Auditory cortex anatomy reflects multilingual phonological experience

  1. Brain and Language Lab, Cognitive Science Hub, University of Vienna, Austria
  2. Department of Behavioral and Cognitive Biology, Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Vienna, Austria
  3. Department of Diagnostic Imaging, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Memphis, USA
  4. Brain and Language Lab, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, University of Geneva, Switzerland;
  5. Neurolinguistics Division, Psychology Institute, University of Zurich, Switzerland;
  6. Aix Marseille University, CNRS, LPC, Marseille, France;
  7. Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, UK


  • Reviewing Editor
    Jonathan Peelle
    Northeastern University, Boston, United States of America
  • Senior Editor
    Barbara Shinn-Cunningham
    Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, United States of America

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

Summary: The goal of this project is to test the hypothesis that individual differences in experience with multiple languages relate to differences in brain structure, specifically in the transverse temporal gyrus. The approach used here is to focus specifically on the phonological inventories of these languages, looking at the overall size of the phonological inventory as well as the acoustic and articulatory diversity of the cumulative phonological inventory in people who speak one or more languages. The authors find that the thickness of the transverse temporal gyrus (either the primary TTG, in those with one TTG, or in the second TTG, in people with multiple gyri) was related to language experience, and that accounting for the phonological diversity of those languages improved the model fit. Taken together, the evidence suggests that learning more phonemes (which is more likely if one speaks more than one language) leads to experience-related plasticity in brain regions implicated in early auditory processing.

Strengths: This project is rigorous in its approach--not only using a large sample, but replicating the primary finding in a smaller, independent sample. Language diversity is difficult to quantify, and likely to be qualitatively and quantitatively distinct across different populations, and the authors use a custom measure of multilingualism (accounting for both number of languages as well as age of acquisition) and three measures of phonological diversity. The team has been careful in discussion of these findings, and while it is possible that pre-existing differences in brain structure could lead to an aptitude difference which could drive one to learn more than one language, the fine-grained relationships with phonological diversity seem less likely to emerge from aptitude rather than experience.

Weaknesses: It is a bit unclear how the measures of phonological diversity relate to one another--they are partially separable, but rest on the same underlying data (the phonemes in each language). It would be helpful for the reader to understand how these measures are distributed (perhaps in a new figure), and the degree to which they are correlated with one another. Further, as the authors acknowledge, it is always possible that an unseen factor instead drives these findings--if typological lexical distance measures are available, it would be helpful to enter these into the model to confirm that phonological factors are the specific driver of TTG differences and not language diversity in a more general sense. That said, the relationship between phonological diversity and TTG structure is intuitive.

One curious aspect of this paper relates to the much higher prevalence of split or duplicate TTG in the sample. The authors do a good job speculating on how features of the TASH package might lead to this, but it is unclear where the ground truth lies--some discussion of validation of TASH against a gold standard would be useful.

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

This work investigates the possible association between language experience and morphology of the superior temporal cortex, a part of the brain responsible for the processing of auditory stimuli. Previous studies have found associations between language and music proficiency as well as language learning aptitude and cortical morphometric measures in regions in the primary and associated auditory cortex. These studies have most often, however, focused on finding neuroanatomical effects of difference between features in a few (often two) languages or from learning single phonetic/phonological features and have often been limited in terms of N. On this background, the authors use more sophisticated measures of language experience that take into account the age of onset and the differences in phonology between languages the subjects have been exposed to as well as a larger number of subjects (N = 146 + 69) to relate language experience to the shape and structure of the superior temporal cortex, measured from T1-weighted MRI data. It shows solid evidence for there being a negative relationship between language experience and the right 2nd transverse temporal gyrus as well as some evidence for the relationship representing phoneme-level cross-linguistic information.

The use of entropy measures to quantify language experience and include typological distance measures allows for a more general interpretation of the results and is an important step toward respecting and making use of linguistic diversity in neurolinguistic experiments.

A relatively large group of subjects with a range of linguistic backgrounds.

The full analysis of the structure of the superior temporal cortex including cortical volume, area, as well as the shape of the transverse gyrus/gyri. There is a growing literature on the meaning of the shape and number of the transverse gyri in relation to language proficiency and the authors explore all measures given the available data.

The authors chose to use a replication data set to verify their data, which is applaudable. However, see the relevant point under "Weaknesses".

The authors fail to explain how a thinner cortex could reflect the specialization of the auditory cortex in the processing of diverse speech input. The Dynamic Restructuring Model (Pliatsikas, 2020) which is referred to does not offer clear guidance to interpretation. A more detailed discussion of how a phonologically diverse environment could lead to a thinner cortex would be very helpful.

It is difficult to understand what measure of language experience is used when. Clearer and more explicit nomenclature would assist in the interpretation of the results.

There is a lack of description of the language backgrounds of the included subjects. How many came from each of the possible linguistic backgrounds? How did they differ in language exposure? This would be informative to evaluate the generalizability of the conclusions.

