ADVERTISEMENT

Shakespearean Sentences In The Brain Of A Non-Native English Reader

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.

ADVERTISEMENT

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.

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
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

Comments

READ THIS NEXT

Solubility In Sub- And Supercritical Ethanol

Extraction by subcritical and supercritical ethanol has been applied to many materials for the recovery of useful products from them. […]

Self-powered Paper-based Diagnostics At The Point Of Care Testing

Providing high-quality medical diagnostics in low-resource settings, such as forward-deployed military units, rural areas in Africa, or in the middle […]

How Many Countries In Africa?

The continent of Africa has 54 countries in total according to the United Nations, including recognized states and territories. However, […]

The Link Between Intimate Partner Homicides And Firearm Legislation

Firearm use is responsible for nearly 40,000 deaths and 80,000 injuries yearly in the US, with 2018 statistics marking the […]

Word Learning In Older Children And Adults: When Does Specialization Occur?

By the time you reach adulthood, you are estimated to know as many as 60,000 words. Despite this, vocabulary learning […]

Studying Mechanisms In The Hippocampus Related To Memory

For more than 50 years now, doctors have known that the hippocampus is important for memory in humans. Patients with […]

Finding A Renewable And Sustainable Source of Hydrogen: A Computational Look Into A Possible Limiting Intermediate Of Photocatalytic Water Splitting On TiO2

Most of the energy needed to sustain economic growth, since the industrial revolution, is derived from fossil sources: natural gas, […]

Science Trends is a popular source of science news and education around the world. We cover everything from solar power cell technology to climate change to cancer research. We help hundreds of thousands of people every month learn about the world we live in and the latest scientific breakthroughs. Want to know more?