During language processing, people make rapid use of contextual information to promote comprehension of upcoming words. When new words are learned implicitly, information contained in the surrounding context can provide constraints on their possible meaning. In the current study, EEG was recorded as participants listened to a series of three sentences, each containing an identical target pseudoword, with the aim of using contextual information in the surrounding language to identify a meaning representation for the novel word. In half of the trials, sentences were semantically coherent so that participants could develop a single representation for the novel word that fit all contexts. Other trials contained unrelated sentence contexts so that meaning associations were not possible. We observed greater theta band enhancement over the left hemisphere across central and posterior electrodes in response to pseudowords processed across semantically related compared to unrelated contexts. Additionally, relative alpha and beta band suppression was increased prior to pseudoword onset in trials where contextual information more readily promoted pseudoword meaning associations. Under the hypothesis that theta enhancement indexes processing demands during lexical access, the current study provides evidence for selective online memory retrieval for novel words learned implicitly in a spoken context.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: Alec Marantz

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For a full description of the license, please visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode.