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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Jul 24;104(30):12530-5. Epub 2007 Jul 13.

Brain potentials reveal unconscious translation during foreign-language comprehension.

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Economic and Social Research Council Centre for Research on Bilingualism in Theory and Practice, University of Wales, Bangor LL57 2DG, United Kingdom.


Whether the native language of bilingual individuals is active during second-language comprehension is the subject of lively debate. Studies of bilingualism have often used a mix of first- and second-language words, thereby creating an artificial "dual-language" context. Here, using event-related brain potentials, we demonstrate implicit access to the first language when bilinguals read words exclusively in their second language. Chinese-English bilinguals were required to decide whether English words presented in pairs were related in meaning or not; they were unaware of the fact that half of the words concealed a character repetition when translated into Chinese. Whereas the hidden factor failed to affect behavioral performance, it significantly modulated brain potentials in the expected direction, establishing that English words were automatically and unconsciously translated into Chinese. Critically, the same modulation was found in Chinese monolinguals reading the same words in Chinese, i.e., when Chinese character repetition was evident. Finally, we replicated this pattern of results in the auditory modality by using a listening comprehension task. These findings demonstrate that native-language activation is an unconscious correlate of second-language comprehension.

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