Neural systems of second language reading are shaped by native language

Li Hai Tan (Corresponding Author), John A. Spinks, Ching-Mei Feng, Wai Ting Siok, Charles A. Perfetti, Jinhu Xiong, Peter T. Fox, Jia-Hong Gao

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

314 Citations (Scopus)


Reading in a second language (L2) is a complex task that entails an interaction between L2 and the native language (L1). To study the underlying mechanisms, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to visualize Chinese-English bilinguals' brain activity in phonological processing of logographic Chinese and alphabetic English, two written languages with a sharp contrast in phonology and orthography. In Experiment 1, we found that phonological processing of Chinese characters recruits a neural system involving left middle frontal and posterior parietal gyri, cortical regions that are known to contribute to spatial information representation, spatial working memory, and coordination of cognitive resources as a central executive system. We assume that the peak activation of this system is relevant to the unique feature of Chinese that a logographic character has a square configuration that maps onto a monosyllabic unit of speech. Equally important, when our bilingual subjects performed a phonological task on English words, this neural system was most active, whereas brain areas mediating English monolinguals' fine-grained phonemic analysis, as demonstrated by Experiment 2, were only weakly activated. This suggests that our bilingual subjects were applying their L1 system to L2 reading and that the lack of letter-to-sound conversion rules in Chinese led Chinese readers to being less capable of processing English by recourse to an analytic reading system on which English monolinguals rely. Our brain imaging findings lend strongest support to the idea that language experience tunes the cortex.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)158-166
Number of pages9
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 11 Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Bilingualism
  • Brain mechanisms of Chinese reading
  • fMRI
  • Neural bases for second language learning
  • Reading in Chinese
  • Second language learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anatomy
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology
  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging
  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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