{Different neurophysiological mechanisms underlying word and rule learning}

Title{Different neurophysiological mechanisms underlying word and rule learning}
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsDe-Diego R, Toro JM, Rodriguez-Fornells A, Bachoud-Lévi AC
JournalPLoS One

The initial process of identifying words from spoken language and the detection of more subtle regularities underlying their structure are mandatory processes for language acquisition. Little is known about the cognitive mechanisms that allow us to extract these two types of information and their specific time-course of acquisition following initial contact with a new language. We report time-related electrophysiological changes that occurred while participants learned an artificial language. These changes strongly correlated with the discovery of the structural rules embedded in the words. These changes were clearly different from those related to word learning and occurred during the first minutes of exposition. There is a functional distinction in the nature of the electrophysiological signals during acquisition: an increase in negativity (N400) in the central electrodes is related to word-learning and development of a frontal positivity (P2) is related to rule-learning. In addition, the results of an online implicit and a post-learning test indicate that, once the rules of the language have been acquired, new words following the rule are processed as words of the language. By contrast, new words violating the rule induce syntax-related electrophysiological responses when inserted online in the stream (an early frontal negativity followed by a late posterior positivity) and clear lexical effects when presented in isolation (N400 modulation). The present study provides direct evidence suggesting that the mechanisms to extract words and structural dependencies from continuous speech are functionally segregated. When these mechanisms are engaged, the electrophysiological marker associated with rule-learning appears very quickly, during the earliest phases of exposition to a new language.