Memory and Language Acquisition


23 Mar 2015 02 Jan 2018

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Memory and language acquisition


The study of second language acquisition through the analysis of the language learners mental process and strategies seeing how researchers investigate on language learning and processing;how they collect the data;which factors,mechanisms and processes they examine for constracting and testing theories.The exploration of human mind following the cognitive psychology theories applying to the Multi-store memory model (Atkinsons and Shiffrin) and the Working memory model (Baddeley) in connection with the relationship between memory and language,trying to understand also the implication in quotidian actions of words temporary memory.A look on the links between memory and attention demonstrated by the Cowan's Embedded-processes model of working memory,showing how memory and attention are involved in language acquisition.The attempt is the comprehension of the way in which learners acquire a second language ,how they develop their linguistic and communicative competences and in which processes are involved in.


It is not possible to do a direct inspection on the learners mental knowledge.This can only be inferred by examining samples of the learners performance.Second language researchers have used different kinds of performance to try to investigate competence.Very different results can be obtained depending on the kind of performance data the researcher studies.Researchers disagree about what kind of performance they think provides the best evidence of acquisition.It is impostant to examine carefully the nature of the data used and the way in which acquisition has been measured,in reading reports of actual studies.The goal of second language researchers  is the description and the explanation of the learners'linguistic and communicative competence.The study of how learners learn a second language does not have a very old story (the surge of empirical work that inform current thinking did not begin until the late 1960s).The study of learners-external factors and learner-internal mechanisms constitutes an attempt to how second language acquisition takes place (learner-internal mechanisms concern on how learners use their resources in communication and on how they acquire the language,these mechanisms are mental and largely hidden from view althuoght not necessarly completely unconscious).Then there is the question of individual learners differences and what causes them.Learners set about the task of acquiring a second language in different ways.They differ with regard to such general factors as motivation and aptitude,and also in the use of various strategies for obtaining  input and for learning from it.he study of these general factors and on the learning strategies helps to explain why some learners more and more rapidly than others and why they reach higher level of proficiency.Learners language study is the starting point of  the exploration of second language acquisition because it provides the data for constructing and testing theories of second language acquisition (analysis of errors,acquisition orders and developmental sequences,variability,pragmatics aspects,study of input and interaction,analysis of discourse).

1-Theories and memory models

Since the early 20th century various schools of psychology attempted to develop learning theories.Every school developed different theories working on distinct perspectives of human mind.The first was the behaviourist psychology school.For the behaviourism movement the human mind was totally unknowable.This school maintains that only the behaviour can be observed and analysed scientifically.Even the language learnig process is seen as a behaviour (verbal behaviour).The behaviourist theory affirms that language is a product of habit and it can be acquired by conditioning through a stimulus-response mechanism (external stimuli activate responses to the exactly for the animals).The empirical work so is concentrated only on the observable phenomens and processes (external factors).In 1960s Cognitivism replaced behaviours becoming the dominant paradigm.The cognitive psychologists look at the learners as information processors (like a computer).Focusing  on the inner mental activities to understand how people learn,mental processes as thinking,memorising,knowing and problem-solving have to be explored.For cognitivists human mind can be seen as a computer where information comes in,it is being processed and leads to certain outcomes.The cognitive approach on the information processing has provided psycholinguistics with the means for anlysing how the learners process the language,cognitive theories have given a revolutionary contribution to linguistics.The assumptions are that for processing information there are two separated channels,associated with the different senses,auditory and visual (with two dinstinct sensory stores the echoic memory and the iconic memory);each channel has a limitated capacity,learning is an active process where information  is being filtrate,selected,organized and integrated on the basis of prior knowledge.In 1968 Atkinsons and Shiffrin proposed a model of human memory which explains the human information processing system.They despribed a three-store model indicating three different memory systems:sensory memory,short-term memory (STM) and long-term memory (LTM).Human mind has a limited capacity for the amount and the nature of information it can process.An invironmental stimulus activates our senses (information can be just processed in a channel at a time).Incoming information enters the information processing system,the trace of this information is held briefly in the sensory memory,that is a temporary buffer memory (language learning trace can be visual in reading or auditory listening).From here certain pieces of information are passed to short-term memory,which is another temporary memory but at this level we are conscious of information and we can work with it.STM has a low capacity of storage (about 7 plus minus 2 chunks of information;Miller 1956) it decays as soon as it not longer attended to.To be holden information has to be encoded through active strategies as rehearse or visualisation,but then there is the transfert to the long-term memory.This is a permanent ,memory stoe with an extremely large capacity that could be unlimited,here stored information is recorded and can always be retrieved,it is organized according to meaning and is linked by associations.There is no limit the capacity of storing new information and this can be kept up to a life time.Only with the deterioration of brain system the storage retrieval capability can be lost.Permanent losses of information occurs just as a  result of brain damages,failures of retrieval often are caused by temporary blockage.Just some of what we experience is attended for more the a few brief moments.Hence the storage process is not even activated.Using the metaphor of the human mind as a computer,cognitivists gave to short-term memory the title of Working memory.In 1974 Baddeley and Hitch proposed the Multi-component model of working memory.This model is composed of three main component:the central executive,the phonological loop and the visual-spatial sketch-pad.The central executive acts as supervisory system in controlling cognitive processes.It is responsible for the slave systems coordination.The slave systems are short-term storage systems which concern two separate perceptual domains,Phonogical loop and visual-spatial sketch-pad are respectively the verbal and the visual-spatial slave systems.Phonological loop has two sub-systems called phonological store and articulatory process and it deals with phonological information. Therefore language learning and processing working memory is involved at this level.The phonological store sub-system is assumed to be specialized to maintain verbal information that enters here automatically,because spoken language seems to have a direct access to the phonological store.This has a limited capacity of storage,it can hold acoustically coded items just for s brief period, in fact the trace decays in 1 or 2 seconds.For holding information we need to use strategies that can help us to encode it and to retain it.In words memorisation tasks for example the rehearsal mechanism allows us to transform spoken words into a phonological code,preventing them from decay.Rehearsal consists in sub-vocal repetition of the material,some kind of inner voice in our head.This mechanism in fact is used to convert written words into a phonological code,so that these can be insert into the phonological store.Written words are processed on a phonological basis in memorisation,being included in the same store of spoken words instead of a separate visual store as we could imagine.The visual-spatial sketch-pad endeed is implicated in visual and spatial tasks like location or movement of object in space or remembering visible features as shape and colour.It works like a sort of inner eye specialized on spatial and visual coding.

