Brain Plasticity and Language Learning across the Lifespan

Module titleBrain Plasticity and Language Learning across the Lifespan
Module codePSY3420
Academic year2016/7
Module staff

Dr Nicolas Dumay (Convenor)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

This third-year module is a truly multidisciplinary course. It focuses on how the brain acquires and updates information across the lifespan, using language as an example and with references to general models of learning and consolidation in humans and animals. Starting with the notions of functional and structure neural plasticity, the course moves progressively towards understanding cellular and systems consolidations, before tackling proper key questions about language learning (including bilingualism) from birth to adulthood. Special attention is also given to the role of sleep as a promoting factor for consolidating memories. Aspects relating to language learning deficits, as well as remediation and reacquisition are also considered.

Module aims - intentions of the module

The core idea behind this module, i.e., that every mental event is likely to induce modifications of our cognitive system and its underlying brain structures, is key to approaches to child development and education of course, but also to life-long learning and re-education/remediation in a clinical setting. The theoretical notions approached during course therefore have direct implications for any aspect of applied psychology concerned with an intervention aiming to provoke a functional change in the subject, whether for educational or remediation purposes. Hence, although it is centred on theories and experimental demonstrations, this course should equip you with notions likely to be of crucial importance for your future development as a psychologist, and more generally speaking, as an agent of change.

Through attending this module, you will:

  • thoroughly understand the notion of plasticity and its implications for understanding how experience continuously shape our brain;
  • walk for 11 lectures along the border of various disciplines: cognitive psychology, linguistics, biology and neuroscience;
  • be taught by a researcher involved in the field;
  • develop your ability to approach science directly within the text;
  • learn to extract key information from research report under time pressure;
  • refine your oral communication skills, through the various group activities and presentations;
  • explore a corner of the literature on plasticity tailored to your own professional aspirations and/or scientific curiosity, under the guidance of the convener;
  • at the end be ready to approach humans and animals as systems in constant change.

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Acquire knowledge about the memory formation process relevant to language processing, as well as understand the notion that processing and learning are fundamentally linked
  • 2. Describe the cognitive system as a moving structure that is constantly retuning itself as a function experience
  • 3. Integrate key notions relating to learning and memory consolidation
  • 4. Explain the possible ways in which sleep affects memory
  • 5. Discuss the key dimensions relevant to designing language learning experiments

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 6. Acquire detailed, systematic and comprehensive knowledge within the discipline, with in-depth specialisation at the forefront of the discipline in certain areas, and demonstrate advanced critical understanding of this knowledge and of the limits and provisional nature of this knowledge
  • 7. Review and critically evaluate published work at an advanced level and identify the strengths and weaknesses of this work, and at an advanced level structure this literature to present logical, coherent and sustained arguments to support conclusions at an advanced level
  • 8. Address systematically complex problems at an advanced level which may be framed within unpredictable contexts, think critically, creatively and independently, and fully appreciate the complexities of the issues
  • 9. Understand and apply essential principles in designing novel research, and critically evaluate and analyse empirical evidence, and assess the reliability of empirical evidence using a range of defined techniques at an advanced level
  • 10. Illustrate the wider ethical issues relating to the subject and its application at an advanced level

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 11. Interact effectively and supportively within a learning group
  • 12. Manage your own learning using the full range of resources of the discipline and with minimum guidance
  • 13. Describe your own criteria of self-evaluation and challenge received opinion and reflect on your actions, and seek and make use of feedback
  • 14. Select and manage information, and to undertake competently study tasks with minimum guidance
  • 15. Take responsibility for your own work and criticise it
  • 16. Engage effectively in debate in a professional manner and produce detailed and coherent written work; identify complex problems and apply appropriate knowledge and methods for their solution with confidence and flexibility
  • 17. Act autonomously with minimal supervision or direction, within agreed guidelines
  • 18. Manage time effectively to meet deadlines

Syllabus plan

Syllabus plan

The module consists of a series of 11 two-hour lectures, each accompanied by a one-hour tutorial involving group activities.

Topics covered week by week:

  1. Module format, content and assessment, and introduction to the notion of brain plasticity
  2. Cellular correlates of learning and structural plasticity: the brain as muscle
  3. Synaptic memory consolidation
  4. Systems consolidation
  5. Sleep and memory
  6. The perceptual foundations of language learning
  7. The notions of critical/optimal period in language acquisition
  8. Speech segmentation and word learning in infants
  9. Language development in toddlers
  10. Word learning in adults
  11. Brain plasticity and language remediation

Learning and teaching

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled Learning and Teaching33Seminars (11 x 3 hours)
Guided Independent Study100Reading in preparation for weekly seminars, following reading list recommendations linked to ELE module homepage and independently exploring further sources of information using links provided
Guided Independent Study17Further exploratory research and subsequent reading in preparation for writing CA component


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Small-group discussions within seminars1-11, 13-14Oral, within plenary sessions

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Examination603 hoursAllWritten, generic feedback posted on module ELE page
Essay (or Video/Podcast)402000 words or 10 minutes + 300 wordsAllWritten, individual feedback on script/feedback sheet, generic feedback posted on ELE


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
ExaminationExaminationAllAugust Ref/Def
Essay (or Video/Podcast)Essay (or Video/Podcast)AllAugust Ref/Def

Re-assessment notes

Two assessments are required for this module. Where you have been referred/deferred in the examination you will have the opportunity to take a second examination in the August/September re-assessment period. This will constitute 60% of the module. Where you have been referred/deferred in the essay/podcast you will be required to resubmit it. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%; deferred marks are not capped.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

There is no core text for this course. The following books/articles provide a good overview of many of the issues discussed in each week:

Books/Special Issues:

Gaskell, M.G., & Ellis, A.W. (2009). Word learning and lexical development across the lifespan. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, Volume 364.

Hasselmo, M.E. (2012) How We Remember: Brain Mechanisms of Episodic Memory. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Kandel, E.R. (2007). In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind. NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Stickgold, R., & Walker, M.P. (2009). The Neuroscience of Sleep. London: Academic Press.

Review Articles/Chapters:

Born, J., & Wilhelm, I. (2012). System consolidation of memory during sleep. Psychological Research, 76, 192-203.

Saffran, J.R. & Graf Estes, K. (2006). Mapping sound to meaning: Connections between learning about sounds and learning about words. In R. Kail (Ed.) Advances in Child Development and Behavior, v. 34, New York: Elsevier, 1-38.

Werker, J.F., & Gervain, J. (2012). Speech perception and phonological development. In Zelazo, P.D. (Eds) The Oxford Handbook of Developmental Psychology. (pp. in press). Oxford: OUP.

Werker, J.F., & Tees, R.C. (2005). Speech perception as a window for understanding plasticity and commitment in language systems of the brain. Developmental Psychobiology, 46, 233-251.

Wixted, J.T., & Cai, D.J. (2013). Memory consolidation. In S. Kosslyn & K. Ochsner (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Neuroscience (Vol. 2, pp. 436-455). Oxford University Press, New York.

Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Psychology, brain plasticity, language

Credit value15
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


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