The human capacity to master multiple languages is remarkable and leads to structural and functional changes in the brain. Understanding how the brain accommodates multiple languages simultaneously is crucial to developing a complete picture of our species' linguistic capabilities. To examine the neural mechanisms involved in processing two languages, we looked at cortical activation in Spanish-English bilinguals in response to phonological competition either between two languages or within a language. Participants recognized spoken words in a visual world task while their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Results revealed that between-language competition recruited a larger network of frontal control and basal ganglia regions than within-language competition. Bilinguals also recruited more neural resources to manage between-language competition from the dominant language compared to competition from the less dominant language. Additionally, bilinguals' activation of the basal ganglia was inversely correlated with their executive function ability, suggesting that bilinguals compensated for lower levels of cognitive control by recruiting a broader neural network to manage more difficult tasks. These results provide evidence for differences in neural responses to linguistic competition between versus within languages, and demonstrate the brain's remarkable plasticity, where language experience can change neural processing.
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