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Language experience shapes early electrophysiological responses to visual stimuli: the effects of writing system, stimulus length, and presentation duration.


How language experience affects visual word recognition has been a topic of intense interest. Using event-related potentials (ERPs), the present study compared the early electrophysiological responses (i.e., N1) to familiar and unfamiliar writings under different conditions. Thirteen native Chinese speakers (with English as their second language) were recruited to passively view four types of scripts: Chinese (familiar logographic writings), English (familiar alphabetic writings), Korean Hangul (unfamiliar logographic writings), and Tibetan (unfamiliar alphabetic writings). Stimuli also differed in lexicality (words vs. non-words, for familiar writings only), length (characters/letters vs. words), and presentation duration (100 ms vs. 750 ms). We found no significant differences between words and non-words, and the effect of language experience (familiar vs. unfamiliar) was significantly modulated by stimulus length and writing system, and to a less degree, by presentation duration. That is, the language experience effect (i.e., a stronger N1 response to familiar writings than to unfamiliar writings) was significant only for alphabetic letters, but not for alphabetic and logographic words. The difference between Chinese characters and unfamiliar logographic characters was significant under the condition of short presentation duration, but not under the condition of long presentation duration. Long stimuli elicited a stronger N1 response than did short stimuli, but this effect was significantly attenuated for familiar writings. These results suggest that N1 response might not reliably differentiate familiar and unfamiliar writings. More importantly, our results suggest that N1 is modulated by visual, linguistic, and task factors, which has important implications for the visual expertise hypothesis.

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