Idioms

In my project I focus on the processing and comprehension of ambiguous language, because this type of language particularly depends on executive functioning. In order to select and process the intended meaning of an ambiguous word or expressions, a person needs to activate the different meanings of the word or expressions and subsequently suppress the irrelevant meaning in order to process the correct one. These processing steps are thought to require working memory or cognitive inhibition. Since working memory and cognitive inhibition typically decline with age, the question is how elderly adults process ambiguous language.

The linguistic tool that I use to study ambiguity are idiomatic expressions. Idioms are short figurative expressions, such as the Dutch tegen de lamp lopen or de kop in het zand steken. The meaning of idioms is ambiguous. For example, tegen de lamp lopen literally means ‘to bump into a lamp’, but figuratively ‘to get caught’. Neuro-imaging research shows that when processing idiomatic compared to literal expressions people recruit additional areas in the frontal part of the brain, which is involved in higher-order cognitive, or executive functioning. As executive functions are subject to age-related cognitive decline, the question is how elderly adults process and comprehend idiomatic expressions. By investigating this research question, my project will not only provide insight in language processing in old age, but more generally also in the relation between general cognitive functions and language processing abilities.