Current Studies

A) Bilingualism and social cognition

In this series of studies, we seek to examine, across the lifespan, how language experience may affect preschoolers’, young adults’, and older adults’ sensitivity to communicative cues, referential intention, and selective trust.

1. Past research found that bilingual children may be better able to use a speaker’s cues (e.g. point, gaze) to understand referential intent. Our present studies continue to explore how language experience (including bilingual children’s code-switching exposure) may affect children’s representational theory of mind and cognition of other social beings, such as referential intent, selective trust, and social affiliation.  We are interested in exploring, firstly, whether children would accept and use, communicative cues (e.g., point, gaze, tone of voice) provided by the accurate/inaccurate speaker in a subsequent task, and how such trust may be disrupted by factors such as context (e.g., types of error, accidental vs. intentional) and social group membership (e.g., in-group or out-group based on race and accent; robot vs. human), and secondly, whether bilingual children show attenuation in their trust of inaccurate speakers who gave inaccurate cues or accentuation in their trust of accurate speakers who gave accurate cues.

2. Current literature has shown that various social cognitive processes, such as the processing and integration of social cues, and inferring of mental states, declined in late adulthood. A decline in social cognitive processes could have adverse effects on social relationships and well-being in older adulthood. Past research has established that social disconnectedness in older adults is related to their physical health, mental well-being, and cognitive functioning. Our latest set of studies seek to investigate the processes of mentalizing that are affected in aging and the age-related changes in brain functional connectivity using behavioral and imaging techniques:

  • We examined the effects of bilingual experience (i.e., onset age of bilingualism on ToM in normal aging using the ToM Task Battery with young adults (aged 18-30) and older adults (aged 56-79). Results revealed that older adults showed deficits in ToM and their performance gradually declined with age compared to young adults. Importantly, early bilingualism mediated the age differences in ToM; earlier onset age of bilingualism predicted better ToM performance in older adulthood. Findings suggest a possible protective effect of early bilingualism against age-related declines in socio-cognitive functions.
  • Early bilingualism, e.g., second language age-of-acquisition (L2AoA), has been shown to be associated with better theory-of-mind (ToM) performance in older adults (Yow et al., 2021). Here, we aim to understand the brain structural correlates associated with bilingualism and ToM performance in normal aging. Larger gray matter volume in several regions including prefrontal, frontal, medial temporal, and superior temporal cortices were associated with earlier L2AoA and higher ToM score, indicating shared variance between ToM and L2AoA in brain morphology. Findings suggest that earlier bilingual acquisition might promote brain maturation that would preserve ToM ability well into later stages of life.

B) Bilingualism, technology, and aging

1. We embarked on studies that investigate elderly’s attitudes toward technology and seek to understand how technology-driven language intervention can help to slow down the cognitive decline in the elderly population. Past studies suggest that bilingualism provides a neural and cognitive reserve that protects against the effects of ageing. Furthermore, many elderly cognitive interventions depend on the involvement of staff and caregivers. Such interventions require substantial time commitment on the part of staff and caregivers and not scalable to large groups of patients. Despite many benefits of bilingualism, including the delay of onset of dementia, there have not been any intervention programs based on dual-language engagement in a scalable form that is elderly-friendly. This project works with engineering colleagues to research, design, and implement a scalable, elderly-friendly, dual-language based cognitive intervention program, and make it available to our community day care partner in the form of a multi-modal touch screen technology. We developed DISC (Dual-Language Intervention in Semantic memory – Computerized), which is a dual-language app to be implemented as a novel intervention technology to delay the onset and/or slow down the rate of cognitive decline in adults aged 60 years and above. DISC is the first bilingual challenge tool founded on solid science available to specifically intervene with cognitive decline in older adults.  Our intervention study found that: both cognitively healthy and dementia older adults showed significant improvement in attitude and interest in technology use; finger-tapping performance of both groups and verbal memory improved after participating in our DISC program; dual-language helps improve memory; and DISC slowed down the cognitive decline in dementia older adults. We are currently working on translation and commercializing the app to benefit more older adults.

