Spotlight on... Professor Li Wei
1 July 2021
This week we meet Professor Li Wei, Director and Dean of the Institute of Education. Here, he chats to us about leading a Leverhulme-funded research project on early childhood bilingualism, as well sharing his top music recommendations and favourite city.
What is your role and what does it involve?
I am Director and Dean of the Institute of Education, UCL’s faculty of education and social research. The role is to provide strategic leadership across the IOE, through harnessing the talent and energy of our staff and students, to shape a clear sense of direction that aligns with the IOE’s strong commitment to equity and social justice, and to interdisciplinary working.
How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I joined UCL in January 2015, as Chair of Applied Linguistics. In the last three years, I have been the Director of the ESRC Doctoral Partnership that involves UCL, Birkbeck, SOAS, LSHTM and UEL. Before joining UCL, I was Pro-Vice Master at Birkbeck and before that I was Head of School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences at Newcastle.
What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?
In 1997 I organised the first International Symposium on Bilingualism in Newcastle. The symposium very quickly became the premier international conference series for the interdisciplinary research on bilingualism and multilingualism. It is now running every two years, at venues across the world. This year’s conference is taking place in July in Warsaw Poland and it is the 13th edition. At the first ISB, I also launched the International Journal of Bilingualism, published by Sage. It is widely regarded as a leading journal in the field of bilingualism and multilingualism research. I was its Editor for 20 years.
Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?
I am currently leading a Leverhulme-funded research project looking at the effects of early childhood bilingualism on brain structure and function. It is a collaboration with colleagues in the GOSH Institute of Child Health. We are combining behavioural tests with structural and resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in bilingual children. The project will allow us to address some fundamental questions on how early bilingual experience modulates connectivity in language-related and executive control-related networks in children, the correlation between differences in resting-state brain connectivity and differences in executive control skills, specifically attention skills, and how bilingualism-related factors, such as age of exposure to two languages, language usage and proficiency, modulate brain connectivity.
What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Joshua Bell is one of my favourite violinists. I have lots of his albums. His Bruch, Mendelssohn, Mozart Violin Concertos is absolutely superb. I also like his French Impressions because it had many pieces that I didn’t know before.
What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waiter, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waiter replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”
Who would be your dream dinner guests?
Anyone who really appreciates food. These days people use dinner as an extension to work and talk about work over dinner. Wouldn’t it be nice to have people around to enjoy food and not to talk about work every now and then?
What advice would you give your younger self?
Never look back.
What would it surprise people to know about you?
I did not start learning English until I was in my teens and nobody taught me the order of the English alphabet until I became an English teacher at the age of 18 when I had to use a dictionary in teaching. I frantically flipped through the pages trying to find the words I was looking for. So I taught myself the order of the alphabet very quickly.
What is your favourite place?
Actually it has to be London. There are so many different aspects of it. It never stops amazing me. I still need to discover lots of areas.