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Learning a second alphabet for a first language

Research challenges theoretical constraints on visual forms that can represent language

Society for Neuroscience

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IMAGE: This is an example of part of a story printed in HouseFont. It reads, 'See father. Father is here.' view more 

Credit: Martin et al., eNeuro (2019)

A part of the brain that maps letters to sounds can acquire a second, visually distinct alphabet for the same language, according to a study of English speakers published in eNeuro. The research challenges theoretical constraints on the range of visual forms available to represent written language.

For adults, becoming fluent in a foreign language, particularly one with a new alphabet, can be challenging. This may be because their brain has been specialized by their first language. It is unclear whether the so-called visual word form area (VWFA)-- a brain region that responds to letters -- is similarly inflexible in adulthood.

Lea Martin, Julie Fiez, and colleagues taught undergraduate university students how to read a fictional writing system called HouseFont, which assigns images of houses to English phonemes. Participants achieved proficiency in this pseudo writing system akin to a first-grade reading level. After the training, the researchers observed increased VWFA activity that predicted participants' reading speed. This effect was not observed in the parahippocampal place area -- a brain region that has been shown to respond selectively to images of houses. These findings suggest HouseFont was acquired as an additional alphabet, and show how learning a new writing system shapes the reading brain.

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Article: The VWFA is the home of orthographic learning when houses are used as letters

DOI: https://www.eneuro.org/lookup/doi/10.1523/ENEURO.0425-17.2019

Corresponding author: Julie Fiez (University of Pittsburgh, PA, USA), fiez@pitt.edu

About eNeuro

eNeuro, the Society for Neuroscience's open-access journal launched in 2014, publishes rigorous neuroscience research with double-blind peer review that masks the identity of both the authors and reviewers, minimizing the potential for implicit biases. eNeuro is distinguished by a broader scope and balanced perspective achieved by publishing negative results, failure to replicate or replication studies. New research, computational neuroscience, theories and methods are also published.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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