★ fMRI study to investigate bilingual language learning using past tense generation. ★ Early bilinguals recruited motoric control and sensorimotor brain regions. ★ Late bilinguals relied on executive cognitive control and direct lexical access. ★ Data support an extension of cognitive control theory and the sensorimotor hypothesis.
At its most basic sense, the sensorimotor/emergentist (S/E) model suggests that early second language (L2) learning is preferentially reliant upon sensory and motor processes, while later L2 learning is accomplished by greater reliance on executive abilities. To investigate the S/E model using fMRI, neural correlates of L2 age of acquisition were examined by employing a past-tense generation task on 22 L2 proficient bilinguals. Early bilinguals preferentially recruited left hemisphere sensorimotor regions involved in motoric control and articulation. In contrast, later learners, to a greater degree, engaged regions involved in executive cognitive control and lexical access. The data support the notion that early L2 learners devote neural resources to motor control during lexical retrieval. In contrast, later L2 learners recruit executive control mechanisms to generate the past tense. These data are consistent with the S/E model of bilingual language learning, and serve as an extension of cognitive control theories.