Use of Functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy to Assess Syntactic Processing by Monolingual and Bilingual Adults and Children

Front Hum Neurosci. 2021 Feb 3;15:621025. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.621025. eCollection 2021.


This exploratory study assessed the use of functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) to examine hemodynamic response patterns during sentence processing. Four groups of participants: monolingual English children, bilingual Chinese-English children, bilingual Chinese-English adults and monolingual English adults were given an agent selection syntactic processing task. Bilingual child participants were classified as simultaneous or sequential bilinguals to examine the impact of first language, age of second-language acquisition (AoL2A), and the length of second language experience on behavioral performance and cortical activation. Participants were asked to select the agent of four types of sentences: subject-verb-object (SVO), passive (PAS), subject-extracted relative clause (SR), and object-extracted relative clause (OR) adopted from the "Whatdunit" task by Montgomery et al. (2016). Semantic cues were removed by using inanimate nouns for agents and patients, which constrained participants to make decisions based on syntactic knowledge. Behavioral results showed greater accuracy for canonical SVO and SR sentence types than for noncanonical OR and PAS sentence types, which aligns with prior studies. Neuroimaging results revealed greater hemodynamic responses to relative clauses (i.e., SR and OR sentences) than to simple sentences (SVO and PAS), especially for Chinese-English bilinguals suggesting first-language transfer influencing sentence processing in English. The effects AoL2A and the length of second language experience showed no significant differences between simultaneous and sequential bilinguals or between bilingual adults and children for identifying the correct agent in each sentence. However, neuroimaging results demonstrated greater hemodynamic responses in right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and left inferior parietal lobule (IPL) in simultaneous bilinguals compared to sequential bilinguals and greater hemodynamic responses in left and right DLPFC and left IPL among bilingual adults. Different behavioral and neural hemodynamic response patterns afford new insights into the effects of syntactic knowledge on sentence processing.

Keywords: Chinese-English bilinguals; bilingualism; canonical sentences; fNIRS neuroimaging; language development; relative clause; semantic implausibility; syntactic processing.