Studies with monolingual adults have identified successive stages occurring in different brain regions for processing single written words. We combined magnetoencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging to compare these stages between the first (L1) and second (L2) languages in bilingual adults. L1 words in a size judgment task evoked a typical left-lateralized sequence of activity first in ventral occipitotemporal cortex (VOT: previously associated with visual word-form encoding) and then ventral frontotemporal regions (associated with lexico-semantic processing). Compared to L1, words in L2 activated right VOT more strongly from approximately 135 ms; this activation was attenuated when words became highly familiar with repetition. At approximately 400 ms, L2 responses were generally later than L1, more bilateral, and included the same lateral occipitotemporal areas as were activated by pictures. We propose that acquiring a language involves the recruitment of right hemisphere and posterior visual areas that are not necessary once fluency is achieved.
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