Skip to main content

Written language processing in Hearing and Deaf

Final Report Summary - WORHD (Written language processing in Hearing and Deaf)

Project context and objectives

This research project is dedicated to understanding the processing of written language in hearing and deaf participants.

The objectives of the project were twofold:

- to shed light on the neuronal basis of written language processing in adults with auditory deprivation, exploring how such a condition affects the cortical network involved in written language processing and its temporal activation;
- to support the reintegration of the fellow in her home country, which is the purpose of the ERG funding scheme.

Work performed

Dr Barca has worked to establish a new network of collaboration within leading institutes in her home country of Italy. The transition to independent research activity has been achieved by creating (at the host institution, ISTC-CNR) a research group that investigates the neuronal basis of behaviour and cognition with the aid of brain-imaging techniques. This is particularly relevant since in Italy there are few research groups focusing on the study of Italian language with brain-imaging techniques. The implementation of the project integrated traditional cognitive experimental paradigms with pioneering functional neuroimaging techniques: the co-registration of electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional neuroimaging data (fMRI) signals.

A visual lexical decision task comparing responses to real words and consonant strings was performed by three groups of adult readers:

- hearing participants who have no knowledge of sign language;
- deaf signers with Italian sign language as a primary communication mode;
- oral deafs, who use spoken language and lip reading for communication, and who have a poor knowledge of the sign-based language.

The typical lexicality effect was restricted to the response time of deaf signers, who responded faster to words than consonant strings. Deafness, therefore, does not necessarily cause individuals to fail in efficient processing of visually presented words. Given the transparency of Italian orthography, deaf readers might have an edge with respect to deaf readers of different orthographies as they can rely more efficiently on visual-orthographic word recognition in performing such a task. The results are discussed within classical models of visual word recognition, taking into account the effects of early training intervention on deaf participants' written language processes, which might be interpreted as evidence of a tight perceptual motor loop, where language and actions are closely related. Preliminary results from the neuroimaging study sustain this reasoning.

The impact of Dr Barca's work is especially relevant within the field of Psycholinguistics and beyond, covering an area of research so far neglected in her home country and opening new lines of experimentation. The project makes advancements in the field of Cognitive Psychology and Neuropsychology by expanding the knowledge on how the human brain processes visual linguistic information after auditory deprivation. The project's findings broaden the issue of the impact of auditory deprivation on the development of higher level cognitive functions, providing implications for didactic skills.

As for the second goal, the implementation of the project has been beneficial to the career of the fellow, as the host institution has employed Dr Barca as a researcher. This has been achieved by increasing the collaboration with scientists in Italy, which in turn helped to strengthen Dr Barca's curriculum vitae and publications record. The project allowed Dr Barca to carry on an active long-lasting network of collaboration between leading institutions in Cognitive Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, namely the ISTC-CNR of Rome (Italy) and the University of York (United Kingdom), and to start a new collaboration with the Neuropsychology of Language and Deafness Unit (NLS) of the ISTC-CNR and the Bambino Gesù Paediatric Hospital, both in Rome.

Dr Barca took part in several examinations for research positions in Italian universities and research institutes. In January 2010 she became eligible for a research position at the ISTC-CNR of Rome. She has also been assigned a one-year teaching course on Developmental and Educational Psychology (2010-2011) at the LUMSA University of Rome, and the title of 'Cultore della Materia' (i.e. teaching expert) on Cognitive Psychology (2011-2012) at the same university.

All these activities testify to the successful reintegration of Dr Barca in her home country.

Starting a fruitful collaboration with Dr Giovanni Pezzulo, a researcher at CNR, she received several contracts supporting reintegration and fostering her career (a post-doctoral research contract for six months, then a one-year fixed-term research position).

Finally, in April 2012 she signed a contract for a permanent position as a researcher at the ISTC-CNR after a successful examination.

Dr Barca's ERG fellowship has thus been successful in fostering her research career.