Native language inhibition predicts more successful second language learning: Evidence of two ERP pathways during learning

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How some individuals succeed in learning a second language as adults is still an unsolved question in cognitive neuroscience. At the brain level, adults' electrophysiological responses to input in a second language may differ after completing different types of training. However, there is limited understanding of what neural pathways are activated as learning unfolds, and which patterns of activation lead to successful learning. Using brain event-related potentials, this study explored whether individual brain responses to practice difficulty during second language learning predict learning outcomes. English-speaking learners of Spanish practiced completing newly learned phrases in their second language. For some learners, all the choices presented during practice were “easy” because non-target choices were unrelated distractors. In the more “difficult” practice mode, however, learners had to avoid choosing a competing word that would be acceptable based on their native language, but not in the second language being learned. Performance during practice was similar in both groups of learners. Critically, divergence in event-related potentials indicated alternative strategies to practice, based on the level of difficulty. At the group level, learners completing the easier practice revealed increased monitoring when making responses; in the difficult condition, learners showed inhibition of their native language (i.e., an N400 for phrases congruent with the native language) to avoid interference during word selection. Individual brain responses indexing the degree of native language inhibition predicted learning rates in tests.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number107732
StatePublished - Feb 12 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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