Native language experience plays a critical role in shaping speech categorization, but the exact mechanisms by which it does so are not well understood. Investigating category learning of nonspeech sounds with which listeners have no prior experience allows their experience to be systematically controlled in a way that is impossible to achieve by studying natural speech acquisition, and it provides a means of probing the boundaries and constraints that general auditory perception and cognition bring to the task of speech category learning. In this study, we used a multimodal, video-game-based implicit learning paradigm to train participants to categorize acoustically complex, nonlinguistic sounds. Mismatch negativity (MMN) responses to the nonspeech stimuli were collected before and after training, and changes in MMN resulting from the nonspeech category learning closely resemble patterns of change typically observed during speech category learning. This suggests that the often-observed “specialized” neural responses to speech sounds may result, at least in part, from the expertise we develop with speech categories through experience rather than from properties unique to speech (e.g., linguistic or vocal tract gestural information). Furthermore, particular characteristics of the training paradigm may inform our understanding of mechanisms that support natural speech acquisition.

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