Cerebral mechanisms for different second language writing systems

Neuropsychologia. 2013 Sep;51(11):2261-70. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.08.002. Epub 2013 Aug 11.


In this fMRI study, we examined the cerebral processing associated with second language (L2) reading in different writing systems in late L2 learners. To examine the impacts of cross-linguistic differences between the first language (L1) and L2 on learning to read in L2, we employed a bidirectional approach and compared brain activation during single word processing in two groups of late L2 readers: (1) L2 readers of English whose L1 was Japanese (Japanese-L1/English-L2) and (2) L2 readers of Japanese (of syllabic Kana only) whose L1 was English (English-L1/Japanese-L2). During English reading, the L2 readers of English (Japanese-L1/English-L2) exhibited stronger activation in the left superior parietal lobule/supramarginal gyrus, relative to the L1 readers of English (English-L1/Japanese-L2). This is a region considered to be involved in phonological processing. The increased activation in the Japanese-L1/English-L2 group likely reflects the increased cognitive load associated with L2 English reading, possibly because L1 readers of Kana, which has an extremely regular orthography, may need to adjust to the greater phonological demands of the irregular L2 English orthography. In contrast, during Kana reading, the L2 readers of Japanese Kana (English-L1/Japanese-L2) exhibited stronger activation in the lingual gyrus in both the left and right hemispheres compared to the L1 readers of Kana (Japaese-L1/English-L2). This additional activation is likely to reflect the lower level of visual familiarity to the L2 symbols in the English-L1/Japanese-L2 group; Kana symbols are uniquely used only in Japan, whereas Roman alphabetic symbols are seen nearly everywhere. These findings, bolstered by significant relationships between the activation of the identified regions and cognitive competence, suggest that the cerebral mechanisms for L2 reading in late learners depends both on which language is their L1 and which language is to be learnt as their L2. Educational implications of these results are discussed.

Keywords: Different writing systems; English; Japanese Kana; Orthographic regularity; Second language reading.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Neuroimaging
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Multilingualism*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Writing*