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Alison Wray  BA (Hons), D.Phil (York), FHEA, FAcSS, FLSW

Professor Alison Wray


BA (Hons), D.Phil (York), FHEA, FAcSS, FLSW

Research Professor

School of English, Communication and Philosophy

+44 29208 74762
John Percival Building, Room 3.37, Colum Drive, Cardiff, CF10 3EU
Available for postgraduate supervision


I am a linguist with a particular interest in conceptualising what happens at the interface of cognition, social interaction and the linguistic system. Most of my research has been on formulaic language and on dementia communication (see 'Research' tab) with a strong emphasis on explanation, rather than description.

If you are interested in doing a PhD under my supervision, please go to the 'Supervision' tab where there are indications of topics I would like to see someone work on. You can also pitch your own topic idea to me via email - but since I have limited space for students, I am only looking for imaginative projects with good potential to contribute significant and interesting new knowledge.

*** My book The Dynamics of Dementia Communication (2020, Oxford University Press) has been awarded two prestigious prizes.

Winner of the 2021 Book Prize of the British Association for Applied Linguistics

Comment from the BAAL judges: “This is an impressive volume which constructs a very wide-ranging umbrella framework for understanding dementia communication, an area of increasing importance in our society. The book presents some very big and bold questions about how best to communicate with people living with dementia from the very start, and as the work proceeds, these questions are answered in a detailed and meticulous way."

Runner up in the American Association for Applied Linguistics Book Award 2021-22

Comment from the AAAL judges: "This book is a beautifully written, interdisciplinary tour de force that focuses on the human experience of dementia and, specifically, how the illness affects communication, for both the person living with dementia and their interlocutors. With evidence-based guidance for how to support and look after people with dementia, it will appeal not only to linguists, but to medical workers and caregivers, as well. The book offers a critique of popular conceptions about the diseases of dementia and their symptoms. Each of the chapters displays—and calls for—sincere compassion and empathy for persons with dementia and for their caregivers and interlocutors. Furthermore, the book reflects the researcher’s trajectory and growth as an expert in the field by building on her earlier research on formulaic language. As such, it is an inspiring example of how expertise in one area (formulaic language) can build bridges to other areas of applied linguistics (language in healthcare)"

I am a member of the Centre for Language and Communication Research and the Formulaic Language Research Network

View my animated films drawn by David Hallangen and voiced by Sir Tony Robinson:

(1) Understanding the Challenges of Dementia Communication

(2) Dementia: the Communication Disease

(3) Dementia communication across language boundaries: developing language awareness

Watch my half hour lecture focussing on the role of context in dementia communication at: Reading between the lines: understanding the challenges of dementia communication

Hear me on BBC Radio 4's Word of Mouth, talking about dementia communication, Wray on Word of Mouth

Read an article about my work in Medical News Today (4th June 2021) here: Dementia Research: Prof Alison Wray discusses the importance of communication




































  • Wray, A. 2000. Pronunciation of the texts. [CD]. Salisbury Cathedral Boy Choristers, Gabrieli Consort & Paul McCreesh. John Sheppard: Missa Cantata. CD recording 457 15 April 2024.

Book sections







The central focus of my research is developing innovative models that can account for patterns observed in language. My primary contribution at the present time is understanding the causes of disrupted communication when someone is living with a dementia - not just how the underlying brain damage affects the production and comprehension of language, but also what happens to the norms of social interaction when they interface with the cognitive disruptions caused by dementia.This work on dementia developed from and builds on my previous work over many years, in characterising formulaic language (prefabricated wordstrings).

Formulaic language encompasses strings of words that:

  • appear to be stored whole in memory for convenience (e.g. thank you very much; what I mean is)
  • are particularly frequent in text (e.g. in the middle of?)
  • have a social importance for particular people (e.g. present arms)
  • are memorised or repeated,
  • and/or are non-compositional in form or meaning (e.g. by and large; woe betide).

Drawing on observations of formulaic language in a variety of contexts, I have developed  models of how language is learned, processed and stored, and have applied them, through experiments and other investigations, to issues in first and second language acquisition, language disability and the evolution of language. I have written about the role of formulaic language in translation, the capacity for formulaic language materially to improve the quality of a non-native speaker's interaction, and the nature of formulaic language in language disorders including Alzheimer’s Disease.

