At a Loss for Words

CITEC research group Clinical Linguistics addresses problems of language, speech, and communication

Everyone misspeaks from time and time, or cannot think of a word. And sometimes, it is hard to understand another person. But what happens when this becomes the rule, rather than the exception? And worse still, what if someone can no longer express themselves at all, or cannot fluently put together words in stressful situations? Professor Dr. Martina Hielscher-Fastabend’s research group deals with the diagnosis and therapy of these types of disorders. The Clinical Linguistics research group is part of Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Linguistics and Literary Studies and the Cluster of Excellence CITEC. The six researchers in this group focus on neurological diseases and the language and communicative disorders that arise from them. Problems of language acquisition, and issues of voice and language fluency, particularly in stressful situations, are also areas of focus for the research group. Currently, they are developing a training app together with Dr. Thies Pfeiffer of the CITEC Central Labs and Master’s students. The app prepares users for more fluent language use in situations requiring communication, which can be filled with anxiety for individuals with language difficulties, and are therefore often avoided.

Martina Hielscher-Fastabend heads the Clinical Linguistics research group. Photo: Bielefeld University “Because of the demographic shift, communicative disorders are happening more and more frequently due to neurological diseases such as stroke or dementia, which bring with them long-term cognitive, linguistic, and motor problems,” says Professor Dr. Martina Hielscher-Fastabend. “Since the end of the 1980s in Bielefeld, there has been a focus on research in aphasia and dysarthria in the context of Clinical Linguistics at Bielefeld University.” Aphasia refers to impairments of the language system in oral and written modalities for both comprehension and production. Difficulties in finding words are a type of aphasia. In contrast, dysarthria is characterized as impairments of speech, including the articulation and coordination of spoken gestures. Some 15 years ago, the neurogenic disorder dysphagia was also included. In this branch of research, therapists treat patients who have problems with chewing and swallowing processes.

As a psychologist, Hielscher-Fastabend is specialized in the development and statistical test-based validation of diagnostic procedures for various types of disorders. One example is elderly stroke patients suffering from aphasia, most of whom present with damage in the area of the left cerebral hemisphere. Together with her colleague Dr. Kerstin Richter, who worked as a speech therapist for many years at an acute care neurological clinic, she develops different procedures for the diagnosis and treatment of aphasia. In addition to this, Hielscher-Fastabend has conducted research for many years on disorders of understanding written text in patients with lesions in the right hemisphere of the brain, which affect the interpretation of coherent statements, processes of inference, and the complex comprehension of emotional content in linguistic expressions.

Hielscher-Fastabend has also developed diagnostic routines for problems of language acquisition – complex written and receptive outputs in monolingual and bilingual children. According to Hielscher-Fastabend, the early learning oriented diagnosis of skills is extremely important, particularly for young children. In their research group, doctoral researcher Mareike Könrner conducts research on dynamic testing for this age group.

The Clinical Linguistics research group (from left): Dr. Maria Trüggelmann, Dr. Kerstin Richter, Denise Gajda, Carmen Schmidt, Prof. Dr. Martina Hielscher-Fastabend. Photo: CITEC/Bielefeld UniversityThe complex language-based demands of school, as well as learning foreign and technical languages, repeatedly pose challenges to children and adolescents. “In order the develop effective therapeutic methods and helpful assistive measures, our research group relies on long-term studies,” says Hielscher-Fastabend. “We are thus able to diagnose relevant problem areas.” In the research group, it is Dr. Maria Trüggelmann and Denis Gajda in particular who delve into these analyses. As part of this, they also deal with disorders of speech fluency, such as stuttering, vocal impairments, and disorders of written language. Special apps could be especially helpful for this age group.

Currently, the research group is working together with Dr. Thies Pfeiffer on a software that can help people who stutter to better make the step from individual therapy to daily life in anxiety-filled situations. The plan is to create a virtual reality environment that will simulate situations in which language difficulties frequently occur. “People with impaired oral fluency like stuttering often have anxiety in certain situations that bring out their disorder especially severely,” says Hielscher-Fastabend. “For example, when standing in line at the bakery, and it’s their turn in line sooner than had seemed, and they haven’t yet put the words together correctly. Mastering these situations by systematically dismantling their anxiety of such demands is something we can ideally train with 360-degree technology and virtual reality glasses.”

 There are already Smartphone apps available for download that people can use practice for public speaking. Martina Hielscher-Fastabend and Thies Pfeiffer Neuland come into play here with special apps for individuals with language disorders. In a virtual environment, patients can try out certain speech techniques with less fear than under real conditions. In this way, virtual simulation renders the therapy considerably more comfortable for individuals with impaired language fluency.

Providing therapy to lessen stuttering is the start of the joint research between Hielscher-Fastabend and Pfeiffer. In addition to virtual reality, other technically supported forms of therapy for language difficulties such as aphasia and vocal disorders are also conceivable. Hielscher-Fastabend’s research group has also been working together with clinics, schools, and speech-therapy clinics from the region for many years in the context of the close practical relationships between the degree programs (Clinical Linguistics at the Bachelor’s and Master’s levels). “Thanks to our close cooperative relationships with various regional Bielefeld partners, we can incorporate studies on current research directly into everyday life,” says Hielscher-Fastabend. “Schools and clinics benefit from the newest scientific findings, and we can put theory straight into practice. It’s often the case in our field that questions first arise out of the practical day-to-day.”

In cooperation with schools and daycare centers, the early screening and diagnosis of language and communicative disorders stands at the forefront. Here, it is not only the typical aspects of developmental language disorders that are considered: one example is improper vocal strain in children, especially boys, or the development of supportive concepts for children with selective muteness or those on the autism spectrum. In the practical component of the training of future clinical linguists, clinics and doctors’ offices play an essential part by connecting the topics of the working group, particularly of Dr. Richter, closely together with with experimental neurolinguistics research group of Dr. Horst Müller and Prof. Dr. Sabina Weiss.

Researchers in Martina Hielscher-Fastabend’s Clinical Linguistics research group include Dr. Kerstin Richter, Dr. Maria Trüggelmann, Denise Gajda, Mareike Körner and Dr. Petra Jaecks, as well as academic assistants Carmen Schmidt and Gyde Petersen.

More information is available online at:

Website of the Clinical Linguistics research group:

Martina Hielscher-Fastabend’s CV:


Prof. Dr. Martina Hielscher-Fastabend, Bielefeld University
Cluster of Excellence Cognitive Interaction Technology (CITEC)
Bielefeld University
Telephone: 0521 106 5324