Jasińska, K. & Petitto, L.A. (2013). How Age of Bilingual Exposure Can Change the Neural Systems for Language in the Developing Brain: A functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy Investigation of Syntactic Processing in Monolingual and Bilingual Children. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience. 6, 87-101. DOI: 10.1016/j.dcn.2013.06.005
Is the developing bilingual brain fundamentally similar to the monolingual brain (e.g., neural resources supporting language and cognition)? Or, does early-life bilingual language experience change the brain? If so, how does age of first bilingual exposure impact neural activation for language? We compared how typically-developing bilingual and monolingual children (ages 7–10) and adults recruit brain areas during sentence processing using functional Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) brain imaging. Bilingual participants included early-exposed (bilingual exposure from birth) and later-exposed individuals (bilingual exposure between ages 4–6). Both bilingual children and adults showed greater neural activation in left-hemisphere classic language areas, and additionally, right-hemisphere homologues (Right Superior Temporal Gyrus, Right Inferior Frontal Gyrus). However, important differences were observed between early-exposed and later-exposed bilinguals in their earliest-exposed language. Early bilingual exposure imparts fundamental changes to classic language areas instead of alterations to brain regions governing higher cognitive executive functions. However, age of first bilingual exposure does matter. Later-exposed bilinguals showed greater recruitment of the prefrontal cortex relative to early-exposed bilinguals and monolinguals. The findings provide fascinating insight into the neural resources that facilitate bilingual language use and are discussed in terms of how early-life language experiences can modify the neural systems underlying human language processing.