Brain potential and functional MRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain


Bilingual individuals need effective mechanisms to prevent interference from one language while processing material in the other1. Here we show, using event-related brain potentials and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), that words from the non-target language are rejected at an early stage before semantic analysis in bilinguals. Bilingual Spanish/Catalan and monolingual Spanish subjects were instructed to press a button when presented with words in one language, while ignoring words in the other language and pseudowords. The brain potentials of bilingual subjects in response to words of the non-target language were not sensitive to word frequency, indicating that the meaning of non-target words was not accessed in bilinguals. The fMRI activation patterns of bilinguals included a number of areas previously implicated in phonological and pseudoword processing2,3,4,5, suggesting that bilinguals use an indirect phonological access route to the lexicon of the target language to avoid interference6.

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Figure 1: Lateralized readiness potentials (LRPs) from the main experiment indicating the preparation of motor responses.
Figure 2: Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) from the main and two control experiments.
Figure 3: Rendering of group-averaged brain activations in standard stereotactic space identified for the Go condition (Spanish words) and the two no-go conditions (Catalan words and pseudowords).


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This work was supported by grants from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and the Spanish government.

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Correspondence to Thomas F. Münte.

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Rodriguez-Fornells, A., Rotte, M., Heinze, H. et al. Brain potential and functional MRI evidence for how to handle two languages with one brain. Nature 415, 1026–1029 (2002).

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