Developmental changes in brain activation during novel grammar learning in 8-25-year-olds

Menks, W. M., Ekerdt, C., Lemhöfer, K., Kidd, E., Fernández, G., McQueen, J. M., & Janzen, G. (2024). Developmental changes in brain activation during novel grammar learning in 8-25-year-olds. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 66: 101347. doi:10.1016/j.dcn.2024.101347.
While it is well established that grammar learning success varies with age, the cause of this developmental change is largely unknown. This study examined functional MRI activation across a broad developmental sample of 165 Dutch-speaking individuals (8-25 years) as they were implicitly learning a new grammatical system. This approach allowed us to assess the direct effects of age on grammar learning ability while exploring its neural correlates. In contrast to the alleged advantage of children language learners over adults, we found that adults outperformed children. Moreover, our behavioral data showed a sharp discontinuity in the relationship between age and grammar learning performance: there was a strong positive linear correlation between 8 and 15.4 years of age, after which age had no further effect. Neurally, our data indicate two important findings: (i) during grammar learning, adults and children activate similar brain regions, suggesting continuity in the neural networks that support initial grammar learning; and (ii) activation level is age-dependent, with children showing less activation than older participants. We suggest that these age-dependent processes may constrain developmental effects in grammar learning. The present study provides new insights into the neural basis of age-related differences in grammar learning in second language acquisition.
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