Study: We Learn Language in Pre-Human Area of Brain

13 August, 2018

From VOA Learning English, this is the Health & Lifestyle report.

A new study from brain researchers helps explain how the human brain evolved, or changed over time, to permit people to speak and write. This new research may also help people who are learning a new language.

Michael Ullman is the lead researcher. He is a professor at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, D.C. He has been studying language learning for more than 20 years.

Ullman says his research shows that the human brain does not have a special area or system for making language. Over time, he says, we have simply reused -- or co-opted -- parts of our brain for language. And those parts, he says, are ancient – older even than humans themselves.

"This study examines the theoretical framework that language is learned, stored and processed in two ancient – so, pre-existing humans – learning and memory systems in the brain. And these have been co-opted -- reused -- for language in humans."

Non-human animals have these systems, too, adds one of the study's co-authors. Phillip Hamrick is with Kent State University in Ohio. In a press statement, he explains that rats use the same memory systems to complete some tests.

Rats are commonly used in scientific and medical experiments.
Rats are commonly used in scientific and medical experiments.

Ullman, Hamrick and the rest of the team looked at data from 16 other studies on language. They found that people learn language using two memory systems: declarative and procedural. Memorizing vocabulary, for example, is a declarative memory process. But learning grammar is, mostly, a procedural memory process.

Again, here is Prof. Ullman.

"Declarative memory, in humans at least, is what we think of as ‘learning memory.' Such as, ‘Oh, I remember what you said last night' or things like that. And procedural motor memory is what we often call ‘motor memory' such as how you learn to ride a bicycle."

Or, he adds, how to conjugate verbs. These procedural memory skills become so deeply learned that we are no longer aware that we are doing them.

However, Ullman explains that the two long-term memory systems can share tasks. And, he adds, the adult brain uses the systems to learn language a bit differently than a child's brain.

"Adult learners of a second language tend to rely on learning the grammar in declarative memory early on. But eventually, they become just like kids learning the grammar and they depend on procedural memory."

In other words, adult language learners may use their declarative memory for using grammar patterns. They think about it purposefully. For a child, the grammar may come more naturally. They don't have to think about the grammar rules before speaking.

In addition to language learners, Ullman's study could help people who have a brain injury that affects speaking and writing. This knowledge can also help those who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia. People with dyslexia have difficulty identifying words and symbols accurately.

In a statement to the press, Ullman said he hopes the new research "will lead to exciting advances in our understanding of language, and in how both second language learning and language problems can be improved."

And that's the Health & Lifestyle report.

I'm Anna Matteo.

Anna Matteo reported this article for VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly was the editor.


Words in This Story

co-optedv. to use or take control of (something) for your own purposes

theoretical adj. relating to the general principles or ideas of a subject rather than the practical uses of those ideas

frameworkn. a set of ideas or facts that provide support for something

motor adj. technical : of or relating to the part of the nervous system that controls the movement of muscles

conjugate v. to list the different forms of a verb that show number, person, tense, etc.

rely v. to need (someone or something) for support, help, etc. : to depend on (someone or something)

symbol n. a letter, group of letters, character, or picture that is used instead of a word or group of words

accurately adv. able to produce results that are correct : not making mistakes

advance n. progress in the development or improvement of something