Commonality of neural representations of sentences across languages: Predicting brain activation during Portuguese sentence comprehension using an English-based model of brain function

Neuroimage. 2017 Feb 1;146:658-666. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.10.029. Epub 2016 Oct 19.


The aim of the study was to test the cross-language generative capability of a model that predicts neural activation patterns evoked by sentence reading, based on a semantic characterization of the sentence. In a previous study on English monolingual speakers (Wang et al., submitted), a computational model performed a mapping from a set of 42 concept-level semantic features (Neurally Plausible Semantic Features, NPSFs) as well as 6 thematic role markers to neural activation patterns (assessed with fMRI), to predict activation levels in a network of brain locations. The model used two types of information gained from the English-based fMRI data to predict the activation for individual sentences in Portuguese. First, it used the mapping weights from NPSFs to voxel activation levels derived from the model for English reading. Second, the brain locations for which the activation levels were predicted were derived from a factor analysis of the brain activation patterns during English reading. These meta-language locations were defined by the clusters of voxels with high loadings on each of the four main dimensions (factors), namely people, places, actions and feelings, underlying the neural representations of the stimulus sentences. This cross-language model succeeded in predicting the brain activation patterns associated with the reading of 60 individual Portuguese sentences that were entirely new to the model, attaining accuracies reliably above chance level. The prediction accuracy was not affected by whether the Portuguese speaker was monolingual or Portuguese-English bilingual. The model's confusion errors indicated an accurate capture of the events or states described in the sentence at a conceptual level. Overall, the cross-language predictive capability of the model demonstrates the neural commonality between speakers of different languages in the representations of everyday events and states, and provides an initial characterization of the common meta-language neural basis.

Keywords: Cross-language commonality; Meta-language brain locations in sentence processing; Predictive modeling of sentence representations; Sentence representations in bilinguals.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Multilingualism*
  • Reading*
  • Semantics