• fMRI;
  • frontal cortex;
  • sentence processing;
  • syntax;
  • language acquisition


Second language (L2) acquisition is more susceptible to environmental and idiosyncratic factors than first language acquisition. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging for L2 learners of different ages of first exposure (mean: 12.6 and 5.6 years) in a formal school environment, and compared the cortical activations involved in processing English sentences containing either syntactic or spelling errors, where the testing ages and task performances of both groups were matched. We found novel activation patterns in two regions of the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) that correlated differentially with the performances of the late and early learners. Specifically, activations of the dorsal and ventral triangular part (F3t) of the left IFG correlated positively with the accuracy of the syntactic task for the late learners, whereas activations of the left ventral F3t correlated negatively with the accuracy for the early learners. In contrast, other cortical regions exhibited differential correlation patterns with the reaction times (RTs) of the syntactic task. Namely, activations of the orbital part (F3O) of the left IFG, as well as those of the left angular gyrus, correlated positively with the RTs for the late learners, whereas those activations correlated negatively with the RTs for the early learners. Moreover, the task-selective activation of the left F3O was maintained for both the late and early learners. These results explain individual differences in L2 acquisition, such that the acquisition of linguistic knowledge in L2 is subserved by at least two distinct inferior frontal regions of the left F3t and F3O. Hum Brain Mapp, 2009. © 2008 Wiley-Liss, Inc.