Science

Currently, the research of the newly formed lab is chiefly aimed at understanding the mechanisms of language learning. Human capacity to quickly learn new words, critical for our ability to communicate using language, is well-known from behavioural studies and observations. Yet, the neural bases of this vital skill of fast word acquisition (sometimes called ‘fast mapping’) are not understood. Previous neurophysiological studies have shown that human cortex is capable of rapid build-up of novel memory traces within minutes of exposure to novel word stimuli (Shtyrov et al, J Neuroscience 2010; Shtyrov, 2012 The Neuroscientist) and that this rapid learning capacity is specific to native spoken sounds and depends on individual language background (Shtyrov, Front in Psychol 2011; Kimppa et al, Neuroimage 2015; Kimppa et al, Sci Rep 2016). Our current work substantially extends this endeavour and includes a number of research strands:

  • perceptual learning of novel word forms: we hypothesise that perisylvian, especially superior-temporal, cortices are instrumental to fast build-up of lexical circuits, which is tested in neurophysiological experiments;
  • we are looking to define specific patterns of learning meaningless word-forms vs. meaningful words as well acquisition of different types of meaning, e.g. abstract vs. concrete semantics;
  • sensorimotor learning through articulation. Our theoretical approach predicts formation of interconnected memory circuits involving motor and auditory perceptual areas;
  • we strive to uncover different brain routes for word learning, most importantly implicit learning through context vs. explicit learning through instructions;
  • we compare the brain dynamics of word learning between adult speakers and children, for better understanding of developmental processes responsible for the formation of the language acquisition system.

To achieve these goals, we combine psycholinguistic behavioural experiments with neuroimaging tools. We pay special attention to precision-matching of stimulus parameters and tight control over the behavioural learning routines, as well as the timing of neurophysiological effects. We use electrophysiological recordings (high-density EEG) and neurostimulation methods (tDCS), in order to capture both the brain dynamics correlated with acquisition processes and establish causal links between the brain structure and specific functional mechanisms underpinning the process.