Learning language with the wrong neural scaffolding: the cost of neural commitment to sounds.

Finn, AS, Hudson Kam CL, Ettlinger M, Vytlacil J, D'Esposito M.  2013.  Learning language with the wrong neural scaffolding: the cost of neural commitment to sounds., 2013. Frontiers in systems neuroscience. 7:85.


Does tuning to one's native language explain the "sensitive period" for language learning? We explore the idea that tuning to (or becoming more selective for) the properties of one's native-language could result in being less open (or plastic) for tuning to the properties of a new language. To explore how this might lead to the sensitive period for grammar learning, we ask if tuning to an earlier-learned aspect of language (sound structure) has an impact on the neural representation of a later-learned aspect (grammar). English-speaking adults learned one of two miniature artificial languages (MALs) over 4 days in the lab. Compared to English, both languages had novel grammar, but only one was comprised of novel sounds. After learning a language, participants were scanned while judging the grammaticality of sentences. Judgments were performed for the newly learned language and English. Learners of the similar-sounds language recruited regions that overlapped more with English. Learners of the distinct-sounds language, however, recruited the Superior Temporal Gyrus (STG) to a greater extent, which was coactive with the Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG). Across learners, recruitment of IFG (but not STG) predicted both learning success in tests conducted prior to the scan and grammatical judgment ability during the scan. Data suggest that adults' difficulty learning language, especially grammar, could be due, at least in part, to the neural commitments they have made to the lower level linguistic components of their native language.