Research Reveals Brain Mechanism Involved in Language Learning


Source: University of Sussex

Summary: A university study finds, learning a new language may be more of a science than an art. The team found that the hippocampus plays a key role learning the names of objects via a “propose-but-verify” strategy.


Psychologists have found that when we learn the names of unfamiliar objects, brain regions involved in learning actively predict the objects the names correspond to. The brain tests these predictions just as scientists would test a scientific theory. A University of Sussex study finds, learning a new language may be more of a science than an art. The team found that the hippocampus – a brain region that is affected in Alzheimer’s disease and some developmental language disorders plays a key role learning the names of objects via a “propose-but-verify” strategy. Using this strategy learners actively predict which of the words they hear correspond to each of the objects they see. The study findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

Hippocampus involved in language learning

Scanner in use at the University of Sussex. Credit: Dr. Sam Berens

In this study, Twenty-three adults looked at scenes with multiple objects whilst listening to words in an MRI scanner. The MRI scanner allows psychologists to see which brain regions are active while participants carry out tests of memory and attention. The MRI scans revealed that the hippocampus was central to this propose-but-verify mechanism. Specifically, it helped adults remember the word object correspondences over time. The findings, shed light on how the brain supports language acquisition. The findings have implications for both language education and our understanding of what is happening in languages disorders.

Lead researcher Dr. Sam Berens said, “Children have a remarkable ability to learn new languages and it is hotly debated whether they use a propose-but-verify strategy during early language development. Our experiment shows that the hippocampus can support propose-but-verify learning in adults and that this learning mechanism is favoured over other strategies.”


More Information: Sam C. Berens et al, “Cross-Situational Learning Is Supported by Propose-but-Verify Hypothesis Testing”, Current Biology (2018). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2018.02.042


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