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Chinese learners of English are conceptually blind to temporal differences conveyed by tense: Conceptual tense blindness in late bilinguals

Research output: Contribution to Journal/MagazineJournal articlepeer-review

E-pub ahead of print
<mark>Journal publication date</mark>14/05/2023
<mark>Journal</mark>Language Learning
Publication StatusE-pub ahead of print
Early online date14/05/23
<mark>Original language</mark>English


Chinese learners of English often experience difficulty with English tense, presumably because their native language is tenseless. Here, we show that this difficulty relates to incomplete conceptual representations for tense rather than poor grammatical rule knowledge. Participants made acceptability judgments on sentences describing two-event sequences that were either temporally plausible or misaligned according to verb tense (time clash). Behaviourally, both Chinese learners of English and native English controls were able to detect time clashes between events, showing that Chinese participants could apply tense rules explicitly. However, a predicted modulation of the N400 event-related brain potential elicited by time clashes in English controls was entirely absent in Chinese participants. In contrast, the same participants could semantically process time information when it is lexically conveyed in both languages. Thus, despite their mastery of English grammar, high-functioning Chinese learners of English fail to process the meaning of tense-conveyed temporal information in real time.