2. The availability and use of technology in reading, literacy and education have increased in recent years (such as e-books, tablets, smart devices, robots, etc.). We are interested in understanding how technology can affect development as well as how to harness it to best affect development through research and design.  One of our project investigates whether enhancing multimedia features in e-books (e.g., voice-reading and pointing-animation) and smart devices are effective in (1) directing bilingual preschoolers’ attention to print in the target language in dual-language books, (2) improving preschoolers’ comprehension and (3) increasing their preferences to read books even in their weaker language.

3. Assistive Technology (AT) has become a prevalent form of dyslexia intervention for addressing students’ reading and learning. Besides improved reading and learning outcomes, AT use can also help to address students’ psycho-social and behavioural needs. We developed Lexicaid, is a novel mobile application, collaboratively based on input from various dyslexia stakeholders. To determine the efficacy of Lexicaid, a preliminary user study was conducted with students undergoing formal dyslexia remediation at the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. Participants were assessed on their reading motivation, self-perception, and reading and language skills before and after the intervention period. Overall findings suggest that students saw improvements in their self-perception of writing and reading capabilities as well as a greater value in reading after the intervention using Lexicaid.









C) Bilingual effects on executive control in young adults and elderly

These studies investigate the effect of bilingualism on the subdomains of executive control processes including inhibition, shifting and updating. Other researchers have found the benefits associated with bilingualism on inhibition and attentional control in young children. Our present studies examine the performance in various behavioral tasks (i.e. stroop, flanker, task switching) of both young adults and elderly in Singapore. We also explore the relationship between executive control and different aspects of language background such as age-of-acquisition in L2, language proficiency and code-switching to better understand the mechanism of bilingual effects on executive control.

D) Collaborative studies:

1. Aging and design 

In collaboration with architect colleagues, we have investigated how the design of social infrastructure (e.g., the availability of space for physical exercise, the distance between house and medical facilities) is related to the pattern of elderly’s activities and their psychological well-being (e.g. depression, satisfaction). The continual research efforts will focus on using a cross-disciplinary and multi-method approach that combines traditional census, survey-based research and ethnography with data gathered through mobile phone applications and social media platforms to (re)define segments of Housing Development Board town residents. This data will then be brought together and analyzed in a ‘big data’ analytical framework.

We have also embarked on a large-scale project to study the geo-sociodemographics of our population. We engaged in a cross-disciplinary platform to create a collaborative and inspiring neighborhood where people can experience and achieve important moments in their lives as well as to leverage on the social capital of the community to cultivate intergenerational connections to facilitate ageing-in-communities.

2. Multi-robot-human interaction

In this line of research, we collaborate with our engineering colleagues to explore how to compensate the inherent stress in defense and security operations by device design, specifically human machine interaction design. The increasing complexity of military technology is further adding to cognitive load and stress, thus further calling for devices designed for better human performance under critical situations. We implemented iterative experimental plan to design interfaces to build a demonstrator user interface that enables a single human operator to operate at least two robots in a stressful multitasking mission that would be beyond the human cognitive capability without the interface. This project involves measuring cognitive loading and physiological performances at micro level (such as eye gaze behaviour) and macro level (such as number of errors made), using sensors such as electroencephalography, eye tracker and physiological sensors, mapping cognitive processes, particularly cognitive ability, involved in multi-robot operation tasks, examining the effectiveness of various interface types and/or modalities used to complete or switch tasks, and finally deriving design principles from the above, including decisions on the most effective combinations of types and modalities of interface and visualization.

3. Pervasive sensing-based social network study

In this line of research, we collaborate with computer scientists to study the physical and cyber social network of students and its impact on various social, psychological and academic outcomes, such as friendship, belongingness, individual well-being, etc. Innovative pervasive-sensing technologies based on smartphone platform are used to collect anonymous information regarding interactions among students and patterns of language and phone use. Based on the homophily principle and the assimilation principle, we examined whether 1) friendship networks can be inferred from mobile phone data (e.g. physical co- location), 2) mobile phone usage (call and SMS) influences students’ psychological well-being, such as feelings of loneliness, sense of community and adjustment to collegelife, and 3) mobile phone social networks co-evolve with students’ language use in communication, in particular, theircode-switching behavior (switching between two or more languages in the context of a single conversation).