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Neural Mechanisms of Spanish Speech Imitation in native Chinese-speaking children and adults

Poster B64 in Poster Session B, Tuesday, October 24, 3:30 - 5:15 pm CEST, Espace Vieux-Port

Jiaqi Mao1,2, Xiaohui Yan2,3,4, Weizheng Li2, Fan Cao2,3,4; 1Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Spain, 2Department of Psychology, Sun Yat-sen University, China, 3Department of Psychology, the University of Hong Kong, China, 4State Key Lab of Brain and Cognitive sciences, the University of Hong Kong, China

Avoiding foreign accents in second language (L2) speech production for late bilinguals is challenging. The critical period theory argues that children who learn L2 before the end of puberty can produce native-like speech (Flege, 1987). Similarly, people with musical training also have superior pronunciation (Milovanov, 2009). However, brain mechanisms underlying the superiority of children and musicians in foreign speech imitation are poorly understood. In the current study, we examined brain activities during Spanish imitation in native Chinese speakers. We recruited 66 native Chinese speakers, including 15 typically developing children (M =10.3 ± 0.5), 19 adults with extensive musical training (M = 19.8 ± 1.5), and 32 adults as controls (M = 22.6 ± 3.3). All participants had no previous knowledge of Spanish or similar languages. In the MRI speech imitation task, 30 Spanish real words (17 two-syllable words, 10 three-syllable words, and 3 four-syllable words) were orally presented. Participants imitated right after each presented word as best as they could. Each word repeated three times in a row. The quality of participants’ pronunciation of Spanish words was measured using Praat (Boersma, 2001) by calculating voice onset time (VOT) for consonants, and the first and second format frequency (F1 and F2) for vowels. We found that children and musician adults had more similar VOTs to the native Spanish speaker for the Spanish consonant [d], [b], and [p] than control adults, and they had shorter distance to the native Spanish speaker in the vowel space for the Spanish vowels [e], [i], [o], and [u]. For the brain functional activities, we found that both children and musicians showed reduced activation from the first imitation to the second imitation in the bilateral STG, left insula, and left thalamus, suggesting a repetition suppression effect; however, the control adults showed less reduction. It suggests that auditory feedback at the STG and insula and motor control in the thalamus are more sensitive in children and musicians than in control adults. We found that musicians showed greater reduction after the first imitation in the left SMA and left postcentral gyrus, while the children and control adults did not, suggesting a specific musician effect that musicians have finer speech motor control at the SMA and greater somatosensory feedback at the postcentral gyrus than the other two groups. We also found that children showed steady activation in the bilateral posterior cingulum, but the two adult groups did not, suggesting that children have less memory retrieval and increased automatic processing during speech learning. These findings provide both behavioral and neurological evidence for the superiority of foreign speech imitation in children and musicians than control adults.

Topic Areas: Disorders: Developmental, Language Development/Acquisition

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