The bilingual brain. Proficiency and age of acquisition of the second language

Daniela Perani, Eraldo Paulesu, Nuria Sebastian Galles, Emmanuel Dupoux, Stanislas Dehaene, Valentino Bettinardi, Stefane F. Cappa, Ferruccio Fazio, Jacques Mehler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Functional imaging methods show differences in the pattern of cerebral activation associated with the subject's native language (L1) compared with a second language (L2). In a recent PET investigation on bilingualism we showed that auditory processing of stories in L1 (Italian) engages the temporal lobes and temporoparietal cortex more extensively than L2 (English). However, in that study the Italian subjects learned L2 late and attained a fair, but not an excellent command of this language (low proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals). Thus, the different patterns of activation could be ascribed either to age of acquisition or to proficiency level. In the current study we use a similar paradigm to evaluate the effect of early and late acquisition of L2 in highly proficient bilinguals. We studied a group of Italian-English bilinguals who acquired L2 after the age of 10 years (high proficiency, late acquisition bilinguals) and a group of Spanish-Catalan bilinguals who acquired L2 before the age of 4 years (high proficiency, early acquisition bilinguals). The differing cortical responses we had observed when low proficiency volunteers listened to stories in L1 and L2 were not found in either of the high proficiency groups in this study. Several brain areas, similar to those observed for L1 in low proficiency bilinguals, were activated by L2. These findings suggest that, at least for pairs of L1 and L2 languages that are fairly close, attained proficiency is more important than age of acquisition as a determinant of the cortical representation of L2.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1841-1852
Number of pages12
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1998


  • Bilingualism
  • Language comprehension
  • PET
  • Proficiency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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