Current research

The Communicative Impact model: In 2014, I began work on a new model of how the act of communication interfaces with language processing. It draws together socio-interactional and pragmatic theory with models of cognition, to demonstrate how forms of language are shaped by what we need to achieve through communication, and how language is used to make good shortfalls in communication when the speaker is under cognitive pressure. The model combines my previous work on formulaic language, Alzheimer’s Disease and second language acquisition, and it is designed to offer opportunities for experimental interventions in situations where communication is typically undermined by reduced cognitive capacity and/or lexical access problems, including Alzheimer’s and post-childhood foreign language learning. The model is described in most detail in my 2020 book The Dynamics of Dementia Communication (Oxford University Press),

Based on the model, I've scripted three animated films about aspects of dementia communication ( the challenges of dementia communication (2017, 16min) presents key ideas from my research in layman’s terms. Dementia: the ‘communication disease’ (2018, 18min) offers practical ideas for approaching communication in new ways. The focus of Dementia communication across language boundaries (2020, 31min) is when carer and client aren’t fluent in the same language. Funded by the Norwegian Research Council, this film also has a Norwegian version. The English versions are all voiced by British actor Sir Tony Robinson.

With my collaboration, Six Degrees Social Enterprise in Salford, UK, has developed workshops to support professional and family carers of people with dementia that use my ideas to address the causes and help alleviate the stress of being a carer in this context.

Linguistic theory at the boundaries: The development of macro-theory that relates linguistic form and function to the cognitive and social aspects of language behaviour. Rooted in the models of formulaic language acquisition and use (see above) more recently they have broadened to examine the ‘word’ as an inherently vague phenomenon, language as a fundamentally hybrid system, and a new theory of how cognitive and social pressures on language production are managed into a steady state of fluency using options in form selection.

Predicting dementia: Supported by funding from Alzheimer’s BRACE and the British Academy/Leverhulme, I am PI on a project exploring early linguistic markers of risk for future Alzheimer’s disease. The study participants are part of a parent project called PREVENT, funded by the Alzheimer’s Society (PI Prof Craig Ritchie, University of Edinburgh).

Reconstructing pronunciation: In the past I have researched historical pronunciation, reconstructing English and other languages for performances and recordings of early music. In this capacity I have advised on over 80 commercial CD recordings (including some international award winners), BBC broadcasts and major public concerts.

Research expertise in the social sciences: In a separate strand of research and training, I have explored the nature of research expertise in the social sciences, particularly ‘thinking like an expert’. This work, with Mike Wallace as co-I, was supported by a three-year ESRC Researcher Development Initiative Award (see Wray & Wallace 2011 for an account of the principles). Mike and I are also co-authors of Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates and conduct workshops for PhD and early career researchers on this topic. In 2010 I gained two coaching qualifications and developed a brand of coaching suitable for the university research context.

Current and past funded projects

  • 2023: £4855 UKRI Harmonised Impact Acceleration Account to initiate dementia communication collaborative work with the Māori community, New Zealand
  • 2023: £3000 from ESRC Impact Accelerator fund to create DVDs of animated films about dementia communication
  • 2018-21: £10000 from the British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grants Fund, for work on the predicting future Alzheimer's through language patterns
  • 2017: £6000 from the ESRC Impact Accelerator fund to develop an animation 'Dementia: the Communication Disease',  released 2018
  • 2016: £15000 for Cardiff University Research Leave Fellowship
  • 2016: £15,500 from IELTS (transferred from UC Dublin). A comparison study of students’ strategy use in reading texts for the IELTS test and those for academic study. Researcher: Jie Liu
  • 2016 Research Council of Norway, £11,000 (Cardiff portion of a larger grant). Collaboration with University of Oslo and Tess Fitzpatrick, Language and Communication in Multilingual Speakers with Dementia in Norway.
  • 2015: £3000 from the ESRC Impact Accelerator fund. This project focusses on developing training materials to support those who care for people with dementia. These materials are the ‘impact’ dimension of my current research into ‘communicative impact’, which examines the unaccustomed pragmatic spaces that are created in conversations with a person with dementia
  • 2014-15: £40,000 grant from Alzheimer’s BRACE to look for early linguistic markers of future Alzheimer’s disease. Co-investigators and researchers: Dr Andreas Buerki, Prof Tess Fitzpatrick, Dr Michael Willett, Dr Katy Jones. Poster from the 2015 Brace Annual meeting

  • 2014: £5000 from the Cardiff University College for Arts and Social Sciences Pilot project fund, to test the research instruments for the Alzheimer’s BRACE project. The pilot was conducted in collaboration with members of the Monmouth University of the Third Age

  • 2010-14: £100,000 from the ESRC Researcher Development Initiative scheme, to develop training materials for enhancing expert thinking and problem solving in the social sciences. Co-I: Professor Mike Wallace, Cardiff University. Publications: 2014a, 2015a

  • 2010-12: £303,000 from the Welsh Assembly Government. I was academic director of a project exploring how to improve the teaching of Welsh to adults. Collaborators were from the Cardiff Welsh for Adults Centre and School of Welsh and Oxford and Swansea Universities

  • 2010-11: £76,000 from the ESRC, for psycholinguistic phenotyping of lexical retrieval preferences through an analysis of word association behaviour. PI: Dr Tess Fitzpatrick, Swansea University. Researcher: Dr David Playfoot. In collaboration with genetic epidemiologists at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, Brisbane. This work compared teenage and >65 yr old twins, to identify patterns of difference in word retrieval. Publications so far: 2013f

