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Language switching in the bilingual brain: what's next?

Recent work using functional neuroimaging with early bilinguals has found little evidence for separate neural systems for each language during picture naming (Hernandez, A. E., Dapretto, M., Mazziotta, J., & Bookheimer, S. (2001). Language switching and language representation in Spanish-English bilinguals: An fMRI study. Neuroimage, 14, 510-520). However, switching between languages in early bilinguals during picture naming shows increased activity in the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex (DLPFC) suggesting the importance of maintaining goal related information in order to bias subsequent response selection (Braver, T. S., Barch, D. M., Kelley, W. M., Buckner, R. L., Cohen, N. J., Miezin, F. M., et al. (2001). Direct comparison of prefrontal cortex regions engaged by working and long-term memory tasks. Neuroimage, 14, 48-59; Cohen, J. D., Braver, T. S., & O'Reilly, R. C. (1996). A computational approach to prefrontal cortex, cognitive control and schizophrenia: Recent developments and current challenges. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 351, 1515-1527; O'Reilly, R. C., Braver, T. S., & Cohen, J. D. (1999). A biologically based computational model of working memory. In E. Akira Miyake, E. Priti Shah & et al. (Eds.), Models of working memory: Mechanisms of active maintenance and executive control. (pp. 375-411): New York, NY, USA). The current study set out to test early bilinguals using a picture naming paradigm. Results revealed increased activity in the DLPFC and the superior parietal lobule during language switching compared to naming of pictures in a single language. Increased activity was also observed between early learned first and second languages. The results from single language conditions revealed differences in areas devoted to language processing such as the Superior Temporal Gyrus. However, increased activity in brain areas devoted to memory, somatosensory processing and emotion were also observed. Taken together these results replicate previous studies on language switching. They also extend studies on the neural bases of bilingualism by suggesting that early bilinguals' representation of the two languages may be mediated by neural systems not typically associated with language. The article ends by considering future directions in understanding the brain bases of language switching and single language processing in bilinguals.[1]


  1. Language switching in the bilingual brain: what's next? Hernandez, A.E. Brain. Lang (2009) [Pubmed]
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