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Language Science Talks

Language Science Talks is a series of talks by prominent language sciences researchers from around the world. 

If you would like to speak at one of our upcoming events, or have suggestions for talk topics, please email

An image of Robinson Crusoe Island, where approximately 60% of children were affected by language disorder.

Title and speakers
Date and time

Co-hosted with the Social Exposome Research Cluster

‘Talking Genetics with Robinson Crusoe’ with introduction by President Santa Ono


UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Health Organization include communication in their core life skills. Deficits in communication disrupt social, emotional and educational development and increase the risk of behavioural disorders, unemployment and mental health issues. Yet, research in this area is under-represented and we still have little understanding as to the causes of communication disorders and their relationships to other developmental delays and behavioural problems. It is likely that genetic factors contribute to communication disorders but we expect there to be many contributory genetic variants, each with only a small risk. Some people inherit certain combinations of these risk variations that, when accompanied by particular environmental factors, make them sensitive to language impairment.

My presentation today will focus upon our study of a unique Chilean population who inhabit the Robison Crusoe Island. This Island community was colonised in 1876 by 64 individuals from whom the majority of the current population (633 people) are descended. In 2008, researchers from the University of Chile noted that approximately 60% of children living on this island were affected by language disorder. They further described how the majority of language impaired individuals were descended from two brothers who formed part of the original colonising party. We have been working with researchers from Chile and with the Islanders to form a study of the genetic origins of the Islanders and to discover genetic variants that might explain the unusually high incidence of language impairment in this population. Our investigations have led to the identification of rare variants in the NFXL1 gene, which encodes a transcription factor that is highly expressed in the cerebellum. In my talk, I will give an overview of the population and the findings of our genetic research. I will discuss how genomic studies can help to better understand the molecular mechanisms of speech and language and, ultimately, may direct the targeting of interventions for affected individuals.

Speaker bio: Dr Dianne Newbury is a molecular geneticist who studies genetic contributions to childhood neurodevelopmental disorders. Her investigations specifically focus around speech and language impairment and its relationship to disorders such as dyslexia. Dianne has a lab at Oxford Brookes University. Her work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy.

If you require an accessibility-related measure (e.g.: captioning, or any other accessibility-related measure), please contact Ella Fund-Reznicek
at or 604 822 7435.

Dr Dianne Newbury, Oxford Brookes University Department of Health and Life Sciences

Introduction by UBC President Santa Ono

February 22nd 2021, 9am - 11am (PST)


Title TBC



If you require an accessibility-related measure (e.g.: captioning, or any other accessibility-related measure), please contact Ella Fund-Reznicek
at or 604 822 7435.

Professor Mona Diab, George Washington University Department of Computer Science

Introduction by UBC Department of Linguistics and School of Information Muhammad Abdul-Mageed

February 24th 2021, 1pm - 3pm (PST)


Cognitive consequences of acoustic challenge during spoken communication



If you require an accessibility-related measure (e.g.: sign language interpretation, captioning, or any other accessibility-related measure), please contact Ella Fund-Reznicek at or 604 822 7435.

Associate Professor Jonathan Peelle, Washington University in Saint Louis Department of Otolaryngology

Introduction by UBC Department of Linguistics Associate Professor Molly Babel

March 12th 2021, 12pm - 2pm


Co-hosted by the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health Research

Toward a speech neuroprosthetic​


Speaking is a unique and defining human behavior.  Over the past decade, we have focused on deciphering the basic neural code that underlies our ability to speak fluently.

During speech production, vocal tract movement gestures for all speech sounds are encoded by highly specialized neural activity, organized as a map, in the human speech motor cortex.   A major effort is now underway to translate these findings towards building a articulatory-based speech neuroprosthetic device for people who cannot communicate.

Dr. Edward Chang, Professor of Neurological Surgery at the University of California, San Francisco, will present this Language Science Talks event as part of the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health Research Neuroscience Research Colloquium series.

This talk is co-hosted by the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health Research and the UBC Language Sciences Initiative.

If you require an accessibility-related measure (e.g.: sign language interpretation, captioning, or any other accessibility-related measure), please contact Ella Fund-Reznicek at or 604 822 7435.

