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Neuroimage. 2019 Mar 8;192:76-87. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.03.008. [Epub ahead of print]

Speech processing and plasticity in the right hemisphere predict variation in adult foreign language learning.

Author information

1
Department of Linguistics and Cognitive Science, University of Delaware, Newark, DE, 19711, USA; McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA. Electronic address: zqi@udel.edu.
2
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA.
3
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA; State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning, Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China.
4
Department of Psychology, Northeastern University, USA.
5
McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA; Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, 02139, USA.
6
Department of Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA, 02215, USA.

Abstract

Foreign language learning in adulthood often takes place in classrooms where learning outcomes vary widely among students, for both initial learning and long-term retention. Despite the fundamental role of speech perception in first language acquisition, its role in foreign language learning outcomes remains unknown. Using a speech discrimination functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) task and resting-state fMRI before and after an intensive, classroom-based, Mandarin Chinese course, we examined how variations in pre-training organization and pre-to-post reorganization of brain functions predicted successful language learning in male and female native English-speakers. Greater pre-training activation in right inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) to Mandarin speech was associated with better Mandarin attainment at the end of the course. After four weeks of class, learners showed overall increased activation in left IFG and left superior parietal lobule (SPL) to Mandarin speech, but in neither region was variation related to learning outcomes. Immediate attainment was associated with greater pre-to-post reduction of right IFG activation to Mandarin speech but also greater enhancement of resting-state connectivity between this region and both left IFG and left SPL. Long-term retention of Mandarin skills measured three months later was more accurately predicted by models using features of neural preparedness (pre-training activation) and neural plasticity (pre-to-post activation change) than models using behavior preparedness and plasticity features (pre-training speech discrimination accuracy and Mandarin attainment, respectively). These findings suggest that successful holistic foreign language acquisition in human adulthood requires right IFG engagement during initial learning but right IFG disengagement for long-term retention of language skills.

KEYWORDS:

Individual differences; Language learning; Prediction; Resting state connectivity; Speech perception; fMRI

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