Language and Memory
Language and Memory
Language is the medium of communication. It can be verbal or written, making use of different conventional symbols and sounds. All social creatures on Earth have their own languages such as bees, ants, and apes. Human language is the most complicated of all because of speech. It is an evolving process of signs and symbols. It consists of different elements such as phonemes, syllables, words, grammatical categories, sentences, discourses, and many more.
One of the characteristics of language is that it is symbolic. It makes use of symbols like pictures, diagrams, letters, numbers, and alike. Examples of this characteristic of language involve the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt and the ancient symbols of the Mayans. Thus, it is important for humans to be able to understand and memorize the symbols in order to establish communication.
Memory plays an important role in the process of language. It is the faculty of the mind which stores knowledge, previous thoughts, impression or events. Every word that is used, whether in isolation or used in a sentence has a meaning and that is stored in our brains (Kutas, et al, 2000).
There are different types of memory. The first one is the short-term memory which recalls events that happened from a few seconds to a less than a minute ago. Long-term memory, on the other hand, is a stronger memory, which can recall events a few minutes after it happened. Episodic memory is responsible for personal experiences. Since language is composed of symbols and sounds, the human brain acts as a catalog of these symbols and their corresponding meanings. This is called semantic memory (“Types”, n.d.).
Nature and Function of Semantic Memory
Semantic memory is essential in language. It consists of independent ideas. These consist of information such as the location of the Great Wall, the shape of an apple, or the colors of the rainbow. Semantic memory organizes ideas and assigns them to words and language, which are essential in establishing communication.
In a book entitled, “Essentials of Human Memory” written by Alan D. Baddeley, semantic memory does not actually mean an association between words (1999). Baddeley pointed out that semantic memory is actually concerned with concepts or ideas, having relation to words but are not words themselves. He argued that much of the information stored in the semantic system consists of perceptions and acquired knowledge. It is mainly a collection of experiences, more than what words can convey (p. 157).
There are many views as to the nature of semantic memory. Baddeley quoted a number of psychologists that have their own theories. Roger Brown and Eric Lenneberg described the nature of semantic memory using colors. According to them, focal colors, or colors that have short names are easier to remember such as red, blue and green. The findings support the Whorfian hypothesis, which states that shorter words can easily be remembered (157).
Functions of Language
Language is a medium of expression that can either be spoken or written. According to Patrick Lockerby, language is “a coding system and a means by which information may be transmitted or shared between two or more communicators for purposes of command, instruction or play” (2009).
Language has many functions but can be simplified into three. The first is the informative language function. This is essential in communication and channeling of information. It is used to describe the world or ideas towards it. This function involves statements with value or truth.
The second is expressive language function. Here, language is used as a medium of feelings and attitudes. Examples of this are poetry and prose. There are two aspects in this function of language. These are evoking certain feelings and expressing feelings.
The third function of language is called the directive language function. It is commonly found in requests or commands. It is not normally regarded to as true or false.
There are other functions of language aside from the three basic functions. The ceremonial language, for example, is used in a way that it mixes the expressive and the directive language for the use of performance. The statement “I do” in a marriage is an example of performative utterances denoting action. There is also phallic language where there is a transition from spoken language to body language (“Functions, n.d”.).
Stages of Production
Basically, the process of language production begins at the source of the information, which is the sender. The message is conceptualized and then encoded to linguistic form, which involves the usage of words and sentences. The linguistic form is then encoded to speech. Speech is the one responsible for delivering the encoded information to the listener through sound. The sound is decoded by the listener into its linguistic form, which is then decoded to its original meaning (“Language”, n.d.).
Memory and Language
Bruce A. Crosson and Bruce Crosson discussed the relationship between language and memory in their book, “Subcortical Functions in Language and Memory”. Before any information is stored in the long term memory, it must first be converted to linguistic system with semantic characteristics. Thus, the ability to retrieve verbal memory of a certain entity is dependent on how the represented entity is accessed. This supports the importance of language since it is dependent on verbal memory (1992). Moreover, meanings or words and symbols are stored in the semantic memory. An evidence of this is the ability to develop one’s vocabulary (325).
There are also studies which suggest a significant relationship between the semantic memory and language. A study by Marta Kutas and Kara D. Federmeier proved that semantic memory plays a role in language comprehension as revealed by electrophysiology. An electrophysiological brain component called the N400 reveals the nature and timing of an active semantic memory during language comprehension. Results show that sentence processing is influenced by the organization of semantic memory. In the left hemisphere, the semantic memory appears to pre-activate the meaning of forthcoming words (2000).
The relationship between memory and language was studied by Viorica Marian and Margarita Kaushanskaya. Their study involved testing accessibility of general knowledge across two languages in bilinguals. Mandarin–English speakers were asked questions such as “name a statue of someone standing with a raised arm while looking into the distance”. The respondents were likely to answer Statute of Liberty for the English speakers and Statute of Mao for the Mandarin speakers.
When the accuracy of the answers was measured, it showed that language-dependent memory has an effect on both languages. In measuring the speed of answering was measured, it showed that only the bilinguals’ more proficient language is the only ones affected by language-dependent memory (2007).
The results of this study suggest that there is a strong relationship between memory and language. Also, linguistic context at the time of learning may become integrated into memory content.
In conclusion, language plays a very important role in communication and learning. It represents ideas, thoughts and attitudes that are embedded in the linguistic system. Language also has many different functions. Basically, these functions are informative, expressive, and directive.
Memory and language are closely related. As mentioned before, any information, before, entering to the long term memory must be converted to a linguistic system first. Semantic memory thus, is significant in language production since the information in the verbal memory is dependent on how to access its representations.
Baddeley, A. D. (1999). “Essentials of Human Memory”. The Psychology Press, Ltd.
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Crosson, B. A., & Crosson, B. (1992). “Subcortical Functions in Language and Memory”.
New York, New York: The Guilford Press.
Kutas, Mand & Federmeier, K. D. (2000). “Electrophysiology Reveals Semantic Memory use
in Language Comprehension”. Trends in Cognitiv Sciences, 4 (12).
“Language Production”. (n.d.) Wikepedia. Retrieved 16 May 2010 from
Lockerby, P (n.d.). “What is Language?”. The Chatter Box. Retrieved 16 May 2010 from
Marian, V. & Kaushanskaya, M. (2007). “Language Context Guides Memory Content”.
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University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 27 September 2016
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