How does articulatory training affect foreign language learning in elderly people?

Katri Jähi (1,3), Henna Tamminen (1,2,3), Maija S. Peltola (1,2,3), Teija Kujala (4,5), Paavo Alku (7), Heikki Hämäläinen (2,6), Risto Näätänen (5,8,9)

1 Department of Phonetics, University of Turku
2 Centre of Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Turku
3 LAB-lab, Department of Phonetics, University of Turku
4 Cicero Learning Network, University of Helsinki
5 Cognitive Brain Research Unit, University of Helsinki
6 Department of Psychology, University of Turku
7 Department of Signal Processing and Acoustics, Aalto University
8 Centre of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience, University of Århus, Denmark
9 Department of Psychology, University of Tartu, Estonia

Cognitive functions inevitably slow down during normal aging. It can be assumed that slowing also occurs in foreign language learning as linguistic processing is one of these deteriorating cognitive functions. Speech perception and production are both part of foreign language learning and can be studied with behavioural and psychophysiological methods. We determined whether intensive short-term training can result in learning new speech sounds and how linguistic activity affects learning in the elderly.

Our studies were based on articulatory training and we used behavioural production, identification (ID), goodness rating (GR), discrimination sensitivity (d’), and reaction time (RT) tests and recorded electroencephalography (EEG). The subjects were 60-71 year old Finns. One subject group in Study 3 consisted of advanced students of a foreign language, while others had no other language identities besides their mother tongue. Study 1 consisted of three consecutive days of training and included ID, GR, d’, RT, EEG and production tests (same procedure as in an earlier study with adult subjects). The stimuli were synthesised English words /fi:l/ and /vi:l/. Study 2 included production tests and articulatory training on two consecutive days. The stimuli were semi-synthetic pseudowords /ty:ti/ and /tè:ti/. Study 3 included the same stimuli as Study 2 and the same tests as Study 1. Both stimulus pairs were chosen because they would result in maximal learning difficulties according to different Second language acquisition theories.

In Study 1, the subjects did not learn the new speech contrast, whereas, however, the earlier study with adults showed clear learning effects. In contrast, subjects in Study 2 learned to produce the new speech sound. As data from Study 3 are not yet analysed, they will be reported with discussion and conclusions at the symposium. Study 3 comparing learning effects in both groups will show how foreign language studying affects learning in elderly.

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