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Phonological and morphological literacy skills in English and Chinese: A cross-linguistic neuroimaging comparison of Chinese-English bilingual and monolingual English children


Zhang KKehui , Sun XXin , Yu CLChi-Lin , Eggleston RLRachel L , Marks RARebecca A , Nickerson NNia , Caruso VCValeria C , Hu XSXiao-Su , Tardif TTwila , Chou TLTai-Li , Booth JRJames R , Kovelman IIoulia . Human brain mapping. 2023 07 23; 44(13). 4812-4829


Over the course of literacy development, children learn to recognize word sounds and meanings in print. Yet, they do so differently across alphabetic and character-based orthographies such as English and Chinese. To uncover cross-linguistic influences on children’s literacy, we asked young Chinese-English simultaneous bilinguals and English monolinguals (N = 119, ages 5-10) to complete phonological and morphological awareness (MA) literacy tasks. Children completed the tasks in the auditory modality in each of their languages during functional near-infrared spectroscopy neuroimaging. Cross-linguistically, comparisons between bilinguals’ two languages revealed that the task that was more central to reading in a given orthography, such as phonological awareness (PA) in English and MA in Chinese, elicited less activation in the left inferior frontal and parietal regions. Group comparisons between bilinguals and monolinguals in English, their shared language of academic instruction, revealed that the left inferior frontal was less active during phonology but more active during morphology in bilinguals relative to monolinguals. MA skills are generally considered to have greater language specificity than PA skills. Bilingual literacy training in a skill that is maximally similar across languages, such as PA, may therefore yield greater automaticity for this skill, as reflected in the lower activation in bilinguals relative to monolinguals. This interpretation is supported by negative correlations between proficiency and brain activation. Together, these findings suggest that both the structural characteristics and literacy experiences with a given language can exert specific influences on bilingual and monolingual children’s emerging brain networks for learning to read.