SF State language disorder lab tailors therapies to better serve multilingual people

Strips of different colored paper scattered everywhere. On each paper is a word for "thank you" in different languages.

Professor, students develop tool to provide therapy in multiple languages

The symptoms can be alarming: reading a billboard and not recognizing basic words or looking at an object and forgetting its name. These experiences are common for people with aphasia, a language disorder that can occur after a stroke or head injury affecting more than one million people nationwide.

There are therapies to alleviate aphasia symptoms, but a San Francisco State University professor noticed a potential flaw: some common treatments do not adequately meet the needs of multilingual people. So she designed a lab on campus that provides therapies that do.

Meet Assistant Professor of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences Teresa Gray, founder and director of San Francisco State’s Gray Matter Lab, which provides care for people with aphasia. While the lab helps monolingual people, in recent years Gray has doubled down on improving the lab’s services for multilingual people.

“A lot of therapies that we use for adults with aphasia are based on studies focused on monolingual people,” Gray said. “Only in the last five to seven years have we seen more bilingual treatment studies. We adapted our lab with these studies in mind.” An increasing bilingual population in the U.S. also suggested the need for a multicultural approach to aphasia therapy, she adds.

In response, the lab began offering BAbSANT therapy (Bilingual Abstract Semantic Associative Network Training) in language combinations including English, Spanish, Tagalog, Russian, Polish and Chinese. This treatment helps clients who have difficulty naming abstract and concrete words, Gray says.                                                               

Using BAbSANT, the clinician working with a client discusses words within a particular category such as fruits or animals. The clinician then asks the client to describe features of the words, such as what it looks like, where it’s found or what it’s made of. Answering these questions helps the client name more words in the category, Gray explains.

In partnership with Pennsylvania State University and Boston University, Gray and her students also developed a free online interactive tool — which is used in their lab — that helps clinicians conduct BAbSANT therapy in three languages: English, Chinese and Spanish. Their goal is to expand to 23 languages.

Jadine Ong Veluya (B.S., ’20) is among the many students helping with the expansion. A member of the lab as an undergraduate student (she graduated in the Spring with a bachelor’s degree in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences), she returned to the lab this fall. As a graduate student in the same major, Veluya is working on bringing Tagalog to the online tool. “The cultural and linguistic diversity is what makes the lab unique and really special,” Veluya said. “That can be hard to find anywhere else.” 

Hannah Khorassani (B.S., ’20) is another grad student who has been instrumental in shaping the lab. Like Veluya, Khorassani earned a bachelor’s degree in Speech, Language, and Hearing Science in the spring and has enrolled at SF State this semester to continue her studies in the same field.  

Khorassani helps organize the Conversation Club, a weekly group where the lab clinicians, students and clients gather to casually converse. Because adults with aphasia may feel insecure about their fluency, the club was designed to create a safe space where clients can improve their ability to communicate. 

“I love the clients, especially in our Conversation Club,” Khorassani said. “I feel like I get to really know them and hear their experiences. It helps me better understand how I can help them.” 

Adults with aphasia need to engage in everyday conversations so that they can improve their speech. But with the COVID-19 pandemic limiting in-person interactions, clients may not be getting the opportunities they once did. That hasn’t stopped the Conversation Club. Members have been meeting via Zoom. Khorassani helped with the transition, planning the activities and designing the program to be more inclusive of multilingual people.  

“What makes the lab unique is not only its commitment to helping underserved populations but also how it’s designed to let students be part of that experience in a hands-on way,” Gray said. “Students are so involved throughout the process, and I make sure that’s a priority.”