Neurolinguistic Studies of SLA

SLA Topics  SLA Bibliography  Vivian Cook 

This summarises some 1990s/2000s studies of second language acquisition




Age of L2 start




Chee et al 99 fMRI Mandarin/ English pre 6 T/F sentences common areas for early bilinguals 'one-store model'
Perani et al 96 PET Italian/ English post 7 story listening with compre-
hension questions
distinct areas for two languages L1 shapes brain in early years
Kim et al 97 fMRI mixed infants vs adults internal speech late-learnt languages separate in Broca's area, early languages not age of acquisition determines functional organisation of languages in the brain
Perani et al 98 PET Italian/
Spanish/ Catalan
pre 10

pre 2

story listening

older high- proficiency learners no different from NSs proficiency more important than age of acquisition
Klein et al 95 PET English/ French post 5 various semantic and phonological same areas activated regardless of language common areas for both languages
Paulesu et al 2000 PET English/ Italian adults word/ non-word different areas activated for two languages effects of writing system on brain function
Ardal et al  1990 ERP adults incongruity deduction  

Other recent references

Ardal, S, Donald, M.W., Meuter, R., Muldrew, S. & Luce, M. (1990), 'Brain semantic incongruity in bilinguals', Brain and Language, 39, 187-205
Cabeza, R. & Nyberg, L. (2000), 'Imaging cognition II: an empirical review of 275 PET and fMRI Studies', Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 1, 
Chee, M.W.L., Soon, C.S., Lee, H.L. & Pallier, C. (2004), ‘Left insula activation: a marker for language attainment in bilinguals’, PNAS, 1001, 42, 1565-15270
Coggins, P.E., Kennedy, T.J. and Armstrong, T.A. (2004), ‘Bilingual corpus callosum variability’, Brain and Language, 89, 1, 69-75
Gomez-Tortosa, E., Martin, E.M., Gaviria, M., Charbel, F. & Ausman, J.I. (1995). Selective deficit of one language in a bilingual patient following surgery in the left perysylvian area. Brain and Language, 48, 320-325
Evans, J. Workman, L., Mayer, P. & Crowley, K. (2002), 'Differential bilingual laterality: mythical monster found in Wales', Brain and Language, 83, 2, 291-299

Fabbro, F. (1999), The Neurolinguistics of Bilingualism: An introduction, Aylesbury, Psychology Press

Golestani, N. & Zatorre, R.J. (2004), 'Learning new sounds of speech: Reallocation of neural substrates', NeuroImage, 21, 494-506

Hahne, A. (2001). "What's different in second-language processing. Evidence from event-related brain potentials." Journal of Psycholinguistic Research 30(3): 251-266.

