Abstract

Language is composed of small building blocks, which combine to form larger meaningful structures. To understand language, we must process, track, and concatenate these building blocks into larger linguistic units as speech unfolds over time. An influential idea is that phase-locking of neural oscillations across different levels of linguistic structure provides a mechanism for this process. Building on this framework, the goal of the current study was to determine whether neural phase-locking occurs more robustly to novel linguistic items that are successfully learned and encoded into memory, compared to items that are not learned. Participants listened to a continuous speech stream composed of repeating nonsense words while their EEG was recorded and then performed a recognition test on the component words. Neural phase-locking to individual words during the learning period strongly predicted the strength of subsequent word knowledge, suggesting that neural phase-locking indexes the subjective perception of specific linguistic items during real-time language learning. These findings support neural oscillatory models of language, demonstrating that words that are successfully perceived as functional units are tracked by oscillatory activity at the matching word rate. In contrast, words that are not learned are processed merely as a sequence of unrelated syllables and thus not tracked by corresponding word-rate oscillations.

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