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How does your mind help you learn a second language?

By: George Smith, Kaitlyn Tagarelli Wed Dec 20 2023

Bonjou! 你好!  Welcome to Adventures in Language! This article is all about cognitive abilities in second language (L2) learning. No two minds work in exactly the same way. Differences in how we focus our attention, learn, remember, and solve problems can affect the way we learn languages. How? Let’s find out!

In our last article, we talked about language aptitude. The gist? Some people just seem to have a knack for learning other languages. But, as we learned, language aptitude isn’t a single ability. Instead, it’s made up of several cognitive abilities that all come into play when learning and using a new language.

What are Cognitive Abilities?

Cognitive abilities are the mental skills that let us pay attention, hold information in memory, reason, solve complex problems, and learn new things. Cognitive abilities develop gradually throughout childhood and early adulthood, and start to decline as we get older (Salthouse, 1996) — although speaking multiple languages has actually been shown to slow down that decline. And while this general pattern holds true for all humans, there is a lot of individual variation from one person to the next that has important implications for language learning.

Working Memory

Without question, the most widely studied cognitive ability in language learning is something called working memory. You can think of working memory as a kind of “mental workspace” that lets you temporarily hold information in memory while you do something with it. For example, imagine if someone told you their phone number, but you couldn’t put it in your phone right away. You would probably rehearse the number over and over again in your head, keeping it active in your mind until you finished typing it in. That’s your working memory at work. But once that number is in your phone, you can forget about it — no need to convert it to long-term memory, right? Thanks, digital contact lists! 

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In fact, your brain is usually pretty happy to flush your working memory, since it can only hold so much information at one time. You’ve probably experienced these limitations at one point or another. For example, have you ever had to go back and read a paragraph in a book multiple times because you keep forgetting what it said? Or forgotten someone’s name two minutes after meeting them? These things happen partly because we can only do so much in our mental workspaces. The amount of information you can hold in working memory, how long you can hold it for, and, importantly, how effectively you can control the flow of information is what’s known as your “working memory capacity.”

The idea of holding and controlling information in memory might sound familiar if you’ve ever had a conversation in a second language. Think about it. When you have a conversation, you’re trying to make sense of what the other person is saying, right? This essentially involves remembering what has already been said, paying attention to what is currently being said, and connecting this information with what you already know. It could also involve digging into your long-term memory for the meaning of a word or a verb-tense refresher, and thinking about what you’re going to say next, all while keeping a running log of the conversation in your head. Seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?

Interestingly, studies have shown that using technology to learn a second language may actually level out the effects of working memory because you can process information on your own time. That means that even if you don’t have the best working memory, then an app like Mango Languages could be a great way to learn a new language!

Declarative and Procedural Memory

Working memory is really helpful for staying on task and handling language input. But to learn a new language, you also need to save that input in long-term memory so that you can use it later. Two of the most important long-term memory systems in our brains are declarative and procedural memory. Declarative memory is used for learning and remembering facts and events, like that “Polydactl cats have 6 toes,” or “I studied Japanese this morning with Mango Languages.” When we say that someone has a “good memory,” we are usually talking about their declarative memory. Declarative memory learns quickly and is pretty flexible, and is usually associated with explicit, or conscious, learning.

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Procedural memory, on the other hand, comes into play when learning and remembering motor skills and complex sequences, like riding a bike or playing the piano. Have you ever hear the term “muscle memory?” That’s procedural memory in a nutshell! Unlike declarative memory, procedural memory is implicit, which means that we can’t explain why we know the things we know procedurally.

Although they may work in different ways, declarative and procedural memory can actually learn the same things. You’ve probably experienced this before. Picture this: You get a new combination lock for school or the gym. At first, you have the combination written down somewhere, and you check it until you have the numbers memorized. Eventually, you get to the point where you can unlock it without thinking about it. Then one day your friend asks to borrow your lock. But when you go to write down the combination, you can’t remember the numbers! How is that possible? You’ve been opening that lock every day for the past several months without a problem! So you try instead to open the lock by feel, and voilà: you’re able to get the numbers that way. So what’s happening here? Well, you used declarative memory to memorize the combination in the first place, but as you practiced opening the lock each day, your muscles started to learn the combination, too — that is, your procedural memory hopped on board. Procedural memory is more efficient here, so declarative memory takes a back seat, you forget the actual numbers and, well, you’re locked out!

