Brain responses reveal the learning of foreign language phonemes

Istvańn Winkler, Teija Kujala, Hannu Tiitinen, Päivi Sivonen, Paavo Alku, Anne Lehtokoski, István Czigler, Valéria Csépe, Risto J. Ilmoniemi, Risto Näätänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

224 Citations (Scopus)


Learning to speak a new language requires the formation of recognition patterns for the speech sounds specific to the newly acquired language. The present study demonstrates the dynamic nature of cortical memory representations for phonemes in adults by using the mismatch negativity (MMN) event-related potential. We studied Hungarian and Finnish subjects, dividing the Hungarians into a naive (no knowledge of Finnish) and a fluent (in Finnish) group. We found that the MMN for a contrast between two Finnish phonemes was elicited in the fluent Hungarians but not in the naive Hungarians. This result indicates that the fluent Hungarians developed cortical memory representations for the Finnish phoneme system that enabled them to preattentively categorize phonemes specific to this language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)638-642
Number of pages5
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1999



  • Brain plasticity
  • Event-related brain potentials
  • Language learning
  • Mismatch negativity
  • Phoneme system
  • Vowel contrast

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neurology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Biological Psychiatry

Cite this

Winkler, I., Kujala, T., Tiitinen, H., Sivonen, P., Alku, P., Lehtokoski, A., Czigler, I., Csépe, V., Ilmoniemi, R. J., & Näätänen, R. (1999). Brain responses reveal the learning of foreign language phonemes. Psychophysiology, 36(5), 638-642.