Language Utilizes Ancient Brain Circuits That Predate Humans

A new paper by an international team of researchers presents strong evidence that language is learned using two general-purpose brain systems (declarative memory and procedural memory) that are evolutionarily ancient and not language specific. Contrary to popular belief, the researchers found that children learning their native language and adults learning a foreign language do not rely on brain circuitry specifically dedicated to language learning. Instead, language acquisition piggybacks on ancient, general-purpose neurocognitive mechanisms that preexist Homo sapiens.

These findings were published online January 29, 2018, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). For this analysis, the research team statistically synthesized the findings of 16 previous studies that examined language learning via declarative and procedural memory, which are two well-studied brain systems.

What Is the Difference Between Declarative Memory and Procedural Memory?

Declarative memory refers to crystallized knowledge that you could learn while sitting in a chair without having to practice finely-tuned motor coordination. Declarative memories, such as knowing all 50 states and the District of Columbia or memorizing SAT vocab words, can easily be described on a written test. On the flip side, procedural memory encompasses things like playing a musical instrument or riding a bicycle, which everyone must learn by actually performing the task. Over time, procedural memory becomes automatized in unconscious ways through practice, practice, practice.

Over a decade ago, when I created “The Athlete’s Way” program to optimize sports performance, the foundation of my coaching method was to take a dual-pronged approach that targeted declarative (explicit) memory and procedural (implicit) memory separately. Notably, the discovery that ancient brain circuits are used to learn a language—and are also used to master sports—corroborates that these neurocognitive systems have multiple purposes.

“These brain systems are also found in animals. For example, rats use them when they learn to navigate a maze,” co-author Phillip Hamrick of Kent State University in Ohio said in a statement. “Whatever changes these systems might have undergone to support language, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability is quite remarkable.”

Interestingly, results of this analysis showed that memorizing vocabulary words used in a language relied on declarative memory. However, grammar and syntax, which allow us to fluidly combine words into sentences that follow the rules of a language, relies more on procedural memory.

When acquiring their native language, children utilize procedural memory to master grammar and syntax without necessarily “knowing” the rules. However, when adults begin to learn a second language, grammatical rules are initially memorized using declarative memory. As would be expected, grammar and syntax switch to procedural memory systems at later stages of language acquisition as someone becomes more fluent.

“The findings have broad research, educational, and clinical implications” co-author Jarrad Lum of Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia said in a statement.

Read more: Psychology Today

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