The involvement of the motor cortex in language understanding has been intensively discussed in the framework of embodied cognition. Although some studies have provided evidence for the involvement of the motor cortex in different receptive language tasks, the role that it plays in language perception and understanding is still unclear. In the present study, we explored the degree of involvement of language and motor areas in a visually presented sentence comprehension task, modulated by language proficiency (L1: native language, L2: second language) and linguistic abstractness (literal, metaphorical, and abstract). Magnetoencephalography data were recorded from 26 late Chinese learners of English. A cluster-based permutation F test was performed on the amplitude of the source waveform for each motor and language region of interest (ROI). Results showed a significant effect of language proficiency in both language and motor ROIs, manifested as overall greater involvement of language ROIs (short insular gyri and planum polare of the superior temporal gyrus) in the L1 than the L2 during 300–500 ms, and overall greater involvement of motor ROI (central sulcus) in the L2 than the L1 during 600–800 ms. We interpreted the over-recruitment of the motor area in the L2 as a higher demand for cognitive resources to compensate for the inadequate engagement of the language network. In general, our results indicate a compensatory role of the motor cortex in L2 understanding.

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Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: Kate Watkins

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