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Working Memory and Language Learning: A Longitudinal Study of Trilingual Children


Academic year: 2021

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Working Memory and Language Learning: A Longitudinal Study of Trilingual Children

Pascale Engel

Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford pascale.engel@psy.ox.ac.uk

1. Background

Working memory (WM) – the ability to store and manipulate information in the course of ongoing cognitive activities - has been suggested to play a key role in supporting learning in many different domains. This study presents the findings of a 4-wave, latent variable longitudinal study, exploring variations and the development of two working memory components - verbal short-term storage (STM) and the central executive - and their contributions to native and foreign language learning in a population of multilingual children.

2. Method



3. Latent factor structure

6. Conclusion

WM system with separate but related elements – corresponding to verbal short-term storage and a central executive – provided a

good fit to the data across the years.

Individual differences in young children‘s WM abilities were highly stable.

* Controlled for decoding skills


Confirmatory Factor Analyses (CFA) to explore the underlying task structure - WM in kindergarten, 1


, and 2


grade and language in 2



Structural Regression (SR) models to explore the contribution of WM in kindergarten to language learning two (2


grade) and three years (3


grade) later.

WM: two-factor CFA model

The findings reinforce previous evidence indicating that verbal STM is one of the main contributors to language development by supporting the formation of stable phonological representations of new words in long-term memory. Importantly, the study showed that the early acquisition of an unfamiliar foreign language might draw on different underlying mechanisms than new word learning in 103 Luxembourgish speakers with both parents speaking Luxembourgish. Children

were assessed in kindergarten, 1


, 2


, and 3


grade of Luxembourgish schools.


7 years old Lux: 1 hour/ week German: 8 hours/


Kindergarten First Grade Second Grade

6 years old Emphasis on Lux.

Third Grade 8 years old

Lux: 1 hour/ week German: 8 hours/ week

French: 3 hours/ week

9 years old Lux: 1 hour/ week German: 5 hours/ week

French: 7 hours/ week

4. Linking WM to language - Latent factors

Language genealogy

‘Secondary bilinguals’ - languages are learnt and socialised in the school situation

D‘Kand schreift ee Saz un d'Tafel Das Kind schreibt einen Satz an die Tafel

L’enfant écrit une phrase au tableau SR models with short-term storage and the central executive in kindergarten predicting language 2 and 3 years later. In boldface: significant path coefficients after controlling for the autoregressive effect.

Fit indices

In second grade French vocabulary and comprehension measures - in contrast to German - did not relate to the native vocabulary and

comprehension measures but instead defined a separate French language construct (Model 2).



grade language CFA models

Model 1

Model 2 Working memory

Fit indices Language

5. Linking WM to vocabulary - Observed

Correlations between the WM measures in kindergarten and native and foreign vocabulary in 2ndand 3rdgrade using Pearson’s correlation coefficient. Significant values are marked in boldface, p < .05

Central executive, verbal short-term storage, and native and foreign language

acquisition were investigated longitudinally in a population of children growing up in Luxembourg (EU) - a country in which Luxembourgish is mainly used in social interactions, and German and French are instructed in schools.

Verbal STM linked to all three language domains assessed. Central executive specific contributions to language comprehension.

Nonword repetition: single best predictor of French foreign language learning up to 3 years later.

a familiar second language. Whereas German might have been learned via a process of bootstrapping onto the secure knowledge base already established for the native language, French might not benefit in the same way from

existing lexical knowledge as the phonological structure of French words is very different from words in Luxembourgish. French foreign language learning might therefore rely more heavily on basic cognitive processes such as

verbal STM. The data supports the view that verbal STM is causally related to new word learning in French. Interestingly, French vocabulary was significantly predicted by only one of the verbal STM measures - nonwords

repetition - suggesting that nonword repetition taps some specific skill that is not directly involved in conventional STM task. This finding has important practical implications as it highlight the potential utility of nonword repetition as

a screening tool for detection children at risk for future foreign language learning difficulties.


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