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Poster D70, Thursday, November 9, 6:15 – 7:30 pm, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Perceptual sensitivity to non-native sounds: ERP evidence of neuroplasticity in the phonological system related to second language learning

Karin Heidlmayr1,2, Emmanuel Ferragne2, Frédéric Isel3;1Max-Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, 2Laboratory CLILLAC-ARP – EA3967, Paris Diderot – Sorbonne Paris Cité University, Paris, France, 3Laboratory MoDyCo-CNRS University Paris Nanterre – Paris Lumières, France

Second language (L2) learners quite persistently encounter difficulties in perceiving specific non-native sound contrasts (e.g., Flege & MacKay, 2004; Dupoux et al., 2008; Sebastián-Gallés et al., 2005), i.e. a phenomenon called phonological deafness (Troubetzkoi, 1939). If, however, neuroplastic changes do take place in the cerebral network underlying phonological processing, sustained L2 experience should lead to adaptive processes and eventually to a certain capacity to discriminate non-native phonemic contrasts even in late L2 learners (Best & Strange, 1992; Flege et al., 1997; Iverson et al., 2012). Here, we aimed to examine the extent to which neuroplastic changes take place in the phonological system as a function of L2 experience. We designed an ERP experiment in which the capacity of listeners to discriminate L2 phonemic contrasts mediated lexical access. A semantic violation paradigm was used in which the difference between semantically congruent and incongruent items was implemented by a phonemic contrast that is unique to the L2, English (e.g., /ɪ/ - /i/: ship – sheep), but does not exist in the L1, French. Nineteen young adult native speakers of French with intermediate proficiency in English listened to sentences that contained either a semantically congruent item (e.g., The anchor of the ship was let down) or an incongruent one (e.g., *The anchor of the sheep was let down) while EEG was continuously recorded. They performed an acceptability judgement. The ERP data revealed a fronto-central incongruency effect, i.e. a larger negativity for incongruent than congruent words between 180-220 ms post-stimulus onset. Importantly, this early effect was larger in more proficient L2 learners. Moreover, a centro-parietal N400 incongruency effect was found, i.e., a larger negativity for incongruent than congruent words between 350-650 ms. The effect peaked earlier in more proficient L2 learners. Taken together, our findings indicate that L2 learners were sensitive to semantic incongruencies mediated by non-native phonemic contrasts. However, the proficiency-related variations of ERP effects suggest that perceptual sensitivity to non-native sounds depends on the amount and type of sustained L2 experience. However, the capacity to acquire non-native phonology has previously been found to show considerable inter-individual variability (Pruitt et al., 2006; Golestani & Zatorre, 2009). Future studies should try to identify which factors play a facilitating or limiting role for neuroplastic changes in the phonological system and investigate the role of targeted training on the sensitivity to second language phonemic contrasts.

Topic Area: Phonology and Phonological Working Memory

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