Mireille Besson

Université Publique de France ; CNRS & Aix-Marseille Université ;

Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives

Novel word learning is a complex, multidimensional process, that we perform every day to learn the meaning of new words in our own language or in a foreign language. To learn efficiently, we need to perceive and discriminate the novel word, to associate the new phonological and/or written forms to a meaning and to store the meaning in long term memory (Borovsky et al., 2010; Dittinger et al., 2016; Dobel et al., 2009; Elmer et al., 2021; Ramos-Escobar et al., 2021; Rodriguez-Fornells et al, 2009). Several factors influence our ability to learn novel words such as motivation, emotion, perception, attention, working and short-term memory, long-term memory… Here, we are interested in better understanding the different processes that are involved in novel word learning and their cerebral bases.

To reach this aim, we conducted several experiments with French adults (Barbaroux et al, 2020; Dittinger et al, 2016; 2017; 2019; 2021). These experiments always comprised several phases: 1) a learning phase during which the picture of a familiar item was presented (i.e., an eye, a flower …) followed by a monosyllabic word in a foreign language (here the Thai language: /pa1/, /pa2/…, where the numerals referred to the pitch of the tone). We used nine picture-word associations, and each pair was presented 20 times in two blocks of trials of 3 min each. Participants were asked to learn the picture word association; 2) a matching task, in which either the same pairs (matching pairs: an eye associated with /pa1/) or different pairs (new pairing between the picture and the novel word, mismatching what participants have learned during the learning phase, e.g., a flower with /pa1/) are presented to the participants. Each pair was presented 20 times, half in matching pairs (Yes response) and half in mismatching pairs (No response) in two blocks of 3 min each. Finally, 3) a semantic task was presented in which new pictures that had not been presented previously were associated with the learned novel words. The new pictures were either semantically related (Yes: a picture of a book with /pa1/) or semantically unrelated (No: a picture of a garden with /pa1/) to the meaning of the novel word. Each pair was presented 12 times, half in semantically related (Yes response) and half in semantically unrelated pairs (No response) in two blocks of 4 min each. Of main interest, the electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded while participants performed the learning phase, the matching task and the semantic task and we analyzed the Event-related brain Potentials.

In line with previous results (Borovsky et al., 2010; Dobel et al., 2009; Rodriguez-Fornells et al, 2009), we found that, in the learning phase, an N200, taken to reflect novel word discrimination, and an N400 component, taken to reflect the learning of the picture-novel word association, developed very quickly over fronto-central brain regions. Interestingly, the scalp distribution of the N400 ERP component shifted to parietal sites within a few minutes to show its typical scalp distribution for already known words (Kutas, Van Petten & Besson, 1988). These results are evidence for fast novel word learning (Carey, 1978) and for fast brain plasticity, thereby showing that neural networks are reconfigured within a few minutes to incorporate the meaning of novel words. This interpretation is further supported by the results in the matching and in the semantic task showing that the N400 component was larger for mismatching and semantically unrelated words than for matching and semantically related novel words, as was expected based on a vast literature related to ERPs and semantic processing (Kutas & Federmeier, 2011).

Taken together, these results showed that novel word learning is a fast process that possibly rely on fast brain plasticity and the reconfiguration of underlying brain networks. This open new perspectives for foreign languages learning and for using new word learning procedures, in particular with adults who need to adapt and integrate rapidly within a new environment.


Barbaroux, M., Norena, A., Rasamimanana, M., Castet, E., Besson, M., 2021. From Psychoacoustics to Brain Waves: A Longitudinal Approach to Novel Word Learning. J Cogn Neurosci 33, 8-27.

Borovsky, A., Kutas, M., Elman, J., 2010. Learning to use words: Event-related potentials index single-shot contextual word learning. Cognition 116, 289-296.

Carey, S., 1978. The child as word learner. In: In Halle, M., Bresnan, J., and Miller, G.A. (Ed.), Linguistic Theory and Psychological Reality. MIT Press.

Dittinger, E., Barbaroux, M., D’Imperio, M., Jancke, L., Elmer, S., Besson, M., 2016. Professional Music Training and Novel Word Learning: From Faster Semantic Encoding to Longer-lasting Word Representations. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 28, 1584-1602.

Dittinger, E., Chobert, J., Ziegler, J.C., Besson, M., 2017. Fast Brain Plasticity during Word Learning in Musically-Trained Children. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11.

Dittinger, E., Scherer, J., Jancke, L., Besson, M., Elmer, S., 2019. Testing the influence of musical expertise on novel word learning across the lifespan using a cross-sectional approach in children, young adults and older adults. Brain and Language 198.

Dobel, C., Lagemann, L., Zwitserlood, P., 2009. Non-native phonemes in adult word learning: evidence from the N400m. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 364, 3697-3709.

Elmer, S., Dittinger, E., Brocchetto, J., Francois, C., Besson, M., Jäncke, L., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., 2021a. Phonological Skills and Verbal Memory Capacity Predict Phonetic-Based Word Learning: An Event-Related Potential Study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (accepted, in press).

Kutas, M., Federmeier, K.D., 2011. Thirty years and counting: finding meaning in the N400 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP). Annu Rev Psychol 62, 621-647.

Kutas, M., Van Petten, C., Besson, M., 1988. Event-related potential asymmetries during the reading of sentences. Electroencephalogr Clin Neurophysiol 69, 218-233.

Ramos-Escobar, N., Laine, M., Sanseverino-Dillenburg, M., Cucurell, D., Francois, C., Rodriguez-Fornells, A., 2021. The interplay between domain-general and domain-specific mechanisms during the time-course of verbal associative learning: An event-related potential study. Neuroimage 242.

Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Cunillera, T., Mestres-Misse, A., de Diego-Balaguer, R., 2009. Neurophysiological mechanisms involved in language learning in adults. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 364, 3711-3735.