  • 2007-08: £100,000 from the AHRC to develop new analytic techniques for profiling language phenotypes in genetic research. Co-I: Dr Tess Fitzpatrick; researcher: Eugene Mollet. In collaboration with genetic epidemiologists at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research, Brisbane. This work entailed a multifaceted programme of profiles of written data by native speaker twins, in order to explore the relative roles of genetics and environment on patterns in linguistic performance. Publications: 2010c, 2011e

  • 2006-07: £13,000 from IELTS to develop a practical approach to the accurate evaluation of linguistic knowledge when memorised material is reproduced in language tests. Co-I Dr Christine Pegg, Cardiff University and IELTS. Publications: 2009e

  • 2002-03: £51,000 from the AHRB for research into how unintentional changes during the reproduction of memorised material indicate both the linguistic knowledge of language learners, and their attitude to risk. Project researcher: Tess Fitzpatrick. Publications: 2006e, 2008e, 2010b

  • 1999-2000: £5,000 from the Nuffield Foundation for analysis of data from TALK, a conversation aid for people with cerebral palsy, based on formulaic language. Publications: 2002b, 2010b

  • 1988-91: £61,000 from the Leverhulme Trust for practical and theoretical work on pronunciation in singing. Publications: 1988, 1989, 1990a, 1992b,c, 1995a,b, 1999a, 2000a, 2002e-g, 2003a,b.

Student support and capacity building

In 2002 I founded an informal association of researchers called the Formulaic Language Research Network (FLaRN), which has more than 200 members. It is primarily aimed at PhD students but also has many members in academic posts. If you are interested in joining, please email for information. Since 2004, FLaRN has had several biennial conferences, the most recent being hosted by the Dept of English Philology, University of Vilnius, Lithuania, June 28-30th 2016.

I supervise PhD students on aspects of formulaic language in first and second language contexts, and dementia communication.For more information on topics I would particularly like to supervise, see the 'Supervision' tab.

Current PhD students

  • Axel Bergstrom: Understanding the linguistic, pragmatic and relational determinants of effective communication in dementia care in Wales: implications for training
  • Hossein Rezaie: How do linguistic choices signal the market position of HE institutions in their prospectuses?

Past successful PhD students

  • Helen Emery: Spelling in Arab learners of English. Awarded 2005
  • Iain McGee: Formulaic Language and Second Language Learning/Teaching. Awarded 2006.
  • Kazuhiko Namba: Bilingual children’s code-switching: a structural approach and formulaic language. Awarded May 2008.
  • Yanling Su: Formulaic language acquisition and individual differences. Awarded December 2008.
  • Amjad Saleem: Memorising in a language you don’t speak. Awarded 2015.
  • Mark Maby: Second language learners’ acquisition of polysemous words. Awarded 2017
  • Dale Brown: Japanese learners' productive knowledge of English collocations. Awarded 2018
  • John Racine: Second language word association: processes, methodologies and models. Awarded 2019
  • Peter Thwaites: Why do linguistic aspects of cue words constrain word association responses? Awarded 2019
  • Stephen Cutler: The role of formulaic language in speech memorisation and production in L2 speakers of English. Awarded 2020
  • Rowan Campbell: Levelling in the Cardiff accent of English. Awarded 2021
  • Mike Green: The role of phonological patterns and etymology in the acquisition of formulaic sequence. Awarded 2022



I have a BA and D.Phil in linguistics from the University of York and did a 3 year postdoc in the Music Department of the same university. After working as a linguistics lecturer at what is now York St John University in York, I became Assistant Director of the Wales Applied Language Research Unit, Swansea University. In 1999 I was made a senior research fellow at Cardiff University, and subsequently a Reader, Professor and Research Professor.

I was Director of Research for the School of English Communication and Philosophy from 2004 to 2016.


Formulaic language: In particular, I'd be interested to have someone look at:

- the processes by which art song words are memorised in one's first language and other languages. This topic would suit someone with training in linguistics or psychology and a strong interest in western art song.

- ways of answering the following question: Why don’t second language learners more proactively target formulaic sequences? which I posed and discussed in the concluding chapter of Siyanova-Chanturia, A and Pellicer-Sanchez, A. (eds.) Understanding Formulaic Language: A Second Language Acquisition Perspective. Routledge, p.248-269. This research would transcend pure classroom observation and experimentatio and also teacher and student surveying, to engage at a much deeper theoretical level about the nature of language, communication and learning.

Dementia communication: projects focussing, for instance:

-  applying communication theory to our understanding of why communication is challenging when one of the speakers is living with a dementia;

- comparing the challenges of dementia communication with those of using a second language

Current supervision

Hoss Rezaie

Hoss Rezaie

Research student

Axel Bergstrom

Axel Bergstrom

Research student