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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

October 1, 2002, Vol. 14, No. 7, Pages 994-1017
(doi: 10.1162/089892902320474463)
© 2002 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Electrophysiological Measures of Language Processing in Bilinguals
Article PDF (2.02 MB)

The aim of the present study was to investigate how multiple languages are represented in the human brain. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) were recorded from right-handed polyglots and monolinguals during a task involving silent reading. The participants in the experiment were nine Italian monolinguals and nine Italian/Slovenian bilinguals of a Slovenian minority in Trieste; the bilinguals, highly fluent in both languages, had spoken both languages since birth. The stimuli were terminal words that would correctly complete a short, meaningful, previously shown sentence, or else were semantically or syntactically incorrect. The task consisted in deciding whether the sentences were well formed or not, giving the response by pressing a button. Both groups read the same set of 200 Italian sentences to compare the linguistic processing, while the bilinguals also received a set of 200 Slovenian sentences, comparable in complexity and length, to compare the processing of the two languages within the group. For the bilinguals, the ERP results revealed a strong, left-sided activation, reflected by the N1 component, of the occipito-temporal regions dedicated to orthographic processing, with a latency of about 150 msec for Slovenian words, but bilateral activation of the same areas for Italian words, which was also displayed by topographical mapping. In monolinguals, semantic error produced a long-lasting negative response (N2 and N4) that was greater over the right hemisphere, whereas syntactic error activated mostly the left hemisphere. Conversely, in the bilinguals, semantic incongruence resulted in greater response over the left hemisphere than over the right. In this group, the P615 syntactical error responses were of equal amplitude on both hemispheres for Italian words and greater on the right side for Slovenian words.

The present findings support the view that there are inter- and intrahemispheric brain activation asymmetries when monolingual and bilingual speakers comprehend written language. The fact that the bilingual speakers in the present study were highly fluent and had acquired both languages in early infancy suggests that the brain activation patterns do not depend on the age of acquisition or the fluency level, as in the case of late, not-so-proficient L2 language learners, but on the functional organization of the bilinguals' brain due to polyglotism and based on brain plasticity.