Only the result from the multiple transverse temporal gyri (2nd TTG) is analyzed in the replicated dataset. Only the association in the right hemisphere 2nd TTG is replicated but this is not reflected in the discussion or the conclusions. The positive correlation in the right TTG is thus not attempted to be replicated.

The replication dataset differed in more ways than the more frequent combination of English and German experience, as mentioned in the discussion. Specifically, the fraction of monolinguals was higher in the replication dataset and the samples came from different scanners. It would be better if the primary and replication datasets were more equally matched.

Even if the language experience and typological distance measures are a step in the right direction for correctly associating language exposure with cortical plasticity, it still is a measure that is insensitive to the intensity of the exposure. The consequences of this are not discussed.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

The study uses structural MRI to identify how the number, degree of experience, and phonemic diversity of language(s) that a speaker knows can influence the thickness of different sub-segments of the auditory cortex. In both a primary and replication sample of adult speakers, the authors find key differences in cortical thickness within specific subregions of the cortex due to either the age at which languages are acquired (degree of experience), or the diversity of the phoneme inventories carried by that/those language(s) (breadth of experience).

The results are first and foremost quite fascinating and I do think they make a compelling case for the different ways in which linguistic experience shapes the auditory cortex.

The study uses a number of different measures to quantify linguistic experience, related to how many languages a person knows (taking into account the age at which each was learned) as well as the diversity of the phoneme inventories contained within those languages. The primary sample is moderately large for a study that focuses on brain-behaviour relationships; a somewhat smaller replication sample is also deployed in order to test the generality of the effects.

Analytic approaches benefit from the careful use of brain segmentation techniques that nicely capture key landmarks and account for vagaries in the structure of STG that can vary across individuals (e.g., the number of transverse temporal gyri varies from 1-4 across individuals).

The specificity of these effects is interesting; some effects really do appear to be localized to the left hemisphere and specific subregions of the auditory cortex e.g., TTG. However because analyses only focus on auditory regions along the STG and MTG, one could be led to the conclusion that these are the only brain regions for which such effects will occur. The hypothesis is that these are specifically auditory effects, but that does make a clear prediction that non-auditory regions should not show the same sort of variability. I recognize that expanding the search space will inflate type-1 errors to a point where maybe it's impossible to know what effects are genuine. And the fine-grained nature of the effects suggests a coarse analysis of other cortical regions is likely to fail. So I don't know the right answer here. Only that I tend to wonder if some control region(s) might have been useful for understanding whether such effects truly are limited to the auditory cortex. Otherwise one might argue these are epiphenomenal or some hidden factor unrelated to auditory experience predicting that we'd also see them in the non-auditory cortex as well, either within or outside the brain's speech network(s).

The reason(s) why we might find a link between cortical thickness and experience is not fully discussed. The introduction doesn't really mention why we'd expect cortical thickness to be correlated (positively or negatively) with speech experience. There is some discussion of it in the Discussion section as it relates to the Pliatsikas' Dynamic Restructuring Model, though I think that model only directly predicts thinning as a function of experience (here, negative correlations). It might have less to say about observed positive correlations e.g., HG in the right hemisphere. In any case, I do think that it's interesting to find some relationship between brain morphology and experience but clearer explanations for why these occur could help, and especially some mention of it in the intro so readers are clearer on why cortical thickness is a useful measure.

One pitfall of quantifying phoneme overlap across languages is that what we might call a single 'phoneme', shared across languages, will, in reality, be realized differently across them. For instance, English and French may be argued to both use the vowel /u/ although it's realized differently in English vs. French (it's often fronted and diphthongized in many English speaker groups). Maybe the phonetic dictionaries used in this study capture this using a close phonetic transcription, but it's hard to tell; I suspect they don't, and in that case, the diversity measures would be an underestimate of the actual number of unique phonemes that a listener needs to maintain.

Discussion of potential genetic differences underlying the findings is interesting. One additional data point here is a study finding a relationship between the number of repeats of the READ1 (a factor of the DCDC2 gene) in populations of speakers, and the phoneme inventory of language(s) predominant in that population (DeMille, M. M., Tang, K., Mehta, C. M., Geissler, C., Malins, J. G., Powers, N. R., ... & Gruen, J. R. (2018). Worldwide distribution of the DCDC2 READ1 regulatory element and its relationship with phoneme variation across languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(19), 4951-4956.) Admittedly, that paper makes no claim about the cortical expression of that regulatory factor under study, and so more work needs to be done on whether this has any bearing at all on the auditory cortex. But it does represent one alternative account that does not have to do with plasticity/experience.

The replication sample is useful and a great idea. It does however feature roughly half the number of participants meaning statistical power is weaker. Using information from the first sample, the authors might wish to do a post-hoc power analysis that shows the minimum sample size needed to replicate their effect; given small effects in some cases, we might not be surprised that the replication was only partial. I don't think this is a deal breaker as much as it's a way to better understand whether the failure to replicate is an issue of power versus fragile effects.

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation