The relationship between orthography (spelling) and phonology (speech sounds) varies across alphabetic languages. Consequently, learning to read a second alphabetic language, that uses the same letters as the first, increases the phonological associations that can be linked to the same orthographic units. In subjects with English as their first language, previous functional imaging studies have reported increased left ventral prefrontal activation for reading words with spellings that are inconsistent with their orthographic neighbors (e.g., PINT) compared with words that are consistent with their orthographic neighbors (e.g., SHIP). Here, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in 17 Italian–English and 13 English–Italian bilinguals, we demonstrate that left ventral prefrontal activation for first language reading increases with second language vocabulary knowledge. This suggests that learning a second alphabetic language changes the way that words are read in the first alphabetic language. Specifically, first language reading is more reliant on both lexical/semantic and nonlexical processing when new orthographic to phonological mappings are introduced by second language learning. Our observations were in a context that required participants to switch between languages. They motivate future fMRI studies to test whether first language reading is also altered in contexts when the second language is not in use.

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