The role of neural rhythmic entrainment in early language learning: Victoria Leong, PhD

Wednesday, November 5, 2014 15:00to16:00
1160 av des Pins ouest, Goodman Cancer Research Centre, Room 501, 1200 Pine Avenue West, CA

Please join us for a CRBLM Invited Lecture by Victoria Leong, PhD (Cambridge University), who will present "The role of rhythmic entrainment in early language learning" on Wednesday, November 5th at 3 pm in the Goodman Cancer Centre, Room 501.

Young children spontaneously develop awareness of "big" phonological (speech sound) units like prosodic stress patterns, syllables and rhymes. By ~2 years of age, children can count the number of syllables in a word, and say whether two words rhyme. Remarkably, even 7.5-month-old infants can use prosodic rhythm (motifs of strong and weak syllables) to segment words from continuous speech. These are complex feats of speech engineering, requiring the child to de-construct the overt acoustic spectro-temporal structure of the speech signal in order to reveal the latent phonological building blocks of the English language - a nested hierarchy of prosodic stress patterns, syllables and onset-rime units. This ability to hack the acoustic signal for its structural components is particularly crucial for infants, who have to infer and build a phonological system from the ground up.

I will present a simple computational model which simulates how infants might accomplish this remarkable feat by tapping into the "Acoustic-Emergent Phonology (AEP)" within the speech signal. AEP is an emergent property of the oscillatory architecture of the speech signal that provides a blueprint for phonological structure. I further suggest that this process of acoustic-phonological extraction is mediated neurally by multi-timescale rhythmic entrainment of neuronal oscillations in the auditory cortex. I will then address the possibility that poor rhythmic entrainment by the dyslexic brain results in faulty extraction of phonology from the speech signal, producing the classic phonological deficit that characterises dyslexia. Finally, I will discuss how rhythmically-rich language devices like Motherese and nursery rhymes act to enhance neural entrainment, which could be an important mechanism for language learning as well as for the establishment of interpersonal synchrony.

Dr Victoria Leong is a Junior Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Cambridge, UK. She is a cognitive developmental neuroscientist whose interests lie in the field of language development and dyslexia. She uses EEG and computational modelling to understand how the child's brain extracts phonological structure (patterns of prosodic rhythm, syllables and onset-rime units) from the acoustic spectro-temporal structure of speech. She is also interested in how phonological development goes awry in dyslexia, and in developing ways to use natural "rhythm enrichment" in the auditory environment (e.g. poetry, music) for intervention.

Vicky received her undergraduate degree in Medical Sciences from the University of Cambridge (2001). After working as a special education teacher and in special education policy in Singapore, she returned to Cambridge for a Masters in Psychology & Education (2007), followed by a PhD in Psychology (2013). Vicky's PhD thesis was awarded the 2014 Robert J. Glushko Prize by the Cognitive Science Society, in recognition of outstanding cross-disciplinary work. Shortly after completing her PhD, Vicky was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship for early-career independent research, which she conducts at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge. Two of her most recent projects (funded by research grants from the British Academy and the UK Economic & Social Research Council) investigate "Motherese" perception in dyslexia, and methods for capturing mother-infant synchrony during dyadic interactions using "live EEG".

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