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Dr. Clifton Langdon Selected as New Faculty Member for Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience Program

May 02, 2013

Gallaudet University announced that Clifton Langdon, Ph.D., G-’13 has been selected as the first faculty hire in Gallaudet’s new Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience (PEN) program, an interdisciplinary research study of biological processes in early childhood development and their application to educational environments and policy.

Langdon, who successfully defended his dissertation on December 11, 2013, was part of a select group of students spanning multiple universities to receive a four-year pre-doctoral research fellowship in the National Science Foundation and Gallaudet University’s Science of Learning Center, Visual Language and Visual Learning (VL2). Termed “The VL2 Scholar,” students with this honor receive Graduate Research Assistantships with a tuition waiver and are provided with richly diverse opportunities for training and internships across multiple disciplines in science. Langdon’s training began in the laboratory of Dr. Paul Dudis, associate professor and chair of the Department of Linguistics. Langdon also began to work with Dr. Deborah Chen Pichler to advance his studies on the acquisition of signed languages. When Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto, VL2’s co-principal investigator, and science director, opened her Brain and Language Laboratory for Neuroimaging (BL2) in late 2011, Langdon added complementary training in brain neuroimaging for language to his on-going work in theoretical linguistics with Dr. Chen Pichler, with whom he continued to work. Together, Langdon's training in the Dudis, Chen Pichler, and Petitto labs permitted him to address fundamental questions about the nature of a child’s developing brain regarding language, especially young deaf children’s acquisition of important aspects of American Sign Language and their neural underpinnings.

“The constellation of research agendas at the core of VL2 and BL2 enables a productive push toward answering critical questions about how all children learn, especially the young deaf visual learner,” said Langdon. “I am also thrilled to be in a new program that is dedicated to the advancement of knowledge of these topics. The new Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience compels us to discover what human language and human cognition truly mean, and how our brain and mind allow us to function and, crucially, to learn most optimally.”

Dr. Langdon’s work in the fields of linguistics and cognitive neuroscience advances understanding of the structure of all human language, language acquisition, bilingualism, and reading-research strengths that are powerfully aligned with the overarching mission and priorities of the new Ph.D. in Educational Neuroscience program that he enters.

Dr. Langdon arrives at his new position with student mentorship, supervision, and teaching experience as well as research experience and training in a number of renowned research laboratories since 2005. His research on how an individual’s age when first exposed to language impacts the way the mind processes linguistic structures has already added to scientific discussion regarding the nature of the developing brain for language, sensitive periods in development, and how the brain supports language acquisition when children learn a language at a later age versus birth.

As PEN’s new faculty member, Dr. Langdon is enthusiastic about building an exciting scientific research program that will have an important impact on science, society, and the training of the next generation of young scholars. He is also committed to stimulating a two-way exchange between science and educators. “I am committed to not only making fundamental discoveries in science but to also find two-way common ground where science may be applied in principled ways towards the resolution of problems in education today,” he said. Langdon’s research program includes three closely-related questions: (1) How do particular parts of sign language, like the generative formation of classifier constructions in ASL, reveal the interplay between universals in human language structure versus the modality in which language resides; (2) How does delayed language acquisition impact the child’s language processing, language learning, and early reading acquisition; (3) How neurally plastic is human auditory processing tissue and what impact does early versus late bilingual language exposure have on auditory tissue development (especially involving early bilingual exposure to signed and spoken languages in young cochlear implanted children versus early monolingual spoken-only language exposure).

Hired at the typical early-career rank of Assistant Professor, Dr. Langdon is housed within VL2 along with with the new PEN program administrative headquarters. In addition, Langdon enjoys an affiliation with the Department of Hearing Speech and Language Sciences.

“The Linguistic Structure and Neural Representation of Classifier Constructions: Through the Lens of Child Acquisition and fNIRS Neuroimaging of Adults,” Langdon’s dissertation, starts with a comparison of two opposing views of a child’s basic language development, and finds that neither approach offers a decisive advantage over the other. On one view, the creative nature of classifier constructions is viewed as being fundamentally formed of gestures and unlike (or outside of) comparable parts of grammar in spoken language. In another view, they share deeply with generative grammatical constructions in spoken language. He tests these approaches by introducing a set of predicted behavioral (linguistic), and, crucially, neuroanatomical (brain) outcomes based on the underlying assumptions that each approach carries. The predictions are then tested in a neuroimaging and language experiment in adults, with the data supporting linguistic proposals that recognize the importance that grammatical systems play in the processing of all human language, be it signed or spoken. The findings have powerful implications spanning the disciplines of cognitive neuroscience and linguistics. They also have exciting implications for the education of young sign-exposed deaf children, as they identify the healthy and typical processes underlying the acquisition of this important grammatical construction.

“Clifton Langdon is one of the top young scientists in the nation and we are lucky to have him lead our fledgling Ph.D. program in Educational Neuroscience, the first of its kind in the Washington, D.C. area,” said Petitto. “He is the perfect person to guide our Ph.D. students to generate scientific discoveries that have a direct and meaningful impact on the lives and education of young visual learners.”

Growing out of the NSF mission that it's VL2 Science of Learning Center provide enduring training to students, PEN was founded by the program’s Director Thomas Allen (VL2 co-principal investigator), Associate Director Melissa Herzig (VL2 Translation and Research Manager) and PEN Steering Committee Chair Laura-Ann Petitto, in collaboration with the departments of psychology, linguistics, interpreting, education, and hearing, speech, and language sciences.

Educational Neuroscience is devoted to understanding the brain processes across development that make possible human learning, with a special focus on how young children learn knowledge at the heart of early schooling. Students in the program have access to one of the world’s most advanced neuroimaging systems in Petitto’s BL2 at Gallaudet, direct access to a vast network of leaders in neuroimaging laboratories at VL2’s network of partnership universities across the nation, advanced training in neuroethics, as well as state-of-the-art training in the translation of science and education.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the PEN program will produce discoveries about how the mind acquires knowledge in different domains, such as language and bilingualism, reading, math, science, and social-emotional development, and direct these discoveries to address core challenges in education for visual learners,” added Langdon.

In addition to his Ph.D. in Linguistics, Langdon holds an A.A. in Liberal Studies from Palomar Community College, a B.A. in Linguistics from California State University San Marcos, and an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet University. Langdon’s Ph.D. dissertation committee consisted of Dr. Deborah Chen Pichler, Dr. Paul Dudis, Dr. Gaurav Mather from the Department of Linguistics and Dr. Daniel Koo from the Department of Psychology.

Langdon’s position as PEN professor became effective in January 2014 and his leadership and teaching excellence have already been noted with praise by his students. Adam Stone, one of PEN’s two new graduate students who entered fall 2013, along with Geo Kartheiser, said: “Dr. Langdon is an excellent teacher and scientist, and I am inspired by him as a role model.”

Gallaudet University, federally chartered in 1864, is a bilingual, diverse, multicultural institution of higher education that ensures the intellectual and professional advancement of deaf and hard of hearing individuals through American Sign Language and English. Gallaudet maintains a proud tradition of research and scholarly activity and prepares its graduates for career opportunities in a highly competitive, technological, and rapidly changing world.


Kaitlin Luna, Coordinator of Media and Public Relations

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