I met Prof. Michael Ullman, in the neuroscience department at Georgetown University to discuss how people learn languages. He has published several papers about the role of memory in the acquisition of first and second languages. People have often remarked to me that I have an excellent memory. I posit that my capacity to retain information is a major factor in my ability to speak various languages. As music may engage more areas of the brain than language and we remember musical tunes better than memorized lists of words, this theory about the roles of declarative and procedural memory in language learning makes sense to me.

In a nutshell, procedural memory helps us learn grammar and syntax and is rooted in the frontal- basal ganglia structure of the brain. Declarative memory is in the temporal lobe of the brain and governs how we remember words, facts and events. Estrogen improves declarative memory in women, thus explaining why some women can recall words and phrases better than men,who may have an advantage in procedural memory. The two memory systems work in a see-saw manner, and sometimes compete. When one is in dysfunction, the other may become stronger.

However, when we are learning our second language, we rely more on declarative memory to learn grammar rules and structure rather than only by procedural memory. (In my words, we are like parrots than copy when we hear native speakers say.)  This doesn’t mean that we can learn a language well without learning grammar and structure, but it shows that listening and repeating serve a real purpose in how we can learn the syntax and structure of a language. Listening to and repeating song lyrics CAN help us learn grammar!

If you go to the Georgetown Brain Language Lab and scroll to the articles cited below, you can read an in-depth explanation of the theory.

Ullman, M. T. (2005). A Cognitive Neuroscience Perspective on Second Language Acquisition: The Declarative/Procedural Model. In C. Sanz (Ed.), Mind and Context in Adult Second Language Acquisition: Methods, Theory, and Practice (pp. 141-178). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Ullman, M. T. (2001). The neural basis of lexicon and grammar in first and second language: The declarative/procedural model. Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4(1). 105-122.