Longitudinal changes in brain activity during second language (L2) acquisition of a miniature finite-state grammar, named Wernickese, were identified with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Participants learned either a visual sign language form or an auditory-verbal form to equivalent proficiency levels. Brain activity during sentence comprehension while hearing/viewing stimuli was assessed at low, medium, and high levels of proficiency in three separate fMRI sessions. Activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca's area) correlated positively with improving L2 proficiency, whereas activity in the right-hemisphere (RH) homologue was negatively correlated for both auditory and visual forms of the language. Activity in sequence learning areas including the premotor cortex and putamen also correlated with L2 proficiency. Modality-specific differences in the blood oxygenation level-dependent signal accompanying L2 acquisition were localized to the planum temporale (PT). Participants learning the auditory form exhibited decreasing reliance on bilateral PT sites across sessions. In the visual form, bilateral PT sites increased in activity between Session 1 and Session 2, then decreased in left PT activity from Session 2 to Session 3. Comparison of L2 laterality (as compared to L1 laterality) in auditory and visual groups failed to demonstrate greater RH lateralization for the visual versus auditory L2. These data establish a common role for Broca's area in language acquisition irrespective of the perceptual form of the language and suggest that L2s are processed similar to first languages even when learned after the “critical period.” The right frontal cortex was not preferentially recruited by visual language after accounting for phonetic/structural complexity and performance.

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