Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory

Do children use the same memory system for learning language structures and bike riding?

A recent article from Dr. Mainela-Arnold’s Language and Cognitive Development Laboratory appearing in the Journal of Child Language suggests that they do (Mainela-Arnold & Evans, 2014). This study examined the procedural-declarative memory (PD) hypothesis. According to the PD hypothesis (Ullman, 2004), structural aspects of language, like grammar and the sound system, are learned via procedural memory. Procedural memory is a memory system known to be involved in acquiring skills involving sequences, like learning how to ride a bike. The meanings of words are hypothesized to be learned by a different memory system, declarative memory. Declarative memory is known to be involved in storing memories for facts. Consistent with the PD hypothesis, the study found that children’s ability for learning sequences predicted their ability for processing the sound structure of words they heard. However, children’s ability for learning sequences was not associated with their ability to explain meanings of those words.

Following up on this finding, current research in the Language and Cognitive Development Lab examines parallels between language and motor learning in children with varying language abilities.  Recent investigations have established neural and genetic mechanisms that may be common to language and motor sequential learning (e.g., Lai, Gerrelli, Monaco, Fisher, & Copp, 2003; Takahashi, Liu, Hirokawa, & Takahashi, 2003; Wong, Ettlinger, & Zheng, 2013; Nishitani, Schurmann, Amunts, & Hari, 2005). Research conducted by Dr. Mainela-Arnold and trainees Teenu Sanjeevan and Ji Sook Park, Ph.D., is linking these advances with cognition and language in children with varying language abilities. This research is ground breaking, because unlike the majority of past research in language development, it places us in a position to hypothesize about language and cognitive profiles that may directly link to variations in genes and neural development.

One practical implication currently being examined in the lab is if learning motor sequences can be used to identify language learning impairments in children who come from diverse linguistic backgrounds. At the early stage of bilingualism, it is hard for teachers and speech-language pathologists to determine if the child is a typical bilingual learner or has special difficulties learning the structure of language. If non-verbal abilities, like the ability to learn a motor sequence, discriminate between individuals who differ in the neural-biological ability of language learning, it is possible that in the future, they can be used as diagnostic or screening tools, at little financial cost and time but with great potential benefits.

Reference List

Lai, C. S. L., Gerrelli, D., Monaco, A. P., Fisher, S. E., & Copp, A. J. (2003). FOXP2 expression during brain development coincides with adult sites of pathology in a severe speech and language disorder. Brain, 126, 2455-2462.

Mainela-Arnold, E. & Evans, J.L. (2014) Do statistical segmentation abilities predict lexical-phonological and lexical-semantic abilities in children with and without SLI? Journal of Child Language 41,  327-351

Nishitani, N., Schurmann, M., Amunts, K., & Hari, R. (2005). Broca’s region: from action to language. Physiology, 20, 60-69.

Takahashi, K., Liu, F. C., Hirokawa, K., & Takahashi, H. (2003). Expression of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language, in the developing and adult striatum. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 73, 61-72.

Ullman, M. T. (2004). Contributions of memory circuits to language: The declarative/procedural model. Cognition, 92, 231-270.

Wong, P. C., Ettlinger, M., & Zheng, J. (2013). Linguistic Grammar Learning and -TAQ-IA Polymorphism. PLoS.One., 8, e64983.