Although the structure of academia might make us think of literature and neuroscience as widely separate matters, our daily literary experiences are intimately dependent on brain activity. A considerable number of studies has illuminated this link by studying neurocognitive patterns as people read texts in their mother tongue. However, much less is known about this phenomenon in bilinguals during foreign-language (L2) reading. A recent study of our team has examined this issue focusing on Shakespearean figures of speech.

One of the distinguishing traits of Shakespeare’s style consists in the use of functional shifts, a linguistic maneuver whereby a word experiences a category change. For example, in the sentence, “He childed as I fathered” (uttered by Edgar in King Lear), the nouns “child” and “father” are used as verbs, generating a peculiar aesthetic effect. Previous neuroscientific research using modern-day adaptations of such Shakespearean tropes showed that, in native-language users, that particular effect would be characterized by a disruption of syntactic rather than semantic expectations — specifically, neurophysiological patterns gave signs of greater grammatical demands without increasing conceptual integration efforts.

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Though certainly informative, this finding cannot be extrapolated to non-native English users, who outnumber native speakers of that language and prove numerous among the readership of Shakespeare’s originals. To understand how these individuals process such linguistic constructions, we recruited two groups of proficient L2 users. One group was composed of early bilinguals who had acquired English at an average of roughly four years of age; the other consisted of late bilinguals, who had done so at a mean of nine years old. All participants read several sentences, half containing functional shifts and half including no particular manipulations. As participants indicated comprehension of the sentences by pressing a button, we measured their brain activity using high-density electroencephalography (EEG) and then proceeded to analyze oscillatory modulations in different frequency bands — that is, different ranges of the neurophysiological activity captured through EEG.

In line with our predictions, we found that frontal-posterior modulations of the theta band (a frequency range that is highly sensitive to linguistic processes) discriminated between the two types of sentences, but only in the case of the early bilinguals. In other words, early bilinguals exhibited distinct sensitivity towards the wordplay of functional shifts, whereas late bilinguals did not present differential neural activity for sentences with and without that stylistic feature. Interestingly, this pattern did not emerge in other frequency bands, highlighting the potential specificity of theta-band modulations as a neural signature of L2 trope processing.

To the best of our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the age of L2 acquisition can influence how the brain processes these Shakespearean tropes. It follows that, within the broad non-native readership of Shakespeare’s originals, and possibly across the whole spectrum of L2 readers, the same figure of speech might evoke significantly different neurocognitive processes depending on how early or late English was acquired. Of note, this pattern seems to be specifically driven by the subjects’ age of L2 acquisition, as both groups were similar in other relevant aspects, such as their overall language proficiency and years of formal L2 study.

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In brief, our research shows that, from a neurocognitive perspective, specific literary effects can be molded by one’s language acquisition history. At the same time, it reinforces the view that, compared to late bilinguals, early bilinguals process their L2 in a more native-like fashion. From a broader perspective, by extending this finding to the relatively unexplored realm of figures of speech, our study contributes to bridging the gap between literature and neuroscience. We hope that the divide between both fields will be further dismantled through continued research efforts at the crossing of disciplines and academic traditions.

These findings are described in the article entitled Reading Shakespearean tropes in a foreign tongue: Age of L2 acquisition modulates neural responses to functional shifts, by Martina G. Vilas, Micaela Santilli, Ezequiel Mikulan, Federico Adolfi, Miguel Martorell Caro, Facundo Manes, Eduar Herrera, Lucas Sedeño, AgustínIbáñez, and Adolfo M. García, recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia

About The Author

Dr. Adolfo M. García specializes in the neuroscience of language and social communication. He is the Scientific Director of the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology and Neuroscience, at the Institute of Cognitive and Translational Neuroscience (Argentina). He is also Assistant Researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Argentina), Adjunct Professor of Neurolinguistics at the Faculty Education of the National University of Cuyo (Argentina), and honorary member of the Center of Cognitive Neuroscience at La Laguna University (Spain). He has also served as associate editor for the Journal of World Languages, the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, and Perspectives: Studies in Translation Theory and Practice; and as a reviewer for dozens of leading journals in neuroscience, neurolinguistics, and linguistics. He has also guest-edited special issues for Cortex and Perspectives: Studies in Translation Theory and Practice. His formative years included extensive training in translation, foreign-language teaching, and cognitive neuroscience, alongside postdoctoral studies at the Institute of Cognitive Neurology (Argentina) and research stays at New York University and Rice University (United States). He now leads research projects in over ten countries across the globe. His teaching career spans graduate and postgraduate courses in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and China. He has more than 130 publications, including books, chapters, and papers in leading journals, such as Nature Human Behavior, Brain, Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Scientific Reports, Journal of Medical Genetics, Cortex, Cognition, Brain and Language, and Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. He has offered more than 150 presentations and speeches at international academic meetings and science dissemination events. His scientific contributions have been recognized with awards and distinctions from the Linguistic Association of Canada and the United States, the Ibero-American Neuroeducation Society, the Argentine Association of Behavioral Science, and the Legislature of the City of Buenos Aires.