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Japanese and English sentence reading comprehension and writing systems: An fMRI study of first and second language effects on brain activation*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 April 2009

Carnegie Mellon University
Carnegie Mellon University
RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Japan
Carnegie Mellon University
Address for correspondence: Augusto Buchweitz, Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging, Carnegie Mellon University, Department of Psychology, 5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213,


Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to compare brain activation from native Japanese (L1) readers reading hiragana (syllabic) and kanji (logographic) sentences, and English as a second language (L2). Kanji showed more activation than hiragana in right-hemisphere occipito-temporal lobe areas associated with visuospatial processing; hiragana, in turn, showed more activation than kanji in areas of the brain associated with phonological processing. L1 results underscore the difference in visuospatial and phonological processing demands between the systems. Reading in English as compared to either of the Japanese systems showed more activation in inferior frontal gyrus, medial frontal gyrus, and angular gyrus. The additional activation in English in these areas may have been associated with an increased cognitive demand for phonological processing and verbal working memory. More generally, L2 results suggest more effortful reading comprehension processes associated with phonological rehearsal. The study contributes to the understanding of differential brain responses to different writing systems and to reading comprehension in a second language.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2009

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This research was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health Grant MH029617. We would like to thank Natasha Tokowicz and the current members of the CCBI reading group for helpful comments on a previous draft of this paper.


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