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Simmonds, Anna J. (2015)
Publisher: Frontiers Media S.A.
Journal: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
Languages: English
Types: Article
Subjects: language learning, striatum, motor learning, non-native speech, Neuroscience, vocal learning, foreign accent, Hypothesis & Theory, variability
Rapid vocal motor learning is observed when acquiring a language in early childhood, or learning to speak another language later in life. Accurate pronunciation is one of the hardest things for late learners to master and they are almost always left with a non-native accent. Here, I propose a novel hypothesis that this accent could be improved by optimizing variability in vocal learning brain circuits during learning. Much of the neurobiology of human vocal motor learning has been inferred from studies on songbirds. Jarvis (2004) proposed the hypothesis that as in songbirds there are two pathways in humans: one for learning speech (the striatal vocal learning pathway), and one for production of previously learnt speech (the motor pathway). Learning new motor sequences necessary for accurate non-native pronunciation is challenging and I argue that in late learners of a foreign language the vocal learning pathway becomes inactive prematurely. The motor pathway is engaged once again and learners maintain their original native motor patterns for producing speech, resulting in speaking with a foreign accent. Further, I argue that variability in neural activity within vocal motor circuitry generates vocal variability that supports accurate non-native pronunciation. Recent theoretical and experimental work on motor learning suggests that variability in the motor movement is necessary for the development of expertise. I propose that there is little trial-by-trial variability when using the motor pathway. When using the vocal learning pathway variability gradually increases, reflecting an exploratory phase in which learners try out different ways of pronouncing words, before decreasing and stabilizing once the “best” performance has been identified. The hypothesis proposed here could be tested using behavioral interventions that optimize variability and engage the vocal learning pathway for longer, with the prediction that this would allow learners to develop new motor patterns that result in more native-like pronunciation.

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