Asymmetry of auditory-motor speech processing is determined by language experience.
Tang D-L., Möttönen R., Asaridou SS., Watkins KE.
Speech processing relies on interactions between auditory and motor systems and is asymmetrically organized in the human brain. The left auditory system is specialized for processing of phonemes, whereas the right is specialized for processing of pitch changes in speech affecting prosody. In speakers of tonal languages, however, processing of pitch (i.e., tone) changes that alter word meaning is left-lateralized indicating that linguistic function and language experience shape speech processing asymmetries. Here, we investigated the asymmetry of motor contributions to auditory speech processing in male and female speakers of tonal and non-tonal languages. We temporarily disrupted the right or left speech motor cortex using transcranial magnetic stimulation and measured the impact of these disruptions on auditory discrimination (mismatch negativity) responses to phoneme and tone changes in sequences of syllables using electroencephalography. We found that the effect of motor disruptions on processing of tone changes differed between language groups: disruption of the right speech motor cortex suppressed responses to tone changes in non-tonal language speakers, whereas disruption of the left speech motor cortex suppressed responses to tone changes in tonal language speakers. In non-tonal language speakers, the effects of disruption of left speech motor cortex on responses to tone changes were inconclusive. For phoneme changes, disruption of left but not right speech motor cortex suppressed responses in both language groups. We conclude that the contributions of the right and left speech motor cortex to auditory speech processing are determined by the functional roles of acoustic cues in the listener's native language.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT:The principles underlying hemispheric asymmetries of auditory speech processing remain debated. The asymmetry of auditory speech processing is affected by the low-level acoustic cues, but also by their linguistic function. By combining TMS and EEG, we investigated the asymmetry of motor contributions to auditory speech processing in tonal and non-tonal language speakers. We provide causal evidence that the functional role of the acoustic cues in the listener's native language affects the asymmetry of motor influences on auditory speech discrimination ability (indexed by mismatch negativity responses). Lateralized top-down motor influences are likely to affect asymmetry of speech processing in the auditory system.