When words get physical: evidence for proficiency-modulated somatotopic motor interference during second language comprehension


New theories of cognition posit the existence of an intimate link between higher cognitive processes and the sensorimotor areas of the brain. In a reaction time-based translation task, second language (L2) speakers responded to action verbs using a microphone or a response pad. A significant interaction among Response Modality, Verb Type, and Proficiency indicated that more proficient L2 speakers took significantly longer to respond with their hands to previously seen hand-related verbs, but not mouth-related ones. Conversely, responding using a microphone led to slower latencies in the case of mouth-verbs, but not hand-verbs. Amidst virtually exclusively monolingual research on embodied cognition, the current study provides evidence that reading L2 action verbs selectively interferes with subsequently performed manual or verbal responses, suggesting that semantic representations of these verbs are distributed over neural substrates underlying action execution. The role of proficiency and experience in language comprehension is discussed.

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