A relatively simple model of the phonological loop (A. D. Baddeley, 1986), a component of working memory, has proved capable of accommodating a great deal of experimental evidence from normal adult participants, children, and neuropsychological patients. Until recently, however, the role of this subsystem in everyday cognitive activities was unclear. In this article the authors review studies of word learning by normal adults and children, neuropsychological patients, and special developmental populations, which provide evidence that the phonological loop plays a crucial role in learning the novel phonological forms of new words. The authors propose that the primary purpose for which the phonological loop evolved is to store unfamiliar sound patterns while more permanent memory records are being constructed. Its use in retaining sequences of familiar words is, it is argued, secondary.