Difficulty perceiving phonological contrasts in a second language (L2) can impede initial L2 lexical learning. Such is the case for English speakers learning tonal languages, like Mandarin Chinese. Given the hypothesized role of reduced neuroplasticity in adulthood limiting L2 phonological perception, the current study examined whether transcutaneous auricular vagus nerve stimulation (taVNS), a relatively new neuromodulatory technique, can facilitate L2 lexical learning for English speakers learning Mandarin Chinese over 2 days. Using a double-blind design, one group of participants received 10 min of continuous priming taVNS before lexical training and testing each day, a second group received 500 msec of peristimulus (peristim) taVNS preceding each to-be-learned item in the same tasks, and a third group received passive sham stimulation. Results of the lexical recognition test administered at the end of each day revealed evidence of learning for all groups, but a higher likelihood of accuracy across days for the peristim group and a greater improvement in response time between days for the priming group. Analyses of N400 ERP components elicited during the same tasks indicate behavioral advantages for both taVNS groups coincided with stronger lexico-semantic encoding for target words. Comparison of these findings to pupillometry results for the same study reported in Pandža, N. B., Phillips, I., Karuzis, V. P., O'Rourke, P., and Kuchinsky, S. E. (Neurostimulation and pupillometry: New directions for learning and research in applied linguistics. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 40, 56–77, 2020) suggest that positive effects of priming taVNS (but not peristim taVNS) on lexico-semantic encoding are related to sustained attentional effort.

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