Abstract

A foreign language (a language not spoken in one's community) is difficult to master completely. Early introduction of foreign-language (FL) education during childhood is becoming a standard in many countries. However, the neural process of child FL learning still remains largely unknown. We longitudinally followed 322 school-age children with diverse FL proficiency for three consecutive years, and acquired children's ERP responses to FL words that were semantically congruous or incongruous with the preceding picture context. As FL proficiency increased, various ERP components previously reported in mother-tongue (L1) acquisition (such as a broad negativity, an N400, and a late positive component) appeared sequentially, critically in an identical order to L1 acquisition. This finding was supported not only by cross-sectional analyses of children at different proficiency levels but also by longitudinal analyses of the same children over time. Our data are consistent with the hypothesis that FL learning in childhood reproduces identical developmental stages in an identical order to L1 acquisition, suggesting that the nature of the child's brain itself may determine the normal course of FL learning. Future research should test the generalizability of the results in other aspects of language such as syntax.

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