L1 and L2 processing in the bilingual brain: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies

Brain Lang. 2016 Aug:159:60-73. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2016.05.013. Epub 2016 Jun 10.


Neuroimaging studies investigating bilingual processes have produced controversial results in determining similarities versus differences between L1 and L2 neural networks. The current meta-analytic study was conducted to examine what factors play a role in the similarities and differences between L1 and L2 networks with a focus on age of acquisition (AOA) and whether the orthographic transparency of L2 is more or less transparent than that of L1. Using activation likelihood estimation (ALE), we found L2 processing involved more additional regions than L1 for late bilinguals in comparison to early bilinguals, suggesting L2 processing is more demanding in late bilinguals. We also provide direct evidence that AOA of L2 influences L1 processing through the findings that early bilinguals had greater activation in the left fusiform gyrus than late bilinguals during L1 processing even when L1 languages were the same in the two groups, presumably due to greater co-activation of orthography in L1 and L2 in early bilinguals. In addition, we found that the same L2 languages evoked different brain activation patterns depending on whether it was more or less transparent than L1 in orthographic transparency. The bilateral auditory cortex and right precentral gyrus were more involved in shallower-than-L1 L2s, suggesting a "sound-out" strategy for a more regular language by involving the phonological regions and sensorimotor regions to a greater degree. In contrast, the left frontal cortex was more involved in the processing of deeper-than-L1 L2s, presumably due to the increased arbitrariness of mapping between orthography and phonology in L2.

Keywords: Accommodation; Age of acquisition; Assimilation; Bilingualism; First/second language; Meta-analysis; Orthographic depth/transparency.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Auditory Cortex / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology
  • Humans
  • Likelihood Functions
  • Linguistics
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Multilingualism*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology