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New Center of Competence

Words that Work

The new Center of Competence Language & Medicine Zurich connects disciplines and combines basic research with clinical application. We take a look at two of the new center’s projects fostering innovative collaboration between linguistics and medicine at UZH.
Marita Fuchs
What words do we use to talk about physical and mental health problems? How do we express pain? The newly founded Center of Competence Language & Medicine is devoted to examining this complex topic. (Image: istock/peopleimages)


How do you describe your headache to the doctor? What is the effect of using diagnostic terms in everyday speech? How does treatment change if the communication takes place online? How are hearing and comprehension related to dementia and depression? And how can such a complex subjective experience as depression be put into words?

The talking cure

The words we use have an effect on how we and others feel. Nowhere is that as evident as in psychiatry and psychotherapy. And yet, very little detailed research has been done to date into how we communicate about experiences such as depression and psychosis – especially outside of the clinical-therapeutic context, such as in conversation with an employer. There are no scientifically proven communication tips, and all too often research focuses on language deficits rather than communication resources. This is where the research project “Let’s talk about it! But how?” at the new Center of Competence Language & Medicine comes in.

Linguist Yvonne Ilg and psychiatrist Anke Maatz, together with mental health peer supporter Henrike Wiemer, are investigating the ways in which people talk about mental illness, and discovering the most successful approaches. “We record various types of conversations and then analyze them to identify the different possible communicative strategies,” says Anke Maatz, who works clinically alongside her research activities. The two junior researchers are careful to take a participatory approach: “We don’t do research on people, but together with them,” says Yvonne Ilg.

Burst dam

“Let’s talk about it! But how?” is just one example of the new close collaboration between the fields of language and medicine at UZH. With the founding of the Center of Competence Language & Medicine Zurich, urgent research topics that do not fall neatly into one discipline can now receive the attention they deserve, says the center’s co-head, UZH professor of Romance languages and literature Johannes Kabatek. “It’s like a dam has burst.” Tinnitus, suicidal feelings, schizophrenia, headaches – all of these topics have both linguistic and medical aspects.

In addition, societal developments such as digitalization, migration and multilingualism also pose major challenges in medicine in terms of communication and legal issues. These challenges can only be met through interdisciplinary collaboration. “Central to this is the connection between current research and clinical practice, in both directions,” says Kabatek.

For Kabatek, UZH has optimal conditions to forge such connections, as it has a strong track record in linguistics, medicine and law. In addition, the new linguistics laboratory (LiRILab) provides researchers with state-of-the-art infrastructure to conduct cutting-edge experimental language-related research.

The team from the new center of competence: Nathalie Giroud, Johannes Kabatek, Anke Maatz and Yvonne Ilg (left to right)

Understanding hearing

A second project at the new center of competence relates to a fascinating human organ, the ear. Our ears do a vital job: they process the chaos of our acoustic environment in such a way that our brain can do something useful with the information. That means that hearing loss has far-reaching consequences, including for our mental agility. “The most important organ for hearing is not actually the ear, but the brain,” says Nathalie Giroud.

With her research group, the UZH neuroscientist and co-director of the new center is investigating the connection between dementia and hearing loss. Lack of acoustic stimulation can make a person more likely to develop dementia or can accelerate its progress, explains Giroud. “We hope to find alternative solutions to prevent dementia that go beyond simply the use of hearing aids.”

Giroud uses imaging techniques to study the neural processes in the brain in real time. Her research focuses on people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or who are at risk of developing the condition. Her findings should provide important insights into fundamental scientific questions about the neurobiology of aging and of language.