Long-distance linguistic dependencies in Chinese and English brains


Words can occur arbitrarily far away from where they contribute their meaning in a sentence. Two examples are WH-questions (WHQs), which begin with a WH-word like what and object-extracted relative clauses (ORCs), in which a noun is modified by a sentence-like grammatical unit. While these long-distance dependencies have been extensively studied, never before have their brain bases been examined from a multi-lingual, naturalistic perspective. This study fills this gap by analyzing WHQs and ORCs in fMRI data collected while 35 Chinese participants (15 females) and 49 English participants (30 females) listen to translation-equivalent stories. These languages exhibit radical typological differences in word order in these constructions. It remains unknown whether the brain basis for comprehension in these languages is similar or different. Separate general linear model analyses were performed and voxel-level intersections were calculated between the results to identify common regions of selectively increased activation during the comprehension of these linguistic constructions. Further Bayesian region of interest analyses probed whether common increases were truly similar. We found remarkable cross-linguistic commonality for both constructions. WHQs were associated with increased activation in the left middle and superior temporal lobe, left temporoparietal junction, left inferior frontal gyrus, and bilateral medial frontal lobe. ORCs were associated with increased activation in the left middle temporal lobe, left inferior frontal gyrus, bilateral angular gyrus, bilateral posterior cingulate, bilateral precuneus, and left medial frontal lobe. These results support the hypothesis that, regardless of form, the brain bases of higher-level language processing are uniform across languages.

bioarxiv preprint