The Declarative/Procedural Model of Lexicon and Grammar

Research paper by Michael T. Ullman

Indexed on: 01 Jan '01Published on: 01 Jan '01Published in: Journal of Psycholinguistic Research


Our use of language depends upon two capacities: a mental lexicon of memorized words and a mental grammar of rules that underlie the sequential and hierarchical composition of lexical forms into predictably structured larger words, phrases, and sentences. The declarative/procedural model posits that the lexicon/grammar distinction in language is tied to the distinction between two well-studied brain memory systems. On this view, the memorization and use of at least simple words (those with noncompositional, that is, arbitrary form-meaning pairings) depends upon an associative memory of distributed representations that is subserved by temporal-lobe circuits previously implicated in the learning and use of fact and event knowledge. This “declarative memory” system appears to be specialized for learning arbitrarily related information (i.e., for associative binding). In contrast, the acquisition and use of grammatical rules that underlie symbol manipulation is subserved by frontal/basal-ganglia circuits previously implicated in the implicit (nonconscious) learning and expression of motor and cognitive “skills” and “habits” (e.g., from simple motor acts to skilled game playing). This “procedural” system may be specialized for computing sequences. This novel view of lexicon and grammar offers an alternative to the two main competing theoretical frameworks. It shares the perspective of traditional dual-mechanism theories in positing that the mental lexicon and a symbol-manipulating mental grammar are subserved by distinct computational components that may be linked to distinct brain structures. However, it diverges from these theories where they assume components dedicated to each of the two language capacities (that is, domain-specific) and in their common assumption that lexical memory is a rote list of items. Conversely, while it shares with single-mechanism theories the perspective that the two capacities are subserved by domain-independent computational mechanisms, it diverges from them where they link both capacities to a single associative memory system with broad anatomic distribution. The declarative/procedural model, but neither traditional dual- nor single-mechanism models, predicts double dissociations between lexicon and grammar, with associations among associative memory properties, memorized words and facts, and temporal-lobe structures, and among symbol-manipulation properties, grammatical rule products, motor skills, and frontal/basal-ganglia structures. In order to contrast lexicon and grammar while holding other factors constant, we have focused our investigations of the declarative/procedural model on morphologically complex word forms. Morphological transformations that are (largely) unproductive (e.g., in go—went, solemn—solemnity) are hypothesized to depend upon declarative memory. These have been contrasted with morphological transformations that are fully productive (e.g., in walk—walked, happy—happiness), whose computation is posited to be solely dependent upon grammatical rules subserved by the procedural system. Here evidence is presented from studies that use a range of psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic approaches with children and adults. It is argued that converging evidence from these studies supports the declarative/procedural model of lexicon and grammar.