Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 3.28.06 PMMy research aims to address the cognitive and neural characteristics (MRI, fMRI and EEG) of adult language learning success as another route to a better understanding of language learning mechanisms. I recently completed two longitudinal language-training studies on the interface between individuals’ language learning aptitudes and specific functional and structural brain characteristics.

Lab-based artificial language learning: Based on previous behavioral findings showing strong associations between native language skills and second language proficiency, I asked whether the way in which adults process meanings and structures in native language affect how efficiently they learn a novel language. By utilizing known ERP components (N400 and P600) as indices for individuals’ sensitivity to meanings and structural regularities, we found the magnitudes of native-language N400 and P600 ERP responses constituted markers of neural preparedness for vocabulary and morphosyntactic learning respectively. These results provide strong evidence for dissociable neural systems underlying different domains of adult language learning.

Classroom-based Mandarin learning: In order to investigate language learning in a real-world context, which often involves a novel phonemic system (such as lexical tones in Mandarin), I designed and implemented a one-month classroom-based Mandarin course, accompanied by a suite of cognitive and neural measures before and after the training. Both structural and functional imaging results suggest the right hemisphere plays an important role in preparing learners for unfamiliar speech sounds before learning. As learning progresses, there is a functional switch from right to left hemisphere that supports successful attainment. Thus far, findings from multiple modalities have formed a converging message that both learners’ initial speech perception skills and how they tune their neural sensitivity to foreign speech sounds are critical for successful language attainment.

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