Bilingualism yields language-specific plasticity in left hemisphere's circuitry for learning to read in young children

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Abstract

How does bilingual exposure impact children's neural circuitry for learning to read? Theories of bilingualism suggests that exposure to two languages may yield a functional and neuroanatomical adaptation to support the learning of two languages (Klein et al., 2014). To test the hypothesis that this neural adaptation may vary as a function of structural and orthographic characteristics of bilinguals' two languages, we compared Spanish-English and French-English bilingual children, and English monolingual children, using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy neuroimaging (fNIRS, ages 6–10, N =26). Spanish offers consistent sound-to-print correspondences (“phonologically transparent” or “shallow”); such correspondences are more opaque in French and even more opaque in English (which has both transparent and “phonologically opaque” or “deep” correspondences). Consistent with our hypothesis, both French- and Spanish-English bilinguals showed hyperactivation in left posterior temporal regions associated with direct sound-to-print phonological analyses and hypoactivation in left frontal regions associated with assembled phonology analyses. Spanish, but not French, bilinguals showed a similar effect when reading Irregular words. The findings inform theories of bilingual and cross-linguistic literacy acquisition by suggesting that structural characteristics of bilinguals' two languages and their orthographies have a significant impact on children's neuro-cognitive architecture for learning to read.

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