From Psychoacoustics to Brain Waves: A Longitudinal Approach to Novel Word Learning

Mylène Barbaroux, Arnaud Norena, Maud Rasamimanana, Eric Castet & Mireille Besson

Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (2021) 33 (1): 8–27.

Musical expertise has been shown to positively influence high-level speech abilities such as novel word learning. This study addresses the question whether low-level enhanced perceptual skills causally drives successful novel word learning. We used a longitudinal approach with psychoacoustic procedures to train 2 groups of non-musicians either on pitch discrimination or on intensity discrimination, using harmonic complex sounds. After short (approximately 3 hr) psychoacoustic training, discrimination thresholds were lower on the specific feature (pitch or intensity) that was trained. Moreover, compared to the intensity group, participants trained on pitch were faster to categorize words varying in pitch. Finally, although the N400 components in both the word learning phase and in the semantic task were larger in the pitch group than in the intensity group, no between-group differences were found at the behavioral level in the semantic task. Thus, these results provide mixed evidence that enhanced perception of relevant features through a few hours of acoustic training with harmonic sounds causally impacts the categorization of speech sounds as well as novel word learning. These results are discussed within the framework of near and far transfer effects from music training to speech processing.

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