Neurobiology of Speech and Language :: Syllabus

Term: Fall 2014
Instructor: Daniel Meliza (cdm8j)
Class times: Tue/Thu 9:30 - 10:45, Gilmer B001
Office Hours: Gilmer 183, Thu 2:30-3:30, Fri 9-10, by appointment via email or at
Collab site:

What is this course about?

Spoken language is a complicated, rich, and beautiful behavior. When you speak or listen, billions of neurons in your brain are engaged in translating between tiny variations in air pressure and the concepts, images, and memories they carry.

How does this all come about? How do the circuits involved in speech and language work? How do neurons wire themselves together into circuits and learn how to produce and perceive speech? Did language suddenly happen to our species, or did it evolve out of simpler components that we can study in other animals?

In this course, we will learn about mechanisms of speech and language by discussing a series of experimental animal models that exhibit constituents of language or speech, building towards behaviors that integrate multiple processes and culminating with a look at some of the data from human imaging studies.

How will this course help you succeed?

Speech and language make us who we are as a species, and understanding them better can be both intrinsically fascinating and deeply practical. By the end of the course, you will be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Human language is unique, but it had to come from somewhere. What can we learn about language by studying other animals?
  2. How does sound carry information, and how is this information extracted by the brain? What mathematical tools can be used to quantify specific features of sound and the information they carry?
  3. Why is it so hard for computer programs to process speech and understand natural human languages?
  4. How do genetic and sensory influences interact during the development of speech and language?

You will also gain experience reading journal articles, analyzing scientific arguments, and researching topics, enabling you to answer these questions as well:

  1. What library and internet resources can I use to search for articles related to a specific question?
  2. Can I evaluate whether the data in a paper support the claims being made by its authors?
  3. How do I present data to other scientists so they can give insights into the results?

What materials will you need?

All of our assigned readings will be primary research papers and reviews that you can find using PubMed, Google Scholar, or VIRGO. Some papers may only be accessible from on grounds or by using the VPN or web proxy as described here. In some rare cases the readings may not be available online, in which case I will scan them and make them available through the class Collab page.

You will probably need to consult additional resources to help you understand some of the concepts we will discuss. Like working research scientists, you can use handbooks, textbooks, online resources, peer-reviewed articles, and personal communications to learn what you need to know to complete the full story surrounding the questions we’ll be addressing.

How will you succeed in this course?

Participate. You are expected to participate actively in the course based on your own learning goals. You all come from different backgrounds and science experiences, and your peers are valuable resources for learning. Don’t shortchange them and yourself by coming to class without preparing or by sitting quietly during class discussion.

Indulge your curiosity. Unlike some of the other topics you may have studied, the neurobiology of speech and language is in many ways still in its infancy. We will cover some foundational knowledge, but our ultimate goals are to identify open problems in the field and draw connections between different systems and species. You will likely come away with more questions than when you started, but with a greater ability to understand the questions and where they might lead. To help you think of new questions and ways to research them, I’ll share some of the ways I approach the literature and use it to stimulate further reading, research, and experiment.

Write frequently. One of the interesting features of language is that putting your ideas into words is often the best way of clarifying them. Striving for clarity and conciseness will magnify this effect. In this course, we will write weekly responses to the readings and submit them to a small group of peers for comment and clarification. Although these exercises will be short, they will help you the most if you craft them carefully.

How will you and I evaluate your progress?

Reading responses and class participation (60%). To prepare ourselves for discussions that go beyond the basic content of the readings, by Monday morning of each week, we will each post a blog entry to the Collab site that describes an aspect of the readings to discuss further in class. Entries will be between 200-300 words and should:

You’ll each be assigned to small groups who will read each other’s responses before coming to class, so that we can respond to each other’s ideas and reach a better understanding together.

Discussion facilitation (20%). You will have two opportunities to take a more active role in guiding the class meeting, first using a paper I’ve selected, and then using readings of your own choice (see below). Facilitation involves:

I will act as a co-facilitator on these exercises, but it will be your responsibility to lead. Your grade will be based on a rubric (that I will share with you) that assesses your understanding of the concepts and background, your clear and accurate presentation of the data, and your ability to engage the class in a good discussion.

Topic selection and discussion (20%). In the last weeks of class, each of you will have the opportunity to facilitate a discussion on a topic of your choice. You may choose something new to address or revisit an earlier subject, and you’re encouraged to draw on your previous coursework and interests. In addition to the tasks described in the previous section, you will need to select one or more papers as readings and post the references to Collab by Monday of the week before your assigned date. We’ll make initial topic selections early in the semester, but you may change your topic (subject to my approval) at any point up until the readings are posted.

Professional and academic integrity

As practicing professionals, scientists trust each other to maintain the highest standards of ethics, integrity, and personal responsibility. Since you have joined this community of trust to prepare for your future career, I expect you to fully comply with all of the provisions of the UVa Honor System. In addition to pledging that you have neither received nor given aid on an assignment, your signature also affirms that you have not knowingly represented as your own any opinions or ideas that are attributable to another author in published or unpublished notes, study outlines, abstracts, articles, textbooks, or web pages. In other words, I expect that all assignments and reports are your original work and that references are cited appropriately. Breaking this trust agreement not only will result in zero credit for the assignment in question and referral to the Honor Committee but also will jeopardize your future as a professional scientist or in any field. Don’t let yourself down.

What is the class schedule?

The calendar and list of readings is posted here. Due dates are fixed, but topics will be adjusted as we proceed through the course in response to unexpected events, our progress, and your interests. I will update the calendar after each class and will give you at least a full week to complete the readings before your responses are due.

Further questions?

Check out the course FAQ.