Language, memory, and brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective on first and second language

B_02_Michael Ullman(photo)
Michael Ullman
Georgetown University

Abstract :

Increasing evidence suggests that language learning, knowledge, and use crucially depend on two learning and memory systems in the brain: declarative memory and procedural memory. These systems, which also exist in other vertebrate species, appear to have been co-opted for language – whether or not they subsequently became further specialized for this domain, either evolutionarily or developmentally.

Because the behavioral, anatomical, physiological, molecular and genetic correlates of these two systems are quite well-studied in animals and humans, they lead to numerous specific predictions about language that would not likely be made in the more circumscribed study of language alone. This approach is thus very powerful in being able to generate a wide range of novel predictions for language – including for first and second language, in various healthy and disordered populations.

In the talk I will first provide some background on the two memory systems, and then discuss the manner in which language is predicted to depend on them. One of the key concepts is that to some extent the two systems can underlie the same functions (e.g., for navigation, grammar, etc.), and thus they play at least partly redundant roles for these functions. This has important consequences for first and second language, as well as for language disorders.

Following the background, I will present multidisciplinary evidence (behavioral, neurological, neuroimaging, electrophysiological) that basic aspects of language do indeed depend on the two memory systems, though in somewhat different ways across different populations. I will discuss normal first and second language, individual and group differences (e.g., sex differences), and language in disorders, focusing on neurodevelopmental disorders, especially Specific Language Impairment.


Professional Activities

  • 2014-present Associate, Centre for Research in Language Education, University of Greenwich, UK.
  • 2013-present Faculty, Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery, Georgetown University
  • 2013-present Assoiate, Centre for Literacy and Multilingualism, University of Reading, UK
  • 2008-present Professor, Dept of Neuroscience, Georgetown University
  • 2007-present Faculty, Complementary and Alternative Medicine Program, Georgetown
  • 2007-present Faculty, Science of Effective Early Childhood Education Program, Georgetown
  • 2007-present Faculty, Center for Aphasia Research and Rehabilitation, Georgetown University
  • 2006-present Faculty, Georgetown University-NIH Partnership Program
  • 2005-present Faculty, Center for the Study of Sex Differences, Georgetown University
  • 2003-present Founding co-Director, Center for the Brain Basis of Cognition(cbbc.georgetown.edu), Georgetown University
  • 2002-2008 Associate Professor (tenured), Dept of Neuroscience, Georgetown University
  • 2001-present Secondary Appointment, Department of Psychology, Georgetown University
  • 2000-present Secondary Appointment, Department of Neurology, Georgetown University
  • 1999-present Faculty, Center for Neural Injury and Recovery, Georgetown University
  • 1999-2002 Dept of Neuroscience
  • 1998-present Founding Director, Georgetown Cognitive Neuroscience EEG/ERP Center
    (Georgetown University Core Facility for Human Neuro-Electrophysiology)
  • 1998-present Secondary Appointment, Department of Linguistics, Georgetown University
  • 1996-present Founding Director, Brain and Language Laboratory (brainlang.georgetown.edu)
  • 1996-present Faculty, Interdisciplinary Program in Neuroscience, Georgetown University
  • 1996-present Faculty, Program in Cognitive Neuroscience, Georgetown University
  • 1996-2002 Assistant Professor, Georgetown University
  • 1996-1999 Institute for Cognitive and Computational Sciences


Awards & Honors

  • 2013 Teacher of the Year, from the Class of 2013 Medical Students, Georgetown Medical School
  • 2011 Golden Apple Award
  • 2005 Presidential Columnist for American Psychological Society Observer
  • 1993-1996 McDonnell-Pew Postdoctoral Fellowship in Cognitive Neuroscience.
  • 1992-1993 Poitras Predoctoral Fellowship.
  • 1990 McDonnell Summer Institute in Cognitive Neuroscience, Dartmouth College.
  • 1989 Japan Association for Mathematical Sciences (JAMS) Scientific Seminar, Nagano, Japan.
  • 1988-1991 Office of Naval Research Graduate Fellowship.
  • 1987-1988 Harvard College Scholarship.