Specialized memory systems for learning spoken words

James M McQueen*, Frank Eisner, Merel A Burgering, Jean Vroomen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Learning new words entails, inter alia, encoding of novel sound patterns and transferring those patterns from short-term to long-term memory. We report a series of 5 experiments that investigated whether the memory systems engaged in word learning are specialized for speech and whether utilization of these systems results in a benefit for word learning. Sine-wave synthesis (SWS) was applied to spoken nonwords, and listeners were or were not informed (through instruction and familiarization) that the SWS stimuli were derived from actual utterances. This allowed us to manipulate whether listeners would process sound sequences as speech or as nonspeech. In a sound-picture association learning task, listeners who processed the SWS stimuli as speech consistently learned faster and remembered more associations than listeners who processed the same stimuli as nonspeech. The advantage of listening in "speech mode" was stable over the course of 7 days. These results provide causal evidence that access to a specialized, phonological short-term memory system is important for word learning. More generally, this study supports the notion that subsystems of auditory short-term memory are specialized for processing different types of acoustic information. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)189-199
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology-Learning Memory and Cognition
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • STM
  • phonological loop
  • sine-wave synthesis
  • speech
  • word learning


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