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Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition: Phonological Short-Term


Published Online: 5 NOV 2012

DOI: 10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal1287

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics

How to Cite

SERVICE, E. 2012. Working Memory in Second Language Acquisition: Phonological Short-Term. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics. .

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 5 NOV 2012


It is a common intuition that learning language is easier for some individuals than others. Empirical evidence from naturalistic and classroom learning contexts confirms that there is great variation in second language (L2) learning outcomes in both children and adults. Furthermore, such individual differences appear somewhat independent of general cognitive abilities. Individual personality and motivation as well as many environmental factors, such as type and intensity of input, are likely to be at play. A cognitively based theoretical construct that has shown promise for explaining a considerable portion of the variation in outcome is that of phonological memory. The first studies reporting a correlative relationship between memory for the spoken form of language and L2 acquisition were published at the end of the 1980s. The term phonological short-term memory (PSTM) is used to refer to the ability to form and maintain a mental representation of spoken material so that it can be immediately accessed and accurately repeated back aloud or silently rehearsed. In tests of phonological memory, accuracy is required at the phonemic level. Thus, in a repetition task, all speech sounds in a word, for instance, cat (/kaat/), have to be correctly reproduced. In contrast, phonetic features, such as the puff of air accompanying a word-initial /k/ sound produced by native speakers of English, need not be present. When material is presented in written form, PSTM refers to a representation specifying what its spoken form would be. The interest in PSTM in the context of language acquisition was born within the theory of working memory first put forward by Baddeley and Hitch (1974). This theory proposed that working memory, that is, the type of memory used for holding information needed in ongoing tasks, was composed of separable components. The researchers hypothesized one system for handling visuospatial material and another for verbal material. The two modality-specific systems were assumed to be controlled by a central executive component, supervising the information maintenance and manipulation functions of working memory. The verbal component, referred to as the phonological loop in later versions of the theory (Baddeley, 1986), is thought to consist of a phonological store, maintaining memory traces for phonological material, and an articulatory rehearsal process, actively refreshing these traces using a process based on inner speech. The term phonological memory is neutral to the distinction between ability to recall material immediately, that is, short-term memory, and ability to store language as permanent phonological representations of, for instance, words or word sequences. However, in the language-learning literature, “phonological memory,” “phonological short-term memory,” “phonological working memory,” and “phonological loop” are often used as synonyms.


  • first language acquisition;
  • second language acquisition;
  • memory;
  • vocabulary