Effect of working memory capacity on new language learning

Vocabulary acquisition in children is significantly affected by the child's ability to repeat back words.

This limitation becomes less as the individual gains a large vocabulary, and thus develops a greater ability to make semantic (meaningful) associations.

When learning a new language, your ability to repeat back unfamiliar words is only a factor where you are unable to form a meaningful association to a familiar word.

In such cases, the keyword mnemonic can be especially useful to those with limited ability to repeat back words.

Research with children has demonstrated that the ability to learn new words is greatly affected by working memory span - specifically, by how much information they can hold in that part of working memory called "phonological short-term memory". The constraining effect of working memory capacity on the ability to learn new words appears to continue into adolescence.

But, as you grow in experience, building a vocabulary, this constraint becomes less important. Because working memory capacity is measured in "chunks" - and the amount of information contained in a chunk is extremely malleable. To a large extent, developing chunking strategies is what memory improvement is all about.

In terms of learning another language, there are essentially four possible classes of word:

  • words that are already familiar because they are the same in your native language (or another known language)
  • words that are already familiar because they involve words that you already know in that language (e.g., learning a related verb form, or learning a word made up of two words you already know, such as sweat-shirt)
  • words that resemble a known word with similar or related meaning (e.g., Russian garlo means throat, and the word garlo resembles the word gargle)
  • words that have no ready association to known words

It appears that in these first three cases, the size of your phonological short-term memory is of no significant relevance. It is only in the last case - where the word cannot utilize any meaningful associations - that your phonological short-term memory capacity becomes important.

Fairly obviously, as your knowledge of language (your own and others) grows, the more meaningful associations you will be able to make, and the fewer new words will fall into this last, difficult, category.

This suggests, of course, the usefulness of a mnemonic strategy (specifically, the keyword strategy) in the last, difficult case.

The importance of phonological short-term memory is also greater for productive learning (learning to produce a language, i.e., speak or write it) than in receptive learning (learning to read or understand a language). For productive learning, the pronounceability of the new words is very important. The more easily pronounced, the more easily learnt.

References: 
  • Nation, I.S.P. 2001. Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Ellis, N.C. & Beaton, A. 1993. Factors affecting foreign language vocabulary: imagery keyword mediators and phonological short-term memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, 533-58.
  • Papagno, C., Valentine, T. & Baddeley, A. 1991. Phonological short-term memory and foreign-language vocabulary learning. Journal of Memory and Language, 30, 331-47.

Comments

From my own experience

From my own experience with my two children in learning two languages (English and Mandarin), it's true that learning becomes easier if they are able to use it in an everyday context. It would also seem that the younger they are, the easier it is to repeat new words without having to form any association with the word.

Re: From my own experience

Good points, Daniel. However, the situation with younger children is ambiguous - is it easier because they don't have much other information to interfere, or does it just appear to be easier because they are comfortable with a much higher level of repetition than older children and adults are? It seems likely that both factors are at play.

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