Siberian Federal University: In Tuvan and Russian: Siberian linguists develop speech exercises for bilinguals with aphasia

Anastasia Kolmogorova, Doctor of science (Philology), head of the Department of Romance Languages and Applied Linguistics of Siberian Federal University, headed the research on the subjective perception of Russian words and corresponding drawings among Tuvan-Russian bilinguals.

The study will help to better understand how the processes of recognition and recalling of words proceed in the brain of bilingual people who speak languages which belong to different language families. The results of the work will form the basis of speech exercises designed for bilingual patients with aphasia from the Republic of Tuva undergoing a course of speech therapy at the Federal Siberian Research Clinical Center.

The study of the peculiarities of speech and cognitive activity of patients with aphasia, a systemic speech disorder that occurs due to organic brain damage, is carried out within the framework of a joint project of the School of Philology and Language Communication, SibFU and the Department of Rehabilitation of Higher Mental Functions of the Federal Siberian Research Clinical Center (FSRCC FMBA of Russia).

“Linguists work with patients that have speech disorders and at the same time study corresponding target groups of native speakers without speech disorders. This is done to develop speech therapy programs. We help to choose words and pictures that can most effectively stimulate the impressive and expressive speech of patients, where the first is the perception and understanding of words, and the second is the ability to pronounce them, ” Anastasia Kolmogorova said.

Одна из таких целевых групп — тувинцы, владеющие тувинским и русским языками. Таких людей принято называть билингвами. Уже доказано, что у билингвов мозг содержит в среднем больше белого и серого вещества, чем у монолингвов, кроме того, у них более сильная нейронная связь между «контролирующими» и «языковыми» зонами мозга — считается, что такая особенность делает билингвов более успешными в решении когнитивных задач, связанных с переключением внимания, переходом от одних видов деятельности или моторных программ к другим.

One of such target groups is Tuvans who speak Tuvan and Russian. Such people are usually called bilinguals. It has already been proven that bilinguals’ brains contain, on average, more white and gray matter than monolinguals. In addition, they have a stronger neural connection between the “control” and “language” areas of the brain. It is believed that this feature makes bilinguals more successful in solving cognitive tasks associated with switching attention, switching from one activity or motor program to another.
SibFU scientists carried out an experiment together with 60 Tuvan-Russian bilinguals without speech pathologies. The respondents were asked to rate two types of stimuli: a list of specific words and pictures which illustrate those words. Analyzing the answers of the respondents, the researchers paid attention to the following criteria that characterize the perception of words and pictures by the participants: representability (how well a person represents an object or phenomenon named by a word), “age of assimilation” (at what age they learnt and began to use the word), as well as “the similarity of the image to the drawing” and “subjective complexity of the drawing” for the visual images of the selected words. In neurolinguistic practice, it has been established that it is these characteristics that are significant for the word to be retained in memory or disappear in the case of a specific language impairment. The results were compared with open data obtained by the research group of the Center for Language and Brain of the HSE University based on interviewing 100 neurologically healthy Russian-speaking monolinguals.

“We presented the participants of the experiment a list of Russian nouns, which included the most frequently used words, for example,“car ”,“table”,“window”. In addition, they received a list of culturally significant words for Tuvans – “horse”, “yurt”, “water”, “shaman”, etc. It turned out that Tuvan bilinguals in fact learn Russian words later than monolinguals, and this is most likely due to the fact that systematic learning of Russian begins mainly at school. The second result was unexpected for us. On average Russian words denoting what is of particular importance for Tuvan culture are assimilated by our bilingual respondents later than nouns from the first group that name utilitarian objects, and the drawings illustrating them are assessed as “less similar” and more complex to what the respondent imagines”, Anastasia Kolmogorova explained.

A detailed analysis showed which words are “leaders” and “outsiders” in the first group of the most used nouns. It turned out that monolinguals first of all learn such words as “grandmother”, “sun”, “milk”, “mitten”. For Tuvan bilinguals such words as “boots”, “needle”, “newspaper”, “slippers” have become the “leaders”. Concerning drawings, the most “well represented” among monolinguals were “clew”, “pear”, “leg”, “glove”, “banana” and “whirligig”, and among bilinguals – “clew”, “penguin”, “slippers” , “picture”, “glass” and “wardrobe”. Interestingly, the word “clew” is repeated in both lists. According to the researcher, this is due to the simple form and purpose of the object. According to the subjective statements of Tuvan bilinguals, the words “mother” and “sister” were the “earliest” out of the nouns of the second group, and the “latest” were “artysh” (the name of a herbaceous plant), “lama” and “ritual”.

“We found out that for Tuvan-Russian bilinguals the image evoked by the Russian word is subjectively much more similar to a drawing than for Russian monolinguals. The drawing depicting the word also seems simpler for bilinguals than for monolinguals. Even words that denote phenomena that are unusual for the everyday life of Tuva residents (for example, “penguin”, “kangaroo”, “octopus”, “scorpion”, “rocket”, etc.) are generally assessed by the participants of the experiment as learnt earlier than culturally significant words (“horse”, “taiga”, “hearth”, “sky”, “east”) “, Anastasia Kolmogorova said.

It is reported that the results obtained by SibFU scientists will be further used in the development of albums for neuropsychological diagnostics and conducting courses of speech therapy in Russian for Tuvan-Russian bilinguals. So far, in the neurorehabilitation centers of Krasnoyarsk Territory and the Republic of Tyva, speech therapy is conducted in Russian using the same methodological materials that are used when working with Russian monolinguals. However, it is clear that for bilinguals the verbal and visual stimuli forming the basis of the speech recovery program conducted on the second language need to be adapted. In the future the scientists plan to create similar materials in the Tuvan language for the restoration of speech of bilingual patients. According to the statistics of the FSRCC FMBA of Russia, from 2017 to 2019 the number of Tuvan-Russian bilinguals admitted with a diagnosis of aphasia to the department for the restoration of higher mental functions increased from 38 to 68 people per year. Experts believe that the increase in the number of patients with aphasia is associated with the spread of sedentary work, poor quality of life and an increase in the number of stress factors affecting a person.

We should add that information about the study was first published by the official portal of the Ministry of Education and Science of Russia.