2-Memory and attention

A great deal of everyday activities require the use of temporary memory.Encoding store and retrieval are the process on which we rely on for acting on day-to-day life.Making decisions,solving problems,social interactioning,language production are based on the ability of memorising.Performing a task from repeating foreign words to counting ,to remember  where we parked our car demand the involvement of attention.Cowan's embedded-process model of working memory illustrates the links between memory and attention.Our capacity of attention is limited,internal and external factors of distraction and individual faculties and abilities affect our attentional degree.The number of things we can focus at the same time is indefinite but information is activated only for a very brief period after which it decays.Information can be activated automatically,it is not always the focus of conscious necessary awareness.This can explain how it is possible to perform actions without the need of controlling their process.Voluntary processes and involuntary processes control both the focus of attention . This can explain how it is possible to perform actions without the need of controlling  them process.The demand of conscious attention more depends on the familiarity degree with the process,as we become familiar with the process they are automatised step by step.More they become automatised less is the demand of attention.It is important to understand how memory and attention are involved in language learning.

3-Language learning researches

Short-term memory is an on-line capacity for processing and elaborating new information,this is why it is responsible in language learning and development.For this reason second language acquisition researches are focused on short-term memory.Also for analysing the individual  differences in language learning researches and to examine short-term capacity.Verbal short-term memory abilities,words memorisation,words repetition and vocabulary learning are related in some way.The tests and the experiments created for testing language learners are mostly based on immediate serial recall of lists ,non-word repetition or recognition and word learning working on spoken and written words.This kind of analysis provide empirical data to researches for comparing the results between various kinds of learners at different proficiency levels and in different situations.


Second language acquisition is not s simple issue for researchers because mental processes and knowledge can't be directly observed.Different kinds of studies conducted in different ways provide a great deal of data and results.To interpret them is important to understand first how the acquisition occurs,which processes are involved in,which factors (internals or externals) can influence it and the mechanism and the strategies used by the learners (consciously or uncounsciously).The analysis has to be focused on learners language perfomances.Cognitive psychology is based on the information processing paradigm The human mind is seen like a computer by cognitivists and following this idea were proposed models of human memory that,in connection with language learning,explain the memory structure,its capacities,the processes responsible for encoding,recording and storing information.Analysing the working memory capacity it is possible to study the learners language acquisition.Researches on memory have helped us to understand how works the acquisition of a second language in bilingual learners,how they use the language and the individuals differences at different levels.It has been discovered that second language development proceed in an orderly fashion,the learning processes between bilingual learners are similar because they follow a developmental sequence in different stages. Experiments within working memory capacity is tested,for example backward digit span test,can show how learners achieving different proficiency levels use distinct strategies and mechanisms in a regular way concording to the level.So memory is the center of language acquisition,this can be explained through the analysis of the memory processes,whereas the processes of memory can be explored through the language learning and processing.It means that there is an absolute relation and an unavoidable interrelationship between them.


  • Learning Strategies in Second Language Acquisition ;
  • J.Michael O'Malley,Anna Uhl Chamot; Cambridge Univesity Press
  • The study of Second Language Acquisition;
  • Rod Ellis ;Oxford University Press
  • Working Memory and Language ;
  • Baddeley and Gathercole
  • Psycholinguistics:The Key Concepts ;
  • John Field ;Routledge
  • Working Memory and Language:an overview
  • Alan Baddeley ;Department of Experimental Psychology ,University of Bristol ,Uk
  • (Journal of Communication desorders 2003)


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