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Language Change in the Elderly: Grandma’s Well-Structured Bedtime Stories

They have a lot to tell us – and they take their time doing it: That our language habits change as we age is an uncontested fact. But Prof. Dr Jürgen Dittmann of the University of Freiburg cautions against making generalizations, because perceived differences in the language of elderly speakers might have more to do with the behavior of their younger conversation partners.


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Syntactic complexity diminishes in old age - in speech and in writing. Caption: Universität Freiburg

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 It is extremely difficult to gauge people’s age by listening to their voice. Not until a person has reached 70, explains Prof. Dr. Jürgen Dittmann of the University of Freiburg, is it possible to make an estimate. It is important for linguists to analyze how language changes, because “not until we understand why language abilities diminish in old age will it be possible to determine how to keep the elderly mentally fit.“
 

  • In Search of Words

Many people experience increasing difficulties finding words as they age: People who used to only have problems remembering the name of the mailman begin stumbling when trying to think of the name of an acquaintance. And it isn’t just proper names that older people, particularly those over 70, often have problems remembering: They also begin having more problems with vocabulary and cannot think of expressions they were still able to use eloquently at 50. However, Dittmann emphasizes that this development should not be mistaken for a form of dementia. He points out that there are great individual differences and that not every older person has problems speaking. The better an older person retains his or her powers of concentration, the less will he or she be affected by this language deficit.
 

  • Decrease in Grammatical Complexity

Changes in grammar are also evident from around the age of 70 on. Syntactic complexity decreases in these years. People in this age group use less subordinate clauses, preferring instead to use a series of main clauses. Especially rare in older people’s speech are embedded subordinate clauses, in which the speaker has to return to the main clause. A recent study by Freiburg linguists which compares interviews with Rainer Barzel, Walter Scheel, and Helmut Schmidt from the years 1960– 1970 and 2002–2006 demonstrates that even these eloquent politicians have been subject to this development (Jürgen Dittmann, Ursula Waldmüller: Zur Veränderung von Sprache im Alter. Eine längsschnittliche Kleingruppenstudie. In: Zeitschrift für Angewandte Linguistik, Heft 50/2009, S. 69–99). Dittmann has yet to find a satisfying explanation for this change: One possible reason why older people sometimes forget how they began a sentence and cannot complete it is the decreasing performance of their working memory. In order to avoid mistakes, older people thus tend to use simple, self-contained sentences when speaking. Astoundingly, however, Dittmann has found evidence that our syntactic complexity also decreases over time in writing. A possible explanation for this is that older people have to concentrate more on what they are trying to express, both in conversation and on paper. This increased concentration on content comes at the expense of form, and thus of grammar.
 

  • Well-Structured Stories

Despite simplifications in grammar, our discourse competence generally remains stable until the age of 80: This means that older people can still tell well-structured and intelligible stories – above all when they are talking about biographical experiences. This is particularly noticeable in conversations between grandparents and their grandchildren. However, Dittmann is curious as to whether older people can only tell stories so well because they have told them so many times before or whether they are also able to structure content when narrating a story spontaneously. This is a point he intends to investigate further in his future research.
 

  • Speaking Slowly

Since speakers over 70 have to concentrate more on the content and form of what they are saying, they speak about 20 percent slower. However, this decrease in tempo is even more pronounced in inter-generational conversation, for instance with young adults and nurses. However, Dittmann advises against using such situations as a basis for determining a person’s actual speech tempo, because elderly persons adjust to the tempo of their younger conversation partners. For their part, younger people often speak slowly and in simple sentences with elderly people – even resorting at times to baby talk – on the mistaken assumption that they need to do this in order to be understood.

 

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Prof. Dr. Jürgen Dittmann

Jürgen Dittmann has served as professor for modern German linguistics at the University of Freiburg since 1980. His research focuses on neurolinguistics and issues in contemporary German, such as the recent orthography reform. Dittmann became known to the broader public with the publication of his book on childhood language acquisition. He is also studying verbal learning in heart attack patients
in collaboration with medical researchers at the Aachen University Medical Center. Another of Dittmann’s research interests is language in the elderly – a topic on which hardly any empirical research has been done in Germany. Together with German teacher and linguist Ursula Waldmüller, he conducted interviews with politicians in different phases of their lives and analyzed them in order to test several scientific hypotheses. The abstract of the study may be read here:


http://portal.uni-freiburg.de/sdd/personenalt/dittmann/Downloads/dittmann-waldmueller-abstract

 

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