The Power of Speech: Researchers at Lehman College Work on Communication Disorders with Stroke Survivors

Some say talk is cheap, but for Professor Mira Goral who studies aphasia, an acquired communication disorder, talk is everything. According to the National Aphasia Association, aphasia affects one million Americans, with some 100,000 acquiring it each year. It occurs mainly in people who have suffered a stroke or developed a brain lesion, affecting their ability to speak, understand spoken language and reading materials, and to write. Without therapy and group support, they can become isolated from friends, family, and work life.

This is where Prof. Goral, a professor in the Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences, and Lehman’s Speech and Hearing Center, comes in. Clinicians in the Center work with clients, helping them find the missing words that will reconnect them to the people in their lives and to the life they once led. The Center, which first opened in 1968, serves the surrounding community. Graduate students, supervised by faculty members, offer treatment in various communication disorders in children and adults. Through her work in her neurolinguistics lab, Prof. Goral and her research team strive to ensure that the treatment strategies that they recommend indeed work.

In her research Prof. Goral, who was recently awarded a Fulbright Scholarship for teaching and research in Buenos Aires in the spring, is specifically interested in understanding how aphasia works in people who speak multiple languages. In those who have had a stroke, for example, she considers whether more than one language became impaired, were patients proficient in one language more than another, did they learn the language(s) as children or later in life, do the languages come from the same language family (Italian and Spanish) or share the same script (English and Italian). The list of variables goes on, but by understanding these she is better able to target the rehabilitation process.

“The question that I am seeking to answer in my research is this, if I work with a bilingual person in one of their languages would the benefit of the treatment cross over to the language that we did not work on,” explains Prof. Goral. “It’s called cross-language treatment generalization and what we’ve found recently is that while there appears to be progress across all the languages when they are treated, if a patient speaks one language better than another and treatment is given in the weaker language then the stronger language is inhibited.”

The implication for bilinguals and multilinguals with aphasia is that they may not be able to communicate in their dominant language immediately following treatment as well as they would have otherwise. While Prof. Goral stressed that this outcome was a possibility and that it would likely be temporary, it would play a role in any treatment strategy for such patients. For speakers of more than one language, especially older immigrants whose strong language is not English, the inability to communicate in their native language could be especially isolating and detrimental to their recovery.

Prof. Goral’s current research, titled “Facilitation and competition across languages in multilingual aphasia,” is supported by a four-year grant from the National Institutes of Health’s SCORE program for Hispanic Serving Institutions and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. There are two parts to the study: the first is theoretical and seeks to understand the different variables and how they interact in multi-lingual aphasia and the second part aims to identify the conditions that create cross-language facilitation and competition between languages.

A graduate of Tel Aviv University, Prof. Goral holds a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She completed her post-doctoral fellowship at the Department of Neurology at Boston University School of Medicine and the Language in the Aging Brain Laboratory at the Harold Goodglass Aphasia Research Center in Boston VA Healthcare System.

Linguistics has been an academic passion of Prof. Goral’s throughout her career. She says she first became interested in the field out of an interest in language and communication and communication break down. “Naturally, I find the brain and what it does to be fascinating, but on a more clinical level I enjoy helping people regain something that is really essential to all human beings and that is the ability to communicate.”