Exploring cross-linguistic vocabulary effects on brain structures using voxel-based morphometry

Department of Psychology, University College London.
Bilingualism (Impact Factor: 1.71). 08/2007; 10(2):189-199. DOI: 10.1017/S1366728907002933
Source: PubMed


Given that there are neural markers for the acquisition of a non-verbal skill, we review evidence of neural markers for the acquisition of vocabulary. Acquiring vocabulary is critical to learning one's native language and to learning other languages. Acquisition requires the ability to link an object concept (meaning) to sound. Is there a region sensitive to vocabulary knowledge? For monolingual English speakers, increased vocabulary knowledge correlates with increased grey matter density in a region of the parietal cortex that is well-located to mediate an association between meaning and sound (the posterior supramarginal gyrus). Further this region also shows sensitivity to acquiring a second language. Relative to monolingual English speakers, Italian-English bilinguals show increased grey matter density in the same region.Differences as well as commonalities might exist in the neural markers for vocabulary where lexical distinctions are also signalled by tone. Relative to monolingual English, Chinese multilingual speakers, like European multilinguals, show increased grey matter density in the parietal region observed previously. However, irrespective of ethnicity, Chinese speakers (both Asian and European) also show highly significant increased grey matter density in two right hemisphere regions (the superior temporal gyrus and the inferior frontal gyrus). They also show increased grey matter density in two left hemisphere regions (middle temporal and superior temporal gyrus). Such increases may reflect additional resources required to process tonal distinctions for lexical purposes or to store tonal differences in order to distinguish lexical items. We conclude with a discussion of future lines of enquiry.

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Available from: J. Crinion, Aug 28, 2014
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    • "Our study could not completely rule out that possibility, but existing evidence does not seem to support that speculation. Previous studies that compared brain structures of Chinese and Western samples did not observe any differences in the fusiform region (Chee et al., 2010; Crinion et al., 2009; Green et al., 2007; Kochunov et al., 2003). Such results gave us confidence that the laterality differences between the two groups of native English speakers in this study reflected the effect of long-term experience with Chinese language on English reading. "
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    • "There is evidence, for instance, of differences in gray matter density between English monolingual subjects and Italian-English bilingual subjects in parietal cortex regions indexing meaning-sound associations (Mechelli et al. 2004). Another study found that Europeans who did not speak Chinese showed differences in gray and white matter density compared with Chinese speakers, and this difference held whether the Chinese speakers were native Chinese monolingual subjects or Europeans who were bilingual in English and Chinese (Crinion et al. 2009; see Green et al. 2007 for a review of linguistic effects on brain structures). Given that language systems may be highly sensitive to culture-specific input, the comparison of different language speakers from similar ethnic or national backgrounds seems to be a particularly effective, systematic way to address the issue of neuroplasticity. "
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