We investigated the development of early-latency and long-latency brain responses to native and non-native speech to shed light on the neurophysiological underpinnings of perceptual narrowing and early language development. Specifically, we postulated a two-level process to explain the decrease in sensitivity to non-native phonemes towards the end of infancy. Neurons at the earlier stages of the ascending auditory pathway mature rapidly during infancy facilitating the encoding of both native and non-native sounds. This growth enables neurons at the later stages of the auditory pathway to assign phonological status to speech according to the infant’s native language environment. To test this hypothesis, we collected early-latency and long-latency neural responses to native and non-native lexical tones from 85 Cantonese-learning children aged between 23 days and 24 months, 16 days. As expected, a broad range of presumably subcortical early-latency neural encoding measures grew rapidly and substantially during the first two years for both native and non-native tones. By contrast, long-latency cortical electrophysiological changes occurred on a much slower scale and showed sensitivity to nativeness at around six months. Our study provided a comprehensive understanding of early language development by revealing the complementary roles of earlier and later stages of speech processing in the developing brain.

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Competing Interests: The authors declare competing interests.