Research Topic

Language beyond words: the neuroscience of accent

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Language learning also implies the acquisition of a set of phonetic rules and prosodic contours which define the accent in that language. While often considered as merely accessory, accent is an essential component of psychological identity as it embodies information on origin, culture, and social class. ...

Language learning also implies the acquisition of a set of phonetic rules and prosodic contours which define the accent in that language. While often considered as merely accessory, accent is an essential component of psychological identity as it embodies information on origin, culture, and social class. Speaking with a non-standard (foreign) accent is not inconsequential because it may negatively impact communication and social adjustment. Nevertheless, the lack of a formal definition of accent may explain that, as compared with other aspects of language, it has received relatively little attention until recently. During the past decade there has been increasing interest in the analysis of accent from a neuroscientific perspective. Some advances have been achieved in the study of two conditions. The most commonly investigated issue deals with the difficulty in mastering accent in a second language (L2) in late learners, whereas the second situation concerns the analysis of brain-damaged individuals who have lost their native accent (“foreign accent syndrome” - FAS). Although not formally compared, recent progress in understanding both the bilingual brain and the linguistic and neural correlates of FAS suggest that these conditions share several features. First, some late L2 learners (usually classified as non-talented for accent) and individuals with FAS have close to typical lexical and grammatical skills, which are in clear contrast with their slow and often struggling articulation. Second, brain imaging shows that some components of the speech production network (e.g., insula) which are not finely-tuned to promote acquisition of accent in late L2 learners are also dysfunctional in chronic FAS cases. However, despite these ground-breaking advances, several issues need to be addressed in future research.

This Research Topic welcomes contributors examining the linguistics, neural substrates, and functional mechanisms underlying normal and abnormal accents. Key questions awaiting response include: Does the perception of foreignness depend on the same set of prosodic and/or segmental aspects in different languages? Which are the core structures or networks instantiating good or poor acquisition of accent in late L2 learners and natural recovery from FAS? Are neural mechanisms involved in different FAS cases (neurologic, developmental, or psychogenic) the same? What is the role of constrained adaptive plasticity and/or overreliance on acoustic models of L1 in precluding the acquisition of L2 accent in late learners? Why do most FAS cases resulting from small lesions show poor recovery? How can the acquisition of accent on L2 and FAS be improved?

It is anticipated that the articles in this Research Topic will enhance the understanding of accent as a linguistic phenomenon, the neural networks supporting it and potential interventions to accelerate acquisition or relearning of native accents. We welcome studies which integrate data from different scientific frameworks. Submission of original data is desirable, but we also encourage mini-reviews and perspective papers which offer provocative and insightful interpretations of the recent literature in the field.


Important Note: All contributions to this Research Topic must be in line with the scope of the specialty and field to which they are submitted, as defined in their mission statements. Manuscripts discovered during any stage of peer review to be outside of the scope may be transferred to a suitable section or field, or withdrawn from review.

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