Moving from China to York: How do changes in language experiences modulate bilingual language control?

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Psychology


In our international society, speaking more than one language is becoming increasingly common. Many people move to a new country for their work or studies or due to wars or natural disasters. They frequently study, work, and communicate in a non-native language. One in five students in the UK is international and for many English is a foreign language. Speaking two languages requires not only a certain proficiency level in each language, but also language control to ensure that the contextually appropriate language is used. Even when a bilingual has to use just one of their languages, the other language is still active. Bilingual language use is therefore not as easy as it often looks. For example, when attending classes in the UK, a Mandarin-English bilingual has to use English. To achieve this, not only do they need to select English words, but they also have to ensure that they do not accidentally speak Mandarin words. Furthermore, bilinguals often switch between their languages. For example, the same Mandarin-English bilingual needs to switch back to Mandarin when talking with a Chinese friend. Bilinguals often switch languages apparently effortlessly, but this actually requires various control processes. Bilinguals need to look at the environment (e.g., the faces of their interlocutors) to choose a language, they need to select words in that language, avoid interference from the other language, and make the switch when needed.

Language control might differ between bilinguals. Bilinguals differ from each other in many ways, especially in terms of how they use their languages. Some bilinguals live in an environment that predominantly requires the use of one language, for example Mandarin-English bilinguals living in China and using Mandarin most of the time. Other bilinguals live in an environment that requires interchangeable use of two languages, for example Mandarin-English bilinguals in the UK surrounded by both English and Mandarin native speakers. The proposed research will assess how these daily-life language experiences influence bilingual language-control mechanisms that are needed for fluent communication. Do all bilinguals use similar control mechanisms? Or are these language-control mechanisms shaped by actual daily-life language experiences?

To do this, the project will study a group of Chinese students who have moved from China to the UK to complete a university degree. We will test these students multiple times throughout their first year in the UK. They will complete several language production and comprehension tasks to measure language control. In addition, they will complete questionnaires assessing their language experiences in the UK. We will assess how language control develops within this group of international students. In addition, we will compare them to a control group of Mandarin-English bilinguals who continue their studies in China.

This project will provide novel insights into how bilinguals apply language control to communicate, with a focus on how individual daily-life language experiences might shape language control. It will show how bilinguals, depending on their daily-life language experiences, manage to select words in the intended language, how they manage interference from the other language, and how they switch languages in production and comprehension. Practically, this project will provide us with more knowledge about how bilinguals communicate in their native and non-native languages. This will help bilinguals who work and study in their non-native language, including international students and migrants. For example, by understanding how international students use their native and non-native languages, we can more adequately prepare new international students for English language use in academic and non-academic environments. As such, this project will benefit both academic and non-academic audiences.


10 25 50