Harris, J.G., Cullum, C. and Puente, A.E. (1995), ‘Effects of bilingualism on verbal learning and memory in Hispanic adults’, Journal of the International Neuropsycholinguistic Society, 1, 10-16
Hasegawa, A.E., Carpenter, P.A. and Just, M.A. (2002), ‘An fMRI study of bilingual sentence comprehension and workload’, NeuroImage, 15, 647-660
Hernandez, A.E., Dapretto, M., Mazziotta, J. and Bookheimer, S. (2001), ‘Language switching and language representation in Spanish-English bilinguals: an fMRI study’, NeuroImage, 14, 510-520
Hernandez, A.E, Martinez, A. & Kohnert, K. (2000), 'In search of the language switch: an fMRI study of picture naming in Spanish-English bilinguals', Brian and Language, 73, 421-431
Illes, J., Francis, W.S., and Desmond, J.E. (1999), ‘Convergent cortical representation of semantic processing in bilinguals’, Brain and Language, 70, 347-363
Jackson, G., Swainson, R., Cunnington, R. & Jackson, S. (2001), ‘ERP correlates of executive control during repeated language switching’, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, 4, 169-178
Jackson, G.M., Mullin, A., Cunningrton, R. & Jackson, S.R. (2004), 'ERP correlates of a receptive language-switching task', QJEP, 57, 2, 223-241
Kim, J.J., Kim, M.S., Lee, J.S., Lee, D.S., Lee, M.C. & Kwon, J.S. (2002), 'Dissociation of working memory processing associated with native and second language processing: PET investigation', Neuroimage, 15, 879-891
Marian, V., Spivey, M. & Hitsch, J. (2002), ‘Shared and separate systems in bilingual language processing: converging evidence from eye-tracking and brain imaging’, Brain and Language, 86, 1. 70-82
McLaughlin, J. (2004), Neural correlate of second language word learning: minimal instruction produces rapid change, Nature Neuroscience, 7, 7, 703-704
Nakada, T., Fujii, Y. & Kwee, I.L. (2001), ‘Brain strategies for reading in the second language are determined by the first language’, Neuroscience Research, 40, 351-358
Pallier, C., Dehaene, S., Poline, J-B., Lbihan, D., Argenti, A-M., Dupoux, E. et al (2003), ‘Brain imaging of language plasticity in adopted adults: can a second language replace the first?’, Cerebral Cortex, 13, 155-161
Panagiotis, G. et al (2001), 'Mapping of receptive language cortex in bilingual volunteers by using magnetic source imaging', Journal of Neurosurgery, 95, 1
Paradis M. (2004), A Neurolinguistic Theory of Bilingualism, John Benjamins
Paulesu, E. et al (2000), ‘A cultural effect on brain function’, Nature NeuroScience, 3, 91-96
Petersson, K.M., Reis, A., Askelof, S., Castro-Caldas, A. & Ingvar, M. (2000), 'Language processing modulated by literacy: a network analysis of verbal repetition in literate and illiterate subjects', Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 3,
Price, C.J., Green, D.W. and von Studnitz, R. (1999), ‘A functional imaging study of translation and language switching’, Brain, 122, 2221-2235
Rodriguez-Fornells, A.,  Rotte, M., Heinze, H.J., Nosselt, T & Munte T.Ft (2002) 'Brian potential and fMRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain' Nature, 415 1026-1029
Ross, D.S. and Bever, T.G. (2004), ‘The time course of acquisition in biologically distinct populations:  evidence from deaf individuals’, Brain and Language, 89, 1, 115-121
Simos, P.G. et al (2001), ‘Mapping of receptive language cortex in bilingual volunteers by using magnetic source imaging’, Journal of Neurosurgery, 95, 1, 76-81
Wagner, A.D., Illes, J., Desmond, J.E., Lee, C.J., Glover, G.H. & Gabrieli, J.D.E. (1998). A functional MRI study of semantic processing: ERP and behavioral evidence in bilingual speakers'. NeuroImage, 3, S465


Chee, M.W.L., Caplan, D., Soon, C.S., Sriram, N., Tan, E.W.L., Thiel, T. & Weekes, B. (1999), Processing of visually presented sentences in Mandarin and English studied with fMRI. Neuron, 23: 127-137
Comprehension of visually presented sentences in fluent bilinguals was studied with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) using a set of conceptually similar sentences in two orthographically and phonologically distinct languages, Mandarin and English. Responses were monitored during scanning. Sentence comprehension in each language was compared to fixation in nine subjects and Tamil-like pseudo-word strings in five subjects. Spatially congruent activations in the prefrontal, temporal, and superior parietal regions and in the anterior supplementary motor area were observed for both languages and in both experiments at the individual and group levels of analysis. Proficient bilinguals exposed to both languages early in life utilize common neuroanatomical regions during the conceptual and syntactic processing of written language irrespective of their differences in surface features.
Perani, D., Dehaene, S., Grassi, F., Cohen, L., Cappa, S.F., Dupoux, E., Fazio, F. & Mehler, J. (1996). Brain processing of native and foreign languages. NeuroReport, 7, 2439—2444
We used positron emission tomography to study brain activity in adults while they were listening to stories in their native language, in a second language acquired after the age of seven, and in a third unknown language. Several areas, similar to those previously observed in monolinguals, were activated by the native but not by the second language. Both the second and the unknown language yielded distinct left-hemispheric activations in areas specialized for phonological processing, which were not engaged by a backward speech control task. These results indicate that some brain areas are shaped by early exposure to the maternal language, and are not necessarily activated by the processing of a second language to which they have been exposed for a limited time later in life.
Kim, K.H.S., Relkin, N.R., Lee, K.-M. & Hirsch, J. (1997). Distinct cortical areas associated with native and second languages: Nature, 388, 171-174.
The ability to acquire and use several languages selectively is a unique and essential human capacity. Here we investigate the fundamental question of how multiple languages are represented in a human brain. We applied functional magnetic resonance Imaging (fMRI) to determine the spatial relationship between native and second languages in the human cortex, and show that within the frontal-lobe language-sensitive regions (Broca’s area), second languages acquired in adulthood (‘late’ bilingual subjects) are spatially separated from native languages. However, when acquired during the early language acquisition stage of development (‘early’ bilingual subjects), native and second languages tend to be represented in common frontal cortical areas. In both late and early bilingual subjects, the temporal- lobe language-sensitive regions (Wernicke’s area) also show effectively little or no separation of activity based on the age of language acquisition. This discovery of language-specific regions in Broca’s area advances our understanding of the cortical representation that underlies multiple language functions.
Perani, D., Paulesu, E., Galles, N.S., Dupoux, E., Dehaene, S., Bettinardi, V., Cappa, S.F., Fazio, F. & Mehler, J. (1998), 'The bilingual brain: proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language', Brain, 121, 1841-1852
Functional imaging methods show differences in the pattern of cerebral activation associated with the subject’s native language (L1) compared with a second language L2 In a recent PET investigation on bilingualism we showed that auditory processing of stories in L1 (Italian) engages the temporal lobes and temporoparietal cortex more extensively than L2 (English). However, in that study the Italian subjects learned L2 late and attained a fair, but not an excellent command of this language (low proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals). Thus, the different patterns of activation could be ascribed either to age of acquisition or to proficiency level. In the current study we use a similar paradigm to evaluate the effect of early and late acquisition of L2 in highly proficient bilinguals.

