Professional music training and word meaning acquisition: from faster semantic encoding to longer-lasting word representations

  • Dittinger Eva
  • Barbaroux Mylène
  • d'Imperio Mariapaola
  • Jänke Lutz
  • Elmer Stefan
  • Besson Mireille

  • N400
  • Word learning
  • Musical trainging
  • Phonological learning
  • Prosody
  • ERP

COMM

Learning new words is a multifaceted task requiring both general perceptive and cognitive functions. Based on previous evidence showing that music training positively influences different aspects of speech perception and cognition, we hypothesized that professional musicians would be facilitated in learning novel words. Specifically, we expected that the musicians' advantage would be reflected by a higher level of performance, as well as by stronger and faster changes in brain electrical activity than in controls, in particular regarding the N400 component that develops with word learning. To test these hypotheses, we carried out a series of experiments designed to track the temporal dynamics of phonological learning, semantic acquisition (through picture-word associations) and semantic retrieval. As expected, musicians outperformed controls in identifying the phonological properties of the novel words, as well as in word meaning acquisition. Moreover, while a frontally distributed N400 developed in both groups after only three minutes of training, in musicians this frontal distribution rapidly shifted to parietal scalp sites, as typically found for the N400 elicited by known words. In addition, musicians showed larger centro-parietal N400 effects during the test phase. Both behavioral and electrophysiological results show strong evidence for faster integration of novel word meanings into semantic networks in professional musicians compared to controls. To our knowledge, this is the first report showing transfer from music training to semantic aspects of language processing and results open new perspectives for education in showing that early music training can facilitate later foreign language learning.