From the Editor: The Role of Memory in Thought (and Vice Versa)

Section Editor(s): Nelson, Nickola Wolf PhD; Editor

Topics in Language Disorders:
doi: 10.1097/TLD.0000000000000001
From the Editor
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The author has indicated that she has no financial and no nonfinancial relationships to disclose.

Article Outline

While memory holds a seat

In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

Yea, from the table of my memory

I'll wipe away all trivial fond records,

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,

That youth and observation copied there.

Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5, by William Shakespeare (1564–1616)1

In this scene, Hamlet has just learned from his father, the king's ghost, about the role played by his uncle and mother in his father's death. As Hamlet struggles to process these awful revelations, he swears, in his distress, “to wipe away all trivial fond records” from his youth, presumably removing any impediment to acts of revenge. Within the lines quoted here, Shakespeare seats Hamlet's memory (“copied” from experience) in his brain (“this distracted globe”) while evoking concepts of memories as potentially amenable to executive control and revision. These famous words make it clear that fascination with the mysteries of the brain, how language input can alter memories, and the role of memories in human action are far from new. Such phenomena drew Shakespeare's attention in the 16th century, and they continue to draw the attention of language and cognitive scientists today.

Modern language scientists seek to answer questions about relationships of experience, memory, and action in systematic ways. They conduct studies in which they manipulate input stimuli (verbal and nonverbal) and measure output responses (also verbal and nonverbal), often comparing results for children with and without specific language impairment (SLI). Although it's not Shakespeare, the work addresses important goals to understand theoretically meaningful relationships and practically important implications for language intervention.

Key contributions toward unraveling these mysteries can be found in Lisa Archibald's two-issue series (Volume 33, Issues 3–4) of Topics in Language Disorders (TLD) on the topic of “Language Learning and Impairment: Relationships Between Linguistic, Working Memory, and Other Cognitive Processes.” In Issue 33:3, Archibald and her invited authors laid out a thoughtful analysis of what recent research (including their own original work) conveys about the challenges faced by children with SLI related to linguistically and nonlinguistically encoded stimuli and verbal and nonverbal working memory. In the first issue, readers can find evidence for the influence of separable factors in formal assessments—domain-general working memory, language processing, phonological short-term memory, and fluid reasoning (Archibald, 2013a); evidence for contrasting views of the role of verbal working memory in sentence comprehension, not, as yet, clearly supporting either the proposed capacity limiting or experience-based theoretical accounts (Kidd, 2013); evidence regarding the number of different words in a conversational sample—representing rapid word retrieval—as the strongest predictor of nonword repetition for children who were late talkers, compared with vocabulary size for peers (Stokes, Moran, & George, 2013); evidence that nonword repetition performance for children with SLI is influenced less by lexical and syllabic complexity than for peers (Leclercq, Maillart, & Majerus, 2013); and evidence for a small but significant role for motor speech influences in nonword repetition by children with SLI compared with peers (Archibald, Joanisse, & Munson, 2013). The collective message is not only one of differences in using domain-specific working memory and retrieval systems (mostly verbal, but to some extent, visuospatial as well) but also influences of domain-general working memory and fluid reasoning processes.

In this issue (TLD, Volume 33, Issue 4), Archibald again has assembled authors doing cutting-edge research on the role of memory systems and other cognitive processes in explaining the needs of children with SLI and other language-related learning difficulties. This issue delves further into connections between immediate memory (short-term and working memory) and long-term storage systems. Lum and Conti-Ramsden (2013) lead off with a review and meta-analysis of literature on long-term memory, both declarative and procedural. They consider evidence for differences in declarative memory among children with SLI, which shows relatively better domain-specific nonverbal than verbal memory compared with peers, and evidence for differences in procedural learning and memory, which indicates poorer implicit learning of verbal information by children with SLI as a potential source of broader problems. Schuchardt, Bockmann, Bornemann, and Maehler (2013) consider the working memory and language profiles of children with academic learning disabilities with or without SLI. Only the children with academic difficulties who were not classified also as having SLI showed deficits in using the visual-spatial sketchpad; children with reading deficits, both with and without SLI, showed deficits in phonological loop and central executive functioning, although those with reading difficulties accompanied by SLI showed deficits in these areas that were more profound. Botting, Psarlou, Caplin, and Nevin (2013) investigated boundaries between verbal and nonverbal memory skills in children with SLI using stimuli with manipulated levels of verbal and nonverbal content (implicit and explicit). Children with SLI had greater difficulty on all tasks except the purely nonverbal block recall task. Botting et al. also found evidence that children with SLI might use visual encoding as a central strategy to aid performance.

The theme of visual supports to shore up faulty verbal working memory is pursued in the final two articles in this issue, that is, unless visual memory systems are equally impaired. Alt (2013) found domain-general but mild weaknesses among SLI children's ability to map visual information in a computer-generated visual feature recall activity, which she hypothesized might be due to interference from prior tasks, but she also noted that effect sizes (differences between groups) were small for the visual task compared with those reported for verbal memory tasks. Washington and Warr-Leeper (2013) directly investigated the question of whether two types of visual supports could enhance syntactic learning by young children with SLI. They found slight advantages for visual supports that included symbols for grammatical function words in terms of efficiency in reaching criterion and children's movement beyond the basic sentence level.

Where do these studies leave researchers and clinicians as they seek to unravel the mysteries of the brain, memories, learning, and action? I admit that at times the path seems tortuous; yet, each new study clarifies the way a bit. I recommend reading Archibald's (2013b) Foreword to this issue as a way of helping to sort out how far we have come and where things stand now regarding relationships between language, memory, and other cognitive skills. Meanwhile, one thing that is clear is that neither researchers nor clinicians can ignore the role of memory in the tasks we present to children, nor in how we measure their responses. It also seems fair to conclude, at least tentatively, that working on language and memory must proceed hand in hand.

—Nickola Wolf Nelson, PhD


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Alt M. (2013). Visual fast-mapping in school-aged children with specific language impairment. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 328–346.
Archibald L. M. D. (2013a). The language, working memory, and other cognitive demands of verbal tasks. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(3), 190–207.
Archibald L. M. D. (2013b). Foreword: The challenge of understanding, assessing, and providing intervention for linguistic and working memory impairments. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 276–281.
Archibald L. M. D., Joanisse M., Munson B. (2013). Motor control and nonword repetition in specific working memory impairment. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(3), 255–267.
Botting N., Psarlou P., Caplin T., Nevin L. (2013). Boundaries between verbal and non-verbal memory skills in children with SLI. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 313–327.
Kidd E. (2013). The role of working memory in children's sentence comprehension: A critical review. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(3), 208–223.
Leclercq A., Maillart C., Majerus S. (2013). Nonword repetition problems in children with SLI: A deficit in accessing long-term linguistic representations. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(3), 238–254.
Lum J., Conti-Ramsden R. (2013). Learning and memory in specific language impairment: A review of long-term memory systems. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 282–297.
Schuchardt K., Bockmann A.-K., Bornemann G., Maehler C. (2013). Working memory functioning in children with learning disorders and SLI. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 298–312.
Stokes S., Moran C., George A. (2013). Nonword repetition and vocabulary use in toddler. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(3), 224–237.
Washington K., Warr-Leeper G. (2013). Visual support in intervention for preschoolers with specific language impairment. Topics in Language Disorders, 33(4), 347–365.
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