The neural basis of free language choice in bilingual speakers: Disentangling language choice and language execution

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For everyday communication, bilingual speakers need to face the complex task of rapidly choosing the most appropriate language given the context, maintaining this choice over the current communicative act, and shielding lexical selection from competing alternatives from non-target languages. Yet, speech production of bilinguals is typically flawless and fluent. Most of the studies available to date constrain speakers' language choice by cueing the target language and conflate language choice with language use. This left largely unexplored the neural mechanisms underlying free language choice, i.e., the voluntary situation of choosing the language to speak. In this study, we used fMRI and Multivariate Pattern Analysis to identify brain regions encoding the target language when bilinguals are free to choose in which language to name pictures. We found that the medial prefrontal cortex encoded the chosen language prior to speaking. By contrast, during language use, language control recruited a wider brain network including the left inferior frontal lobe, the basal ganglia, and the angular and inferior parietal gyrus bilaterally. None of these regions were involved in language choice. We argue that the control processes involved in language choice are different from those involved in language use. Furthermore, our findings confirm that the medial prefrontal cortex is a domain-general region critical for free choice and that bilingual language choice relies on domain general processes.Graphical abstractHighlightsBilinguals freely and effortlessly choose which language to use for communication.Neural structures supporting language choice in bilinguals are not known.We find that medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) is involved in language choice.MPC is engaged in other types of free choices. Hence its role is domain-general.Brain regions involved in language production are not involved in language choice.

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