Learning Words While Listening to Syllables: Electrophysiological Correlates of Statistical Learning in Children and Adults

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 16 (2022)
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Abstract

From an early age, exposure to a spoken language has allowed us to implicitly capture the structure underlying the succession of speech sounds in that language and to segment it into meaningful units. Statistical learning, the ability to pick up patterns in the sensory environment without intention or reinforcement, is thus assumed to play a central role in the acquisition of the rule-governed aspects of language, including the discovery of word boundaries in the continuous acoustic stream. Although extensive evidence has been gathered from artificial languages experiments showing that children and adults are able to track the regularities embedded in the auditory input, as the probability of one syllable to follow another syllable in the speech stream, the developmental trajectory of this ability remains controversial. In this work, we have collected Event-Related Potentials while 5-year-old children and young adults were exposed to a speech stream made of the repetition of eight three-syllable nonsense words presenting different levels of predictability to mimic closely what occurs in natural languages and to get new insights into the changes that the mechanisms underlying auditory statistical learning might undergo through the development. The participants performed the aSL task first under implicit and, subsequently, under explicit conditions to further analyze if children take advantage of previous knowledge of the to-be-learned regularities to enhance SL, as observed with the adult participants. These findings would also contribute to extend our knowledge of the mechanisms available to assist SL at each developmental stage. Although behavioral signs of learning, even under explicit conditions, were only observed for the adult participants, ERP data showed evidence of online segmentation in the brain in both groups, as indexed by modulations in the N100 and N400 components. A detailed analysis of the neural data suggests, however, that adults and children rely on different mechanisms to assist the extraction of word-like units from the continuous speech stream, hence supporting the view that SL with auditory linguistic materials changes through development.

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