Although the structure of academia might make us think of literature and neuroscience as widely separate matters, our daily literary experiences are intimately dependent on brain activity. A considerable number of studies has illuminated this link by studying neurocognitive patterns as people read texts in their mother tongue. However, much less is known about this phenomenon in bilinguals during foreign-language (L2) reading. A recent study of our team has examined this issue focusing on Shakespearean figures of speech.
One of the distinguishing traits of Shakespeare’s style consists in the use of functional shifts, a linguistic maneuver whereby a word experiences a category change. For example, in the sentence, “He childed as I fathered” (uttered by Edgar in King Lear), the nouns “child” and “father” are used as verbs, generating a peculiar aesthetic effect. Previous neuroscientific research using modern-day adaptations of such Shakespearean tropes showed that, in native-language users, that particular effect would be characterized by a disruption of syntactic rather than semantic expectations — specifically, neurophysiological patterns gave signs of greater grammatical demands without increasing conceptual integration efforts.
Though certainly informative, this finding cannot be extrapolated to non-native English users, who outnumber native speakers of that language and prove numerous among the readership of Shakespeare’s originals. To understand how these individuals process such linguistic constructions, we recruited two groups of proficient L2 users. One group was composed of early bilinguals who had acquired English at an average of roughly four years of age; the other consisted of late bilinguals, who had done so at a mean of nine years old. All participants read several sentences, half containing functional shifts and half including no particular manipulations. As participants indicated comprehension of the sentences by pressing a button, we measured their brain activity using high-density electroencephalography (EEG) and then proceeded to analyze oscillatory modulations in different frequency bands — that is, different ranges of the neurophysiological activity captured through EEG.
In line with our predictions, we found that frontal-posterior modulations of the theta band (a frequency range that is highly sensitive to linguistic processes) discriminated between the two types of sentences, but only in the case of the early bilinguals. In other words, early bilinguals exhibited distinct sensitivity towards the wordplay of functional shifts, whereas late bilinguals did not present differential neural activity for sentences with and without that stylistic feature. Interestingly, this pattern did not emerge in other frequency bands, highlighting the potential specificity of theta-band modulations as a neural signature of L2 trope processing.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the age of L2 acquisition can influence how the brain processes these Shakespearean tropes. It follows that, within the broad non-native readership of Shakespeare’s originals, and possibly across the whole spectrum of L2 readers, the same figure of speech might evoke significantly different neurocognitive processes depending on how early or late English was acquired. Of note, this pattern seems to be specifically driven by the subjects’ age of L2 acquisition, as both groups were similar in other relevant aspects, such as their overall language proficiency and years of formal L2 study.
In brief, our research shows that, from a neurocognitive perspective, specific literary effects can be molded by one’s language acquisition history. At the same time, it reinforces the view that, compared to late bilinguals, early bilinguals process their L2 in a more native-like fashion. From a broader perspective, by extending this finding to the relatively unexplored realm of figures of speech, our study contributes to bridging the gap between literature and neuroscience. We hope that the divide between both fields will be further dismantled through continued research efforts at the crossing of disciplines and academic traditions.