Learning a specific skill during childhood may partly determine the functional organization of the adult brain. This hypothesis led us to study oral language processing in illiterate subjects who, for social reasons, had never entered school and had no knowledge of reading or writing. In a brain activation study using PET and statistical parametric mapping, we compared word and pseudoword repetition in literate and illiterate subjects. Our study confirms behavioural evidence of different phonological processing in illiterate subjects. During repetition of real words, the two groups performed similarly and activated similar areas of the brain. In contrast, illiterate subjects had more difficulty repeating pseudowords correctly and did not activate the same neural structures as literates. These results are consistent with the hypothesis that learning the written form of language (orthography) interacts with the function of oral language. Our results indicate that learning to read and write during childhood influences the functional organization of the adult human brain.