Neural basis of first and second language processing of sentence-level linguistic prosody

Jackson Gandour, Yunxia Tong, Thomas Talavage, Donald Wong, Mario Dzemidzic, Yisheng Xu, Xiaojian Li, Mark Lowe

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

32 Scopus citations


A fundamental question in multilingualism is whether the neural substrates are shared or segregated for the two or more languages spoken by polyglots. This study employs functional MRI to investigate the neural substrates underlying the perception of two sentence-level prosodic phenomena that occur in both Mandarin Chinese (L1) and English (L2): sentence focus (sentence-initial vs. -final position of contrastive stress) and sentence type (declarative vs. interrogative modality). Late-onset, medium proficiency Chinese-English bilinguals were asked to selectively attend to either sentence focus or sentence type in paired three-word sentences in both L1 and L2 and make speeded-response discrimination judgments. L1 and L2 elicited highly overlapping activations in frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes. Furthermore, region of interest analyses revealed that for both languages the sentence focus task elicited a leftward asymmetry in the supramarginal gyrus; both tasks elicited a rightward asymmetry in the mid-portion of the middle frontal gyrus. A direct comparison between L1 and L2 did not show any difference in brain activation in the sentence type task. In the sentence focus task, however, greater activation for L2 than L1 occurred in the bilateral anterior insula and superior frontal sulcus. The sentence focus task also elicited a leftward asymmetry in the posterior middle temporal gyrus for L1 only. Differential activation patterns are attributed primarily to disparities between L1 and L2 in the phonetic manifestation of sentence focus. Such phonetic divergences lead to increased computational demands for processing L2. These findings support the view that L1 and L2 are mediated by a unitary neural system despite late age of acquisition, although additional neural resources may be required in task-specific circumstances for unequal bilinguals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)94-108
Number of pages15
JournalHuman Brain Mapping
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2007


  • Bilingualism
  • Contrastive stress
  • Emphatic stress
  • fMRI
  • Human auditory processing
  • Intonation
  • Language
  • Mandarin Chinese
  • Prosody
  • Speech perception

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neuroscience(all)
  • Radiological and Ultrasound Technology

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