This study used a longitudinal design to examine the development of mismatch responses (MMRs) to Mandarin lexical tones, an index of neural speech discriminative responses, in late talkers and typical controls at 3, 5, and 6 years of age. Lexical tones are phonetic suprasegments that distinguish the lexical meanings of syllables in tonal languages. The 2 year-old late talkers were later divided into persistent language delay and late bloomer groups according to their performance on standardized language tests at 4 years. Results showed that children with persistent language delay demonstrated more positive mismatch responses than the typical controls at 3 years of age. At the age of 5, no group difference were found in the amplitude of MMRs, but the maturation of MMRs could be observed in the change of topography, with more prominent negative response in the frontal sites only in the typical group. Correlations were found between the index of MMRs at 3 years and children's language performance outcome at 6 years. Our results indicate that the development of fine-grained tone representations is delayed in late-talking children between 3 and 5 years and may be one of the underlying mechanisms which associated with later language performance.
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