Second language use rather than second language knowledge relates to changes in white matter microstructure

  • Nicola Del MaschioEmail author
  • Simone Sulpizio
  • Michelle Toti
  • Camilla Caprioglio
  • Gianpaolo Del Mauro
  • Davide Fedeli
  • Jubin Abutalebi
Research Paper


Learning and learning to regulate more than one language is shown to have an impact on the structural connectivity of the brain in networks related to language processing and executive control. The available evidence remains however variable in terms of the occurrence, localization and extent of these effects. Variability likely depends on the fact that grouping heterogeneous linguistic profiles under a dichotomous condition (bilingualism vs. monolingualism) may obscure critical aspects of language experience underlying white matter changes. Here, we treated the main quantifiable features in which bilingual experience can be partitioned—that is, age of acquisition, proficiency and use of a second language—as continuous variables, and tested their effects on a sample of young adult participants. Findings indicate that the time spent using a second language, rather than the age of acquisition or knowledge of that language, significantly modulates white matter microstructure in a bilateral cingulo-frontal cluster encompassing structures primarily related to language control. Taken together, these data point to a usage-dependent remodeling of cingulo-frontal connections, and substantiate the conceptualization of bilingualism as a complex and dynamic experience.


Bilingualism Second language use Structural connectivity White matter microstructure 



We thank Dr. Silvio Conte for the technical assistance at C.E.R.M.A.C., Vita-Salute San Raffaele University/San Raffaele Hospital.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics (CNPL)Vita-Salute San Raffaele UniversityMilanItaly

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