In the present study, we investigated the cognitive processes underlying selective word learning in preschoolers. We measured rhythmic neural activity in the theta (4–8 Hz) and alpha frequency range (7–12 Hz) in 67 four-year-olds. EEG was recorded during anticipation and encoding of novel labeling events performed by a speaker who had previously shown either competence (correct) or incompetence (incorrect) in labeling familiar objects. In both groups, children selected the target object equally often upon recall. However, children observing the incompetent speaker revealed weaker representations of novel words indicated by an increased likelihood for selecting familiar but incorrect items upon recall. Modulations in theta and alpha power suggest differential processing of novel label–object pairs depending on the speakers' competence. In the incompetent, but not the competent, speaker condition, increases in prefrontal theta power during anticipation and encoding were related to increased recall success. Findings suggest that theta power in the present study reflects cognitive control. In both conditions, occipital alpha power—indicating attentional processes—reflected familiarity with novel items, but in opposite directions. In familiar item trials, alpha power was increased observing the incompetent and decreased observing the competent speaker. Thus, both cognitive control and attention processes during word learning are differentially affected by speaker characteristics.

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