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The neural network of reading: Does writing help the brain accommodate for linguistic diversity?

(1) Brain and Language Research Institut, CNRS Université d'Aix-Marseille, France
(2) Lab. Neurosciences Cognitives, UMR 7291 CNRS Université Aix Marseille, France
(3) Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan, United States of America
(4) Centre IRMf, Institut des Neurosciences de la Timone, UMR 7289 CNRS Université Aix Marseille, France
(5) Lab. Parole et Langage - UMR 6057 - CNRS Université de Provence, France


In the present study, we examined the impact of the type of training (handwriting vs. oral repetition) on the brain network involved in reading words when adult readers of an alphabetic  language (French) are learning a logographic language (Mandarin Chinese).Character-specific orthographic representations are very important in acquiring Chinese due to: 1) the coarser mapping with phonology; 2) the complex visual configuration of characters and 3) the tighter connection with semantics. The key to learning to read Chinese lies therefore in establishing high-quality, stable orthographic representations of characters, which allow reliable and fast activation of meaning constituents. Writing can help strengthen the visual representations of characters, and might be important in learning to read, especially in ideographic languages. Several studies showed that writing is an active encoding mechanism that could accelerate the process of establishing and refining the representation of orthographic patterns, and therefore impact higher-level linguistic processing in reading. Twenty French students from a Chinese class learned a total of 48 Chinese characters, with their meaning. Half of the characters (24) were trained by writing them repeatedly, and half were trained by pronouncing them repeatedly (5 days : one hour per day). After learning, we observed that the characters trained by hand were more accurately recognized than the characters trained by pronunciation. In addition, functional magnetic resonance imaging collected during reading the characters showed different brain networks for the 2 training conditions, suggesting variable accommodation to the demands of the Chinese writing system through short term learning. We found a greater involvement of bilateral Superior Parietal Lobules and in the Left middle frontal gyrus, brain regions known as key nodes for the control of writing movements, for characters trained by writing, suggesting that learning by writing invoke greater interaction with sensori-motor information during character recognition. We also found a bilateral activation in a Fusiform Area in the visual system, suggesting that character writing establishes a higher quality representation of the visual–spatial structure of the character and its orthography. This indicates that training the new ideographic characters by writing them repeatedly can shape the level of activation of the brain network sustaining reading.

Keywords: writing, character; orthography; phonology; semantics, fMRI