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BACKGROUND: The ability to repeat polysyllabic nonwords such as "blonterstaping" has frequently been shown to correlate with language learning ability but it is not clear why such a correlation should exist. Three alternative explanations have been offered, stated in terms of differences in: (a) perceptual ability; (b) efficiency of phonological loop functioning; (c) pre-existing vocabulary knowledge and/or articulatory skills. In the present study, we used event-related potentials to assess the contributions from these three factors to explaining individual variation in nonword repetition ability. METHODOLOGY/PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: 59 adults who were subdivided according to whether they were good or poor nonword-repeaters participated. Electrophysiologically measured mismatch responses were recorded to changes in consonants as participants passively listened to a repeating four syllable CV-string. The consonant change could occur in one of four positions along the CV-string and we predicted that: (a) if nonword repetition depended purely on auditory discrimination ability, then reduced mismatch responses to all four consonant changes would be observed in the poor nonword-repeaters, (b) if it depended on encoding or decay of information in a capacity-limited phonological store, then a position specific decrease in mismatch response would be observed, (c) if neither cognitive capacity was involved, then the two groups of participants would provide equivalent mismatch responses. Consistent with our second hypothesis, a position specific difference located on the third syllable was observed in the late discriminative negativity (LDN) window (230-630 ms post-syllable onset). CONCLUSIONS/SIGNIFICANCE: Our data thus confirm that people who are poorer at nonword repetition are less efficient in early processing of polysyllabic speech materials, but this impairment is not attributable to deficits in low level auditory discrimination. We conclude by discussing the significance of the observed relationship between LDN amplitude and nonword repetition ability and describe how this relatively little understood ERP component provides a biological window onto processes required for successful language learning.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Adult, Electrophysiology, Humans, Language, Learning