fMRI syntactic and lexical repetition effects reveal the initial stages of learning a new language

Weber, K., Christiansen, M., Petersson, K. M., Indefrey, P., & Hagoort, P. (2016). fMRI syntactic and lexical repetition effects reveal the initial stages of learning a new language. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36, 6872-6880. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3180-15.2016.
When learning a new language, we build brain networks to process and represent the acquired words and syntax and integrate these with existing language representations. It is an open question whether the same or different neural mechanisms are involved in learning and processing a novel language compared to the native language(s). Here we investigated the neural repetition effects of repeating known and novel word orders while human subjects were in the early stages of learning a new language. Combining a miniature language with a syntactic priming paradigm, we examined the neural correlates of language learning online using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). In left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) and posterior temporal cortex the repetition of novel syntactic structures led to repetition enhancement, while repetition of known structures resulted in repetition suppression. Additional verb repetition led to an increase in the syntactic repetition enhancement effect in language-related brain regions. Similarly the repetition of verbs led to repetition enhancement effects in areas related to lexical and semantic processing, an effect that continued to increase in a subset of these regions. Repetition enhancement might reflect a mechanism to build and strengthen a neural network to process novel syntactic structures and lexical items. By contrast, the observed repetition suppression points to overlapping neural mechanisms for native and new language constructions when these have sufficient structural similarities.
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