When it comes to first language, studies of the brain have shown that we use the declarative memory parts of our brains to store vocabulary, understand meaning, and process explicit language information, and the procedural memory parts for automated grammar processing. So, while the explicit rule for forming the past tense in English (add “-ed”) is stored in your declarative memory, the ability to use that rule fluently and without thinking about it relies on procedural memory.

Things work a little differently for second language learning. That fast, flexible declarative memory system is used to learn second language vocabulary and grammar in the early stages of learning — especially explicit settings (e.g., classrooms). Once learners have had more time to practice and become more fluent, or if learning is more implicit (like in a study abroad context), procedural memory starts to take over for grammar processing. If you’ve ever learned a second language this trajectory might make sense to you. For example, you may have started off by memorizing chunks, like “How are you?” or “I like apples… I like mangoes… I like rock n’ roll,” and grammar rules, like “In Spanish, the adjective follows the noun.” But if you’ve reached a high enough level of proficiency, you may realize that you are able to apply these structures without thinking about them.

As with working memory, people differ in their declarative and procedural memory abilities. And as it turns out, these differences influence language learning. Studies show that if you are good at learning via declarative memory — for example, learning arbitrary associations between two things — then, you’ll probably be pretty good at learning words, and you’ll have an advantage learning grammar early on. On the other hand, if you’re good at learning via procedural memory — for example, you can master new motor skills quickly — you’re likely to be successful in later stages of grammar learning, particularly if the learning conditions are more implicit. Interestingly, while procedural memory abilities may not influence how accurately you perform in explicit learning settings, they may influence how quickly you respond to language-related questions.

Processing Speed

Enter linguistics

Memory is not the only cognitive ability that can help you learn a second language – researchers have also asked whether how fast you are at processing information can account for differences in language learning outcomes. Processing speed is essentially your “speed for thinking,” or how quickly you can perceive, understand, and respond to information. It is related to how well you’re able to move things in and out of your working memory. Because of this, we would expect it to help you learn another language. When we look at the research, we find that learners with faster processing speed tend to be faster at learning new sounds, more accurate when recalling recently taught words and phrases, and more fluent overall. However, the picture is a little different for language comprehension, where processing speed doesn’t seem to be as important as your vocabulary size or how well you understand grammatical rules – factors which may be more closely tied to declarative memory (Andringa et al. 2012).

The Takeaways

So, what do we do with this information? Well, if you know that you have high working memory capacity or strong declarative memory, an explicit approach to learning may be best for you. Do you think your strength lies more in procedural memory? Then skip the textbooks and flashcards and get a lot of input from podcasts or movies or, better yet, real-life conversations. And if you think you may not exactly be the Usain Bolt of processing speed, don’t worry: You can still try to build your vocabulary and grammar at your own pace to boost your language comprehension. Not sure where your strengths lie? Seek out a learning opportunity that works equally well for all learners, like the Mango app!
To recap what we’ve discussed today:

  • Cognitive abilities are the mental skills that let us pay attention, hold information in memory, reason, solve complex problems, and learn new things. Working memory, declarative memory, procedural memory, and processing speed are 4 cognitive abilities that could influence language learning.

  • These abilities all differ quite a bit among individuals, and this variation helps explain the wide range of second language learning success! Even if you’re a bit weaker in one of these skills, there’s a good chance you’re stronger in others.

And keep this in mind. Having strong cognitive skills may give you a head start in language learning, but they won’t get you to the finish line if you’re not motivated to put in the work. In fact, even learners with weaker cognitive skills can become highly proficient if they have enough motivation! For more on this, be sure to check out our next article, where we focus on the role of motivation in language learning.

Thanks for reading!

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