Tapping Into Language

Julie Nariman
September 01, 2000

I'm putting my foot down. He's skating on thin ice. Her words had a hollow ring.

The English language is packed with idioms, and we use them so often that we take them for granted. Are the idioms above familiar to you? Try this one: Vote with your feet.

man with colorful hat

Constance Dean Qualls, a certified speech-language pathologist, is studying older adults' understanding of figurative language. Undergraduates Angela Canfield and Pamela Barth are working with Qualls recruiting participants and collecting and entering data. "I got into speech-language pathology through the vocal area, studying voice and jazz as an undergraduate. As I began my studies, though, I fell in love with the brain," laughs Qualls, an accomplished gospel and jazz singer.

"My interest has always been about what happens to language and communication as we get older," says Qualls. She hypothesizes that the elderly will show a decreased ability to understand figurative language, most likely because of memory difficulties. "It is well accepted that working memory, like remembering a telephone number long enough to dial it, declines with age."

Last year, Qualls published a study on idiom comprehension in African American and white fifth-graders in Tennessee and Arkansas (Mid-South), and compared their performance to students in Oregon. She found that both sociocultural and regional factors had a significant influence on students' comprehension. "Skate on thin ice," for instance, was understood by 71 percent of the African American students, but by only 54 percent of the white students. "Putting one's foot down" was familiar to 43 percent of the Mid-South students and 73 percent of the Oregon students.Qualls says, "This research tells us more about how children learn and process idioms, and that familiarity is important to understanding them. This hasn't been looked at with adults yet," says Qualls. (By the way: Vote with your feet means that if you don't like a situation, you can leave it.)

Qualls is particularly interested in the language processes of elderly people with aphasia, a language disorder which follows stroke, and dementia, which is related to senility and Alzheimer's disease and marked by a decline in memory, judgment, and orientation. "The first step is to find out if normal older adults understand idioms differently, and if there is a relationship between their working memory and how they understand figures of speech," she points out. "Then we will have a basis for understanding figurative language in people with aphasia and dementia.

"We're hung up on youth in this country," says Qualls, "but I've always loved older people. If we can understand the changes that take place in older people's language, we can tap into their potential, utilize their experience and knowledge, and, most importantly, find ways to improve their quality of life."

Constance Dean Qualls, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communication disorders in the College of Health and Human Development, 105 Moore Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-6248; cdq2@psu.edu. She is also director and principal investigator of the Communication, Cognition, and Aging Lab (CCAL), where she is conducting research funded by the National Institute on Aging, in conjunction with the Boston University of Medicine and the Penn State Gerontology Center. Undergraduate students Angela Canfield and Pamela Barth work on both of Qualls' figurative language in aging research projects. Writer Julie Nariman graduated in May 2000 with degrees in film/video and comparative literature.

Last Updated September 01, 2000