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FUNCTIONAL magnetic resonance imaging was used to assess inter-subject variability in the cortical representation of language comprehension processes. Moderately fluent French-English bilinguals were scanned while they listened to stories in their first language (L1 = French) or in a second language (L2 = English) acquired at school after the age of seven. In all subjects, listening to L1 always activated a similar set of areas in the left temporal lobe, clustered along the left superior temporal sulcus. Listening to L2, however, activated a highly variable network of left and right temporal and frontal areas, sometimes restricted only to right-hemispheric regions. These results support the hypothesis that first language acquisition relies on a dedicated left-hemispheric cerebral network, while late second language acquisition is not necessarily associated with a reproducible biological substrate. The postulated contribution of the right hemisphere to L2 comprehension 1 is found to hold only on average, individual subjects varying from complete right lateralization to standard left lateralization for L2.

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