Sensitive Periods Differentiate Processing of Open- and Closed-Class Words: An ERP Study of Bilinguals

Weber-Fox, Christine; Neville, Helen J.
December 2001
Journal of Speech, Language & Hearing Research;Dec2001, Vol. 44 Issue 6, p1338
Academic Journal
The goal of this study was to test the hypothesis that neural processes for language are heterogeneous in their adaptations to maturation and experience. This study examined whether the neural processes for open-and closed-class words are differentially affected by delays in second-language immersion. In English, open-class words primarily convey referential meaning, whereas closed-class words are primarily related to grammatical information in sentence processing. Previous studies indicate that event-related brain potentials (ERPs) elicited by these word classes display nonidentical distributions and latencies, show different developmental time courses, and are differentially affected by early language experience in Deaf individuals. In this study, ERPs were recorded from 10 monolingual English speakers and 53 Chinese-English bilingual speakers who were grouped according to their age of immersion in English: 1-3, 4-6, 7-10, 11-13, and >15 years of age. Closed-class words elicited an N280 that was largest over left anterior electrode sites for all groups. However, the peak latency was later (>35 ms) in bilingual speakers immersed in English after 7 years of age. In contrast, the latencies and distributions of the N350 elicited by open-class words were similar in all groups. In addition, the N400, elicited by semantic anomalies (open-class words that violated semantic expectation), displayed increased peak latencies for only the later-learning bilingual speakers (>11 years). These results are consistent with the hypothesis that language subprocesses are differentially sensitive to the timing of second-language experience.


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