Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Changes in several postnatal maturational processes during neural development have been implicated as potential mechanisms underlying critical period phenomena. Lenneberg hypothesized that maturational processes similar to those that govern sensory and motor development may also constrain capabilities for normal language acquisition. Our goal, using a bilingual model, was to investigate the hypothesis that maturational constraints may have different effects upon the development of the functional specializations of distinct sub within language. Subjects were 61 adult Chinese/English bilinguals who were exposed to English at different points in development: 1–3, 4–6, 7–10, 11–13, and after 16 years of age. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and behavioral responses were obtained as subjects read sentences that included semantic anomalies, three types of syntactic violations (phrase structure, specificity constraint, and subjacency constraint), and their controls. The accuracy in judging the grammaticality for the different types of syntactic rules and their associated ERPs was affected by delays in second language exposure as short as 1–3 years. By comparison the N400 response and the judgment accuracies in detecting semantic anomalies were altered only in subjects who were exposed to English after 11–13 and 16 years of age, respectively. Further, the type of changes occurring in ERPs with delays in exposure were qualitatively different for semantic and syntactic processing. All groups displayed a significant N400 effect in response to semantic anomalies, however, the peak latencies of the N400 elicited in bilinguals who were exposed to English between 11–13 and >16 years occurred later, suggesting a slight slowing in processing. For syntactic processing. the ERP differences associated with delays in exposure to English were observed in the morphology and distribution of components. Our findings are consistent with the view that maturational changes significantly constrain the development of the neural systems that are relevant for language and, further, that subsystems specialized for processing different aspects of language display different sensitive periods.