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It's All Chinese to Me...
There are many important differences between alphabetical and non-alphabetical writing systems (like Chinese characters). However, a team of scientists led by Alan Wong (now at Chinese University of Hong Kong) completed a study in Isabel Gauthier’s lab at Vanderbilt University, part of the NSF-funded Temporal Dynamics Learning Center, to measure whether the perception of Roman letters and Chinese Characters overlap in the visual system. They used brain imaging to measure brain activity in people who could only read English and others who could read both English and Chinese, while they viewed single Roman letters and simple Chinese characters on a screen. A “letter selective area” of the left occipito-temporal cortex showed overlap of activity to both types of characters, with the response to Chinese characters higher in subjects who could read Chinese (see Figure). This area responds to characters more than to do to both images of objects or faces. Roman letters and Chinese characters differ in their geometry, and they also differ in the linguistic rules that govern their use. Therefore, the overlap in the letter selective area suggests that this region may be recruited by perceptual strategies that are used by expert readers to recognize characters of any familiar writing system.
Figure. Activity for Chinese (blue) and Roman (red) characters, and overlap (white) in the left occipito-temporal cortex of two bilingual subjects.
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Wong, A.C.-N., Jobard, G., James, K.H., James, T.W., & Gauthier, I. (in press).
Expertise with characters in alphabetic and non-alphabetic writing systems engage
overlapping occipito-temporal areas. Cognitive Neuropsychology.