Language selection in bilinguals: A spatio-temporal analysis of electric brain activity

Asaid Khateb, Jubin Abutalebi, Christoph M. Michel, Alan J. Pegna, Hannelore Lee-Jahnke, Jean Marie Annoni

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language selection refers to the cognitive mechanism that allows bilinguals to communicate in one language or the other and to switch between languages depending on the listener. Previous studies suggested that various brain areas might be involved in this process. However, the question remains whether language selection is achieved through a language-specific mechanism or through a general cognitive control process. To address this question, we compared event-related potentials (ERPs) induced by language selection and task selection processes during image naming. ERPs were collected from bilingual subjects while tested in two different contexts: a monolingual task selection context (TSc) where a post-stimulus cue instructed subjects either to name the image or generate a corresponding verb in their first language (L1), and a bilingual language selection context (LSc) where the cue indicated to name the image either in the first or the second language. By comparing the ERPs induced by the same L1 naming as a function of context, we assumed that if the selection processes varied across contexts, then electric brain responses should differ rapidly after the cue presentation. Our analysis indicated that the first ERP differences accounting for the diverging processes involved appeared between ∼ 220 and 300 ms after the cue. The estimation by source localisation of brain regions accounting for these differences pointed to an increased activation during LSc in the left middle frontal-precentral gyri, supramarginal and angular gyri. Our results suggest that language selection is achieved through a neural network involving areas implicated in both general cognitive processes and language processing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-213
Number of pages13
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2007
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation grant nos. 3151A0-102271/1 and 320000-109928 and by the Center for Biomedical Imaging (CIBM) of Geneva and Lausanne. We thank Dr Rolando Grave de Peralta Menedez and Dr Sara Gonzales Andino for providing us with the inverse solutions and Mrs Tanja Heiden for her help in L2 proficiency assessment and subjects' recruitment.


  • Cognitive control
  • Event-related potentials
  • First language
  • Functional microstates
  • Overt naming
  • Second language
  • Source localisation
  • Task selection
  • Temporal segmentation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience (all)
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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