van der Kant, A. 1 , Männel, C. . 2 , Paul, M. 2 , Friederici, A. D. . 2 , Höhle, B. 1 & Wartenburger, I. 1
1 Cognitive Sciences, University of Potsdam, Germany
2 Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany
The ability to extract and generalize abstract rules in an unknown language is present very early in life but less pronounced in adulthood. Our previous EEG studies revealed that 3- to 4-month-old infants, but not adults, can learn nonadjacent dependencies in an unknown language under passive listening conditions.
This raises the question whether differences between adults? and infants? implicit learning abilities are specific to language. We aim to answer this question by studying implicit learning of non-adjacent dependencies in both linguistic and non-linguistic materials. Adult participants were exposed to both short Italian sentences and tone sequences containing similar non-adjacent dependency patterns. During exposure, blood oxygenation levels were monitored using optical imaging and after exposure, grammatical judgments were collected.
Grammatical judgment data confirmed that adults were largely unable to distinguish grammatical from ungrammatical linguistic stimuli upon passive exposure. The same was shown for tone sequences, although the learning rate was slightly higher. Furthermore, learning of nonlinguistic sequences was positively correlated to participants? musical experience. This effect was mirrored in our optical imaging data. Learning-related activation in right temporal regions, as reflected by oxygenated hemoglobin concentration changes when listening to grammatical versus ungrammatical stimuli, differed between participants with and without musical experience.