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J Cogn Neurosci. 2012 Apr;24(4):933-47. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_00119. Epub 2011 Aug 23.

Explicit and implicit second language training differentially affect the achievement of native-like brain activation patterns.

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Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, 1706 University Hall, MC-315, 601 S. Morgan St., Chicago, IL 60607, USA.


It is widely believed that adults cannot learn a foreign language in the same way that children learn a first language. However, recent evidence suggests that adult learners of a foreign language can come to rely on native-like language brain mechanisms. Here, we show that the type of language training crucially impacts this outcome. We used an artificial language paradigm to examine longitudinally whether explicit training (that approximates traditional grammar-focused classroom settings) and implicit training (that approximates immersion settings) differentially affect neural (electrophysiological) and behavioral (performance) measures of syntactic processing. Results showed that performance of explicitly and implicitly trained groups did not differ at either low or high proficiency. In contrast, electrophysiological (ERP) measures revealed striking differences between the groups' neural activity at both proficiency levels in response to syntactic violations. Implicit training yielded an N400 at low proficiency, whereas at high proficiency, it elicited a pattern typical of native speakers: an anterior negativity followed by a P600 accompanied by a late anterior negativity. Explicit training, by contrast, yielded no significant effects at low proficiency and only an anterior positivity followed by a P600 at high proficiency. Although the P600 is reminiscent of native-like processing, this response pattern as a whole is not. Thus, only implicit training led to an electrophysiological signature typical of native speakers. Overall, the results suggest that adult foreign language learners can come to rely on native-like language brain mechanisms, but that the conditions under which the language is learned may be crucial in attaining this goal.

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