Native language shapes automatic neural processing of speech

Bastien Intartaglia*, Travis White-Schwoch, Christine Meunier, Stéphane Roman, Nina Kraus, Daniele Schön

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


The development of the phoneme inventory is driven by the acoustic-phonetic properties of one's native language. Neural representation of speech is known to be shaped by language experience, as indexed by cortical responses, and recent studies suggest that subcortical processing also exhibits this attunement to native language. However, most work to date has focused on the differences between tonal and non-tonal languages that use pitch variations to convey phonemic categories. The aim of this cross-language study is to determine whether subcortical encoding of speech sounds is sensitive to language experience by comparing native speakers of two non-tonal languages (French and English). We hypothesized that neural representations would be more robust and fine-grained for speech sounds that belong to the native phonemic inventory of the listener, and especially for the dimensions that are phonetically relevant to the listener such as high frequency components. We recorded neural responses of American English and French native speakers, listening to natural syllables of both languages. Results showed that, independently of the stimulus, American participants exhibited greater neural representation of the fundamental frequency compared to French participants, consistent with the importance of the fundamental frequency to convey stress patterns in English. Furthermore, participants showed more robust encoding and more precise spectral representations of the first formant when listening to the syllable of their native language as compared to non-native language. These results align with the hypothesis that language experience shapes sensory processing of speech and that this plasticity occurs as a function of what is meaningful to a listener.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)57-65
Number of pages9
StatePublished - Aug 1 2016


  • Auditory brainstem responses
  • Experience-dependent plasticity
  • Speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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