If you are trying to learn a new language, one of the key skills is a good “working memory” – the ability to hold lots of information “on-line” at once. Working memory can be auditory or visual. If you are an English speaker trying to learn another alphabetic language, for example Spanish, then auditory working memory (the kind you use to remember a phone number as someone reads it out to you) is more important. But what if you’re trying to learn a non-alphabetic language such as Chinese, where the written language is far more complicated? In a new paper, Bertram Opitz and colleagues have shown that training people’s visual working memory improves their ability to learn Chinese characters, while auditory working memory training had no such benefit. The research team used fMRI to measure brain responses before and after training and found that those participants who had benefited most from the visual working memory training showed changes in brain activity in left posterior temporal and parietal cortices. These data suggest that visual working memory training improves visual Chinese vocabulary learning by facilitating multiple visual strategies which can be recruited to encode and retrieve recently acquired Chinese characters.
Opitz B, Schneiders JA, Krick CM, Mecklinger A. (in press). Selective transfer of visual working memory training on Chinese character learning. Neuropsychologia.