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Humans learn language using ancient brain circuitry

A new study of how we as humans learn language could have exciting implications for language education and the treatment of language disorders such as dyslexia.

It’s long been thought that the human capability of language is the result of specific brain components that evolved for language alone.

But now, researchers have shown that language is learned in ancient brain circuitry that is part of many learning and memory-related tasks, and that these systems even pre-date humans.

“These brain systems are also found in animals – for example, rats use them when they learn to navigate a maze,” said Phillip Hamrick, a co-author of the research. “Whatever changes these systems might have undergone to support language, the fact that they play an important role in this critical human ability is quite remarkable.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS and involved 16 studies that examined language learning in the brain.

There are two commonly studied brain systems that are associated with language and learning: declarative memory and procedural memory.

All studies combined had 665 participants, and the researchers analyzed the different methods and research and combined the results.

The results showed that our ability to remember words is directly linked to declarative memory, which is also necessary for memorizing shopping lists and learning to drive.

Adults learning a new language also used declarative memory at first, and then procedural memory in the later stages, which makes sense as children learning the grammar of their native tongue use procedural memory.

Both procedural and declarative memory are used with other tasks besides language which proves that language learning is not an inherently human trait, nor is there a special brain system devoted to it.

The results were similar when different languages were studied, and the findings could help pave the way for understanding how the brain learns different languages and help treat language disorders.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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