Abstract

Learning non-native phonetic categories in adulthood is an exceptionally challenging task, characterized by large interindividual differences in learning speed and outcomes. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying the interindividual differences in the learning efficacy are not fully understood. Here we examine the extent to which training-induced neural representations of non-native Mandarin tone categories in English listeners (n = 53) are increasingly similar to those of the native listeners (n = 33) who acquired these categories early in infancy. We particularly assess whether the neural similarities in representational structure between non-native learners and native listeners are robust neuromarkers of interindividual differences in learning success. Using intersubject neural representational similarity (IS-NRS) analysis and predictive modeling on two functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) datasets, we examined the neural representational mechanisms underlying speech category learning success. Learners’ neural representations that were significantly similar to the native listeners emerged in brain regions mediating speech perception following training; the extent of the emerging neural similarities with native listeners significantly predicted the learning speed and outcome in learners. The predictive power of IS-NRS outperformed models with other neural representational measures. Furthermore, neural representations underlying successful learning were multidimensional but cost-efficient in nature. The degree of the emergent native-similar neural representations was closely related to the robustness of neural sensitivity to feedback in the frontostriatal network. These findings provide important insights into the experience-dependent representational neuroplasticity underlying successful speech learning in adulthood and could be leveraged in designing individualized feedback-based training paradigms that maximize learning efficacy.

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Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors declare competing interests exist.

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