We studied a group of Italian-English bilinguals who acquired L2 after the age of 10 years (high proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals) and a group of Spanish- Catalan bilinguals who acquired L2 before the age of 4 years (high proficiency, early acquisition bilinguals). The differing cortical responses we had observed when low proficiency volunteers listened to stories in L1 and L2 were not found in either of the high proficiency groups in this study. Several brain areas, similar to those observed for L1 in low proficiency bilinguals, were activated by L2. These findings suggest that, at least for pairs of L1 and L2 languages that are fairly close, attained proficiency is more important than age of acquisition as a determinant of the cortical representation of L2.

Klein, D., Milner, B., Zatorre, R.J., Meyer, E, & Evans, A.C. (1995), 'The neural substrates underlying word generation: a bilingual functional imaging study', Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, 92, 2899-2903
We used positron emission tomography to investigate word generation in subjects whose first language was English but who were also proficient in French. These subjects performed three type of task: rhyme generation based on phonological cues, synonym generation requiring a semantic search, and translation involving access to a semantic representation in the other language, Two control tasks required word repetition in the other language. We investigated whether phonological and semantic word generation activates similar regions and whether the same neural substrates subserve the second language as subserve the first. A series of cerebral blood flow increases, corresponding to Brodmann's areas 47, 46, 45 and 8 were observed in the left frontal cortex when the baseline repetition task was subtracted from each of the respective generation tasks. The results suggest that common neural substrates are involved in within- and across- language searches and that the left inferior frontal region is activated irrespective of whether the search is guided by phonological or semantic cues.
E. Paulesu, E. McCrory, F. Fazio, L. Menoncello, N. Brunswick, S. F. Cappa, M. Cotelli, G. Cossu, F. Corte, M. Lorusso, S. Pesenti, A. Gallagher, D. Perani, C. Price, C. D. Frith & U. Frith, 'A cultural effect on brain function', Nature Neuroscience, January 2000 Volume 3 Number 1 pp 91-96
We present behavioral and anatomical evidence for a multi-component reading system in which different components are differentially weighted depending on culture-specific demands of orthography. Italian orthography is consistent, enabling reliable conversion of graphemes to phonemes to yield correct pronunciation of the word. English orthography is inconsistent, complicating mapping of letters to word sounds. In behavioral studies, Italian students showed faster word and non-word reading than English students. In two PET studies, Italians showed greater activation in left superior temporal regions associated with phoneme processing. In contrast, English readers showed greater activations, particularly for non-words, in left posterior inferior temporal gyrus and anterior inferior frontal gyrus, areas associated with word retrieval during both reading and naming tasks.