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Insights on NIRS sensitivity from a cross-linguistic study on the emergence of phonological grammar

Minagawa-Kawai, Y., Cristia, A., Long, B., Vendelin, I., Hakuno, Y., Dutat, M., Filippin, L., Cabrol, D., & Dupoux, E. (2013). Insights on NIRS sensitivity from a cross-linguistic study on the emergence of phonological grammar. Frontiers in Psychology, 4: 170. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00170.
Each language has a unique set of phonemic categories and phonotactic rules which determine permissible sound sequences in that language. Behavioral research demonstrates that one’s native language shapes the perception of both sound categories and sound sequences in adults, and neuroimaging results further indicate that the processing of native phonemes and phonotactics involves a left-dominant perisylvian brain network. Recent work using a novel technique, functional Near InfraRed Spectroscopy (NIRS), has suggested that a left-dominant network becomes evident toward the end of the first year of life as infants process phonemic contrasts. The present research project attempted to assess whether the same pattern would be seen for native phonotactics. We measured brain responses in Japanese- and French-learning infants to two contrasts: Abuna vs. Abna (a phonotactic contrast that is native in French, but not in Japanese) and Abuna vs. Abuuna (a vowel length contrast that is native in Japanese, but not in French). Results did not show a significant response to either contrast in either group, unlike both previous behavioral research on phonotactic processing and NIRS work on phonemic processing. To understand these null results, we performed similar NIRS experiments with Japanese adult participants. These data suggest that the infant null results arise from an interaction of multiple factors, involving the suitability of the experimental paradigm for NIRS measurements and stimulus perceptibility. We discuss the challenges facing this novel technique, particularly focusing on the optimal stimulus presentation which could yield strong enough hemodynamic responses when using the change detection paradigm.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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