Language and counterfactual reasoning in Chinese, English and Chinese L1-English L2 reasoners

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    Aims: No recent studies have investigated language effects on counterfactual reasoning in bilinguals. This paper investigates the impact of bilinguals’ native language and language of testing on counterfactual reasoning, addressing two questions: (1) Do older Chinese reasoners, educated before English became a school subject, draw different inferences, or use different cues to draw inferences, compared with English peers and younger Chinese L1 reasoners? Does knowing English affect their reasoning? and (2) Do Chinese reasoners draw different inferences, or use different cues, when tested in Chinese and when tested in English?

    Design: Experiment 1: The explanatory variables are first language (between-group: Chinese, English), age cohort (between-group: young, older), inferential chain length (within-group: short, long). Experiment 2: The explanatory variables are language of testing (between-group: Chinese, English) and inferential chain length (within-group: short, long). The outcome is the consequent probability rating. Open questions investigate cues used to draw inferences.

    Analysis: The sample comprised 188 participants. Generalised linear mixed-effects models were used for quantitative data, thematic analysis for qualitative data.

    Findings: Older Chinese speakers rate long-chain consequents as more probable than English peers. Chinese and English reasoners use different cues to make inferences, as do Chinese reasoners tested in Chinese L1 or English L2.

    Originality: This is the first paper to compare Chinese reasoners educated before and after English entered the school curriculum, and to investigate inferential chain length effects on Chinese counterfactual reasoning. It introduces a novel task (consequent evaluation), and adopts a mixed-method approach to investigate both the product and process of reasoning, using quantitative and qualitative data respectively.

    Significance: The study provides new evidence and interpretation for the old debate about language effects on counterfactual reasoning in cognitive psychology; shows that conditional reasoning is a fruitful topic for linguistic relativity and bilingual cognition research; and testifies that qualitative data allows detection of differences in thinking processes.

    Original languageEnglish
    Number of pages22
    JournalInternational Journal of Bilingualism
    Early online date15 Jul 2021
    Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Funding Information:
    The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Pilot studies for this project were funded by a British Academy Small Grant (SG-50522).

    Publisher Copyright:
    © The Author(s) 2021.


    • Chinese
    • Counterfactual reasoning
    • English as a second language
    • bilingualism
    • linguistic relativity

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Language and Linguistics
    • Education
    • Linguistics and Language


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