. Betul Aksu, Katja Kravtchenko, Jorrig Vogels
12.2. language processing and differnt linguistic levels; multilinguality and aging; wrap-up Charlotte Fuerstenberger; Alina Karakanta; Vera Demberg