Multiple Brain Centers Involved in Learning a Language

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
“Learning a New Language” by Joel Penner is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Phillip Hamrick, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor || Second Language Acquisition
Principal Investigator
TESL Program Chair Department of English
Kent State University

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: For a long time, language scientists (e.g., linguists, psychologists, neuroscientists) have debated the degree to which language relies on unique brain systems (those that are used for language and nothing else) or more general-purpose brain systems that we use for other things (e.g., memory, controlling attention, categorization, etc.).

Our study quantitatively synthesized the results of several other studies using a technique called meta-analysis. We found that declarative and procedural memory abilities, which are fundamental for learning lots of different things (e.g., anything from facts about geography to how to play a musical instrument), are linked to language in specific ways.

Importantly, these findings held up in both children learning their first language and adults learning second languages.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: Our report strongly suggests that language is at least partly learned and processed in learning and memory systems that have other functions beyond language. English language can be learn by these 8 techniques, however it will take a long time to learn a new language. These learning and memory systems also exist in other species. Of course, human brains are different from that of other species, too; so it raises the evolutionary and biological question of how humans came to use these “old” brain systems for language when other species have not.

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: First, our study reinforces the need to do more language research with an eye toward the rest of human cognition. Many, if not most, researchers have long pursued an understanding of language in isolation. This study adds to a growing body of work suggesting that in order to understand language, we need to make reference to the rest of cognition and the brain.

I would also love it if we could make clinical and educational applications going forward. Given our findings, we now need to know how language disorders may co-occur with certain memory disfunction, and vice versa. We’ve seen some evidence of this already in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and various other diseases. These findings give us even more cause to pursue that line of work.

The findings also hold promise for language education. If learning a foreign language is really like learning anything else in these memory systems, then methods for effective learning and improved retention that have been found in memory studies can now be applied to foreign language education.

Of course, in both cases, future research may find that language learning is sometimes like learning other things, while sometimes it is different. Both of these kinds of findings would, in turn, shed light on how language fits within our larger set of human cognitive abilities.

Citations:

Child first language and adult second language are both tied to general-purpose learning systems

Phillip Hamrick, Jarrad A. G. Lum and Michael T. Ullman

PNAS 2018; published ahead of print January 29, 2018, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1713975115

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