News Editor: Renato M.E. Sabbatini, PhD

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How Native Language Affects Reading Strategies

A major difficulty of the English language is that mappings between how words are spelled and how they sound are only partially consistent. (For example, 'cough', 'bough', 'dough' and 'tough' are all pronounced differently.) Readers of Italian have an easier task because a particular letter or letter combination is almost always associated with the same sound. Now an international team of researchers reports that these differences in language structure lead native speakers to adopt different strategies for pronouncing words, which are reflected in activation of different brain regions when subjects read words and pronounceable nonwords (like 'jat') aloud. In this study, English subjects took significantly longer to begin reading each word, and were even slower when the stimuli were nonwords. The faster reading times for Italians are consistent with the idea that Italian speakers can rely almost exclusively on a procedure that translates letters to sounds, whereas English speakers have to use additional information such as the meaning of a word to decide how it should be pronounced. The authors then used positron emission tomography to measure blood flow (a measure of neuronal activity) in the brains of Italian and English speakers during this task. Brain activation depended on subjects' native language in three areas of a widespread network of brain regions previously associated with reading. Italians had greater activation in a left superior temporal region during both word and nonword reading than English subjects, who showed greater activation in a left frontal and a posterior inferior temporal region during nonword reading.

The finding that these regions are sensitive to the consistency of a subject's native language suggests that they are critically involved in phonology, the derivation of phonemes from spelling, although the specific contributions of each region may be debated. This ability is critical for skilled reading, suggesting that these findings may have important implications for reading disorders such as dyslexia. Equally exciting are the implications for understanding how experience can shape the organization of our brains. Both groups of subjects can use spelling or meaning to decide how to pronounce a word, but experience has optimized their use of these procedures for the language they read. Reading procedures may become tuned based on experience, with much of the optimization occurring automatically and continually. An interesting theoretical issue with profound practical implications is how much this tuning may be influenced by instructional strategy and the initial structure of reading materials. For instance, an early instructional strategy (such as phonics) that emphasizes the consistent features of spelling-to-phoneme transformation in English may lead children to emphasize such a procedure, compared to an early instructional strategy (for example, natural language) that focuses on the relationships between entire word forms and their corresponding pronunciations and meanings.


Copyright 2002 State University of Campinas, Brazil
Brain & Mind Magazine
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