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Neuroimage. 2003 May;19(1):113-24.

Learning-induced neural plasticity associated with improved identification performance after training of a difficult second-language phonetic contrast.

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Human Information Science Laboratories, ATR International, Kyoto 619-0288, Japan.


Adult native Japanese speakers have difficulty perceiving the English /r-l/ phonetic contrast even after years of exposure. However, after extensive perceptual identification training, long-lasting improvement in identification performance can be attained. This fMRI study investigates localized changes in brain activity associated with 1 month of extensive feedback-based perceptual identification training by native Japanese speakers learning the English /r-l/ phonetic contrast. Before and after training, separate functional brain imaging sessions were conducted for identification of the English /r-l/ contrast (difficult for Japanese speakers), /b-g/ contrast (easy), and /b-v/ contrast (difficult), in which signal-correlated noise served as the reference control condition. Neural plasticity, denoted by exclusive enhancement in brain activity for the /r-l/ contrast, does not involve only reorganization in brain regions concerned with acoustic-phonetic processing (superior and medial temporal areas) but also the recruitment of additional bilateral cortical (supramarginal gyrus, planum temporale, Broca's area, premotor cortex, supplementary motor area) and subcortical regions (cerebellum, basal ganglia, substantia nigra) involved with auditory-articulatory (perceptual-motor) mappings related to verbal speech processing and learning. Contrary to what one may expect, brain activity for perception of a difficult contrast does not come to resemble that of an easy contrast as learning proceeds. Rather, the results support the hypothesis that improved identification performance may be due to the acquisition of auditory-articulatory mappings allowing for perception to be made in reference to potential action.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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