Professor Edward Chang, University of California, San Francisco Department of Neurological Surgery

March 25th 2022, 11am - 12pm


Previous talks

2019 - 2020

Title and speakers
Date and time

Comparing Classifier Constructions in ASL and Navajo


Among the world’s languages, American Sign Language (ASL) and Navajo are often mentioned jointly in discussions on classifier systems, since both languages have dedicated and obligatory encoding of themes in ditransitive constructions, also referred to as ‘handling verbs’ (Young 2000: 2). Comparisons between ASL and Navajo, however, are often based on broad theoretical claims and opportunistic methodologies (cf. Baker and Croft 2017), rather than on intimate knowledge of the grammars and the language-specific properties of each language. For our talk, we first discuss the beginnings of the comparisons in typologically-oriented papers (e.g. Supalla 1978; cf. Allan 1977), and then review recent literature in which both languages are comparatively examined (e.g. Fernald and Napoli 2000b; cf. Fernald and Napoli 2000a: 20, fn. 20). We then argue how these classificatory systems are alike and whether they are formally or functionally comparable in terms of the language-specific phonology, morphology, and morphosyntax. Specifically, while the cognitive motivations behind ontological categories and the specific predicate types which classify objects maybe similar, we argue that differences in modality and the implementation of formal properties prove these languages to be quite different as well.

ASL interpreters will be present at this event

Dr. Corrine Occhino, Research Assistant Professor, Center on Cogniton and Language, Rochester Institute of Technology

Jalon Begay, PhD Student, Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico

October 1st 2020, 2pm - 4pm


Prime Ministers, media, and messaging: communicating about COVID-19


How can leaders have democratic conversations during health emergencies? Is media meeting the challenge of reporting on these emergencies, for all communities? And what works better for COVID-19 prevention messaging: 'don't get it' or 'don't spread it'?"

Join us for this online Language Science Talks on May 15th from 12pm.

UBC History Assistant Professor Heidi Tworek will discuss her current project looking at how democratic leaders are communicating about health during the COVID-19 outbreak - and what they mean by 'democracy'.

UBC Graduate School of Journalism and Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies Associate Professor Candis Callison will discuss the role of media expertise, cultures and contexts, including how COVID-19 coverage has highlighted ongoing failures in reporting on issues of race, Indigeneity, gender, and more.

And Northwestern University Dispute Resolution Research Center postdoctoral fellow Jillian Jordan will discuss her recent research investigating the relative effectiveness of pro-self versus pro-social messaging at encouraging people to take COVID-19 prevention measures.

UBC History Assistant Professor Heidi Tworek

UBC Graduate School of Journalism Associate Professor Candis Callison

Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management Management and Organizations Department Dispute Resolution Research Center postdoctoral fellow Jillian Jordan

May 15th 2020, 12pm - 1.30pm


Co-hosted by the Department of Linguistics and the Language Sciences Initiative.

Temporal Aspect in American Sign Language


In this presentation, I will discuss aspect in American Sign Language (ASL), demonstrating that ASL users have a range of options to produce aspectual meanings, including verb reduplication, aspectual verbs, adverbial signs and phrases, aspectual nouns, and combinations of the above.

Western Oregon University Professor and coordinator of Interpreting Studies Elisa Maroney

November 8th, 2019

15:30 - 17:00

Civil and Mechanical Engineering (CEME) - 1202, 6250 Applied Science Lane

How prenatal experience shapes speech perception​


Experience with language starts in the womb. The prenatal speech signal is filtered by maternal tissues, preserving the rhythm and melody of speech, i.e. prosody, but suppressing fine details needed for the identification of individual speech sounds. The talk will examine the hypothesis that this prenatal experience with speech prosody might already shape how newborns perceive speech. In a series of NIRS and EEG experiments, I will show that basic auditory mechanisms such as envelope tracking are immune to prenatal influence, while more language-specific mechanisms, such as prosodic grouping, are already modulated at birth. I will discuss how these mechanisms lay the foundations for later language acquisition.

Language Sciences affiliate member and CNRS senior research scientist Dr. Judit Gervain.

June 19th, 2019

14:00 - 16:00

 Suedfeld Lounge (room 2510) Douglas T. Kenny Building, 2136 West Mall, Vancouver  

Storybook Mexico: Best practices to promote children's literacies in Indigenous languages​

Abstract and Bio

In this talk we discuss ideas to promote children´s literacies in the indigenous languages in Mexico. In Mexico, all indigenous languages are minority languages, some of which have several linguistic variants that are in different situations and degrees of vitality and endangerment. Today, these languages are undergoing varying processes of standardization. Also, a portion of the indigenous children learns to read and write in the native language during the first years of primary school. However, relatively few indigenous speakers have developed literacies in their mother tongue. The unequal situation and position of indigenous languages in Mexico creates a challenging situation for the support of indigenous literacies. 

