In a recent study published in the journal Science Advances, French researchers conducted an investigation into the neurological processes involved in bilingual individuals when processing written forms of their respective languages.

The interdisciplinary team, comprised of clinical neurologists, neuropsychologists, and researchers, and supported by funding from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche, focused on exploring the behavior of the Visual Word Form Area (VWFA) in the brain. The study aimed to compare how this brain region functions for English-Chinese speakers versus English-French speakers. Notably, the research delves into a less-explored aspect of bilingualism, as most existing studies primarily compare monolingualism with bilingualism.

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While the benefits of bilingualism are well-documented beyond cultural and communicative advantages, this study specifically investigated the impact of writing systems on the brain. The participants, comprising both English-Chinese and English-French bilinguals, underwent monitoring of brain activity using an fMRI machine. The stimuli included visual elements like letters, faces, and houses.

The findings indicated that the VWFA responded to stimuli in both groups. However, when English-Chinese participants read Chinese characters, distinct areas of the VWFA exhibited heightened activity. The researchers identified complex clusters of neurons in English-Chinese bilinguals that were specifically sensitive to the Chinese language, whereas the brain activity in English-French bilinguals remained consistent regardless of language stimuli.

The study aligns with existing theories suggesting that the brain adapts based on an individual’s unique experiences. Interestingly, despite the expectation of neurological differences between dominant English speakers, dominant French speakers, and balanced English-French speakers, the 21 English-French bilingual participants did not demonstrate cognitive processing differences, surprising the researchers.

Minye Zhan, a key researcher, noted that the use of high-resolution technology, such as the 7-Tesla fMRI employed in this study, enabled more accurate results based on clearer images. The detailed clusters of neurons observed during the participants’ responses to Chinese characters were described as a “galaxy, a constellation of areas.”

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One intriguing aspect revealed by the study was the overlap in cognitive response to Chinese stimuli with areas of the brain associated with facial recognition. This suggests that Chinese characters, with their historically symbolic lines and strokes, are processed visually in a manner similar to faces.

For alphabetic languages like English and French, the study suggests that part-based processing is more common, where individual letters or combinations are recognized and processed separately before being integrated into a coherent word. The unique demands placed on neural pathways during the learning of Chinese, including its reading instruction, may lead to different connections in the brain. However, the reasons behind these findings remain speculative, prompting the researchers to call for further exploration and research into this fascinating aspect of bilingual neurology.


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