Brain signatures of early lexical and morphological learning of a new language

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Abstract

Morphology is an important part of language processing but little is known about how adult second language learners acquire morphological rules. Using a word-picture associative learning task, we have previously shown that a brief exposure to novel words with embedded morphological structure (suffix for natural gender) is enough for language learners to acquire the hidden morphological rule. Here we used this paradigm to study the brain signatures of early morphological learning in a novel language in adults. Behavioural measures indicated successful lexical (word stem) and morphological (gender suffix) learning. A day after the learning phase, event-related brain potentials registered during a recognition memory task revealed enhanced N400 and P600 components for stem and suffix violations, respectively. An additional effect observed with combined suffix and stem violations was an enhancement of an early N2 component, most probably related to conflict-detection processes. Successful morphological learning was also evident in the ERP responses to the subsequent rule-generalization task with new stems, where violation of the morphological rule was associated with an early (250–400 ms) and late positivity (750–900 ms). Overall, these findings tend to converge with lexical and morphosyntactic violation effects observed in L1 processing, suggesting that even after a short exposure, adult language learners can acquire both novel words and novel morphological rules.

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