Storybook Mexico is a project aimed to support Mexican indigenous and non-indigenous children, families, and communities access multimodal stories (written text, audio and images) in their ancestral languages. During the project, we collaborated with a UBC team from Language and Literacy Education to translate open access stories from the African Storybook into some of the local indigenous languages of Mexico, using the Storybooks Canada modular website ( Based on this experience, we address the development of best practices for collaborative work with the speech communities, linking the needs and interests of the (heritage) speakers themselves to the translation practice. This includes the awareness of local language ideologies towards the Indigenous languages, but also towards literacy events and literacy practices. Likewise, we stress the importance to better understand the theoretical underpinnings of cross cultural translation between Indigenous languages, taking into account the experiences, viewpoints and investment of the translators.


Anuschka van ‘t Hooft is a research professor at the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. As a cultural anthropologist, she specializes in Mexican indigenous languages and cultures. Her research interests lie in the areas of oral traditions, language documentation and revitalization, and collaborative research.

Language Sciences affiliate member and Autonomous University of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities Professor Anuschka van ´t Hooft.

May 29th, 2019

14:00 - 16:00

Irving K Barber Learning Centre (IBLC) - 185, 1961 East Mall, Vancouver

From text analytics to predictive analytics enhanced by language sciences


Computer Science professor Raymond Ng will present this talk, the first half of which will give a short overview of some of the research Dr. Ng has conducted, analyzing various types of text data, including sentiment analysis and abstractive summarization. In the second half of the talk, Dr. Ng will discuss how to build predictive models based on text and data of various kinds. He will use examples involving identifying patients with emotional needs, and stratifying children with potentially high risk for suicide.  Finally, Dr. Ng will speculate as to how language sciences can enhance predictive models that are purely data-driven.

Language Sciences member, Data Science Institute director and UBC Computer Science Professor Raymond Ng

May 21st, 2019

14:00 - 16:00

ORCH 3074, 6363 Agronomy Rd, Vancouver

Indigenous Storybooks: Protocols and Educational Possibilities​


Exploring Protocols in Digital Territories: Dr. Sara Florence Davidson, an Assistant Professor in Teacher Education at the University of the Fraser Valley, discussed the complexities of honouring protocols in digital spaces. Specifically, she focussed on how the Indigenous Storybooks project is being used to support community Indigenous language revitalization efforts and how the platform is being used to support educators to honour existing protocols associated with the sharing of traditional Indigenous stories in their classrooms. 

Digital Literacy in Canada and Beyond: Dr. Bonny Norton (FRSC), a Professor in UBC’s Department of Language and Literacy Education (LLED), discussed the relationship between Storybooks Canada, Indigenous Storybooks, and Global Storybooks, and introduced the team’s current collaboration with an Indigenous language project in Mexico. In March, 2019, The Province newspaper identified Storybooks Canada as one of four reading app recommendations by local librarians, noting its multilingual features and its connection with Indigenous languages. 

Digital Literacy and Indigenous languages: Liam Doherty, a PhD Candidate in UBC’s Department of Language and Literacy Education (LLED), discussed how an approach leveraging open licenses and open content can help to address some of the challenges presented by the digitization and distribution of material in Indigenous languages in a manner that is respectful of practices and protocols surrounding access. When combined with an open source development strategy such an approach can also maximize the impact and reach of digital tools for working with Indigenous languages across communities by reducing duplication of effort, improving accessibility, protecting (individual and community) privacy, guarding against platform obsolescence, and encouraging a digital culture of knowledge and resource sharing.

Language Sciences affiliate member and University of the Fraser Valley Assistant Professor Sara Florence Davidson
Department of Language and Literacy Education (LLED) Professor and Distinguished University Scholar Bonny Norton
LLED PhD candidate Liam Doherty

April 10th, 2019

12:00 - 14:00

Room 2012, Ponderosa Commons Oak House, 6445 University Blvd, UBC Vancouver

Misinformation managed: How to have healthy conversations online

Language Sciences member and UBC History Assistant Professor Heidi Tworek; Language Sciences affiliate member and SFU Linguistics Professor Maite Taboada.

March 6th, 2019

14:00 - 16:00

WOOD 4, Instructional Resources Centre (IRC)

2194 Health Sciences Mall

Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z3