The University of Newcastle, Australia

When words fail

Professor Alison Ferguson explores novel communication strategies for people who have lost speech and language function.

when words fail

Loss or impairment of speech and language can be a tragic consequence of brain injury, but involving those close to the patient in their recovery can greatly enhance the injured person's ability to regain communication skills.

"Communication is not just about one person - it is always a synergy between two or more people," explains Professor Alison Ferguson, a Faculty of Education and Arts (FEDUA) speech pathology researcher whose specialty is communicative interaction.

"There may be a limit to what therapists can do working with the patient alone, but there is an infinite array of things we can do to improve the communicative process by involving partners, family and friends."

Ferguson began working with brain-injured patients in hospitals after completing her undergraduate degree. She undertook her doctoral research in linguistics, which gave her the ability to better analyse communicative interaction.

"Speech pathologists have a strong focus on multimodal communication," Ferguson says. "People think speech pathologists just work with speech but people communicate in a variety of ways - through facial expression, tone of voice, gesture and, of course, writing or drawing. So all of that can be incorporated into a therapy program."

Ferguson has a strong record of collaborative clinical research and is a member of the Centre for Clinical Research Excellence in Aphasia Rehabilitation, a national, multi-disciplinary network of clinical and research specialists that is supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

She was part of the team who established the discipline of Speech Pathology at the University of Newcastle in 1994 and contributed to the formulation of a national benchmarking system for speech pathology education.

In recent years she has published two influential books in her field, Expert Practice: A Critical Discourse and Researching Communication Disorders (co-authored with Professor Beth Armstrong).

Ferguson, along with her colleague Dr Elizabeth Spencer, is currently involved in a novel collaboration with FEDUA colleague Professor Hugh Craig, a pioneer in the field of computational linguistics renowned for his groundbreaking computer analysis of the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

Ferguson sees great potential in applying those same analytical tools to the large data sets speech pathology researchers need to establish benchmarks of 'normal' speech.

"We need in our research to use closely matched control subjects - in other words, we assess the language used by someone with brain damage against the language used by a healthy person of the same age, gender, education level and background," Ferguson explains.

"But there is a range of variation in 'normal' language use so we need to determine that range and it is difficult to get large sets of data that capture the full variation.

"This technology potentially gives us the capacity to analyse the language of thousands of different control subjects, therefore getting a more accurate representation of that 'normal' range.''

Ferguson says the research is innovative in a number of ways, not least of which is the unusual nature of the collaboration.

"Speech pathology is a multidisciplinary field but I never thought I would be collaborating with a Shakespearean scholar - I think we can safely assume that is a world first," she laughs.

"But one of the delightful things about being in the Faculty of Education and Arts is the company you keep, and the interesting partnerships that can lead to."