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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Syntactic learning by mere exposure - An ERP study in adult learners

Jutta L Mueller*, Regine Oberecker and Angela D Friederici

Author Affiliations

Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Science, Stephanstr. 1a, 04103 Leipzig, Germany

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BMC Neuroscience 2009, 10:89  doi:10.1186/1471-2202-10-89

Published: 29 July 2009



Artificial language studies have revealed the remarkable ability of humans to extract syntactic structures from a continuous sound stream by mere exposure. However, it remains unclear whether the processes acquired in such tasks are comparable to those applied during normal language processing. The present study compares the ERPs to auditory processing of simple Italian sentences in native and non-native speakers after brief exposure to Italian sentences of a similar structure. The sentences contained a non-adjacent dependency between an auxiliary and the morphologically marked suffix of the verb. Participants were presented four alternating learning and testing phases. During learning phases only correct sentences were presented while during testing phases 50 percent of the sentences contained a grammatical violation.


The non-native speakers successfully learned the dependency and displayed an N400-like negativity and a subsequent anteriorily distributed positivity in response to rule violations. The native Italian group showed an N400 followed by a P600 effect.


The presence of the P600 suggests that native speakers applied a grammatical rule. In contrast, non-native speakers appeared to use a lexical form-based processing strategy. Thus, the processing mechanisms acquired in the language learning task were only partly comparable to those applied by competent native speakers.