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Keywords:

  • spoken language;
  • rhyming;
  • Chinese;
  • orthography;
  • phonology;
  • development;
  • cross-linguistic;
  • English

It is unknown how experience with different types of orthographies influences the neural basis of oral language processing. In order to determine the effects of alphabetic and nonalphabetic writing systems, the current study examined the influence of learning to read on oral language in English and Chinese speakers. Children (8–12 years olds) and adults made rhyming judgments to pairs of spoken words during functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Developmental increases were seen only for English speakers in the left hemisphere phonological network (superior temporal gyrus (STG), inferior parietal lobule, and inferior frontal gyrus). The increase in the STG was more pronounced for words with conflicting orthography (e.g. pint-mint; jazz-has) even though access to orthography was irrelevant to the task. Moreover, higher reading skill was correlated with greater activation in the STG only for English speaking children. The effects suggest that learning to read reorganizes the phonological awareness network only for alphabetic and not logographic writing systems because of differences in the principles for mapping between orthographic and phonological representations. The reorganization of the auditory cortex may result in better phonological awareness skills in alphabetic readers. Hum Brain Mapp 34:3354–3368, 2013. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.