Memories… in bilingual speakers

My past has raised its head and it is panting into my neck. Memories come in packs and surround me wherever I go, howling in the moonlight. Remember me? Remember how we laughed and quarreled and sat silently? Wait, what did you say then? Oh, yes. Hai detto che ami parlare con me. Ed io ho risposto, smiling, che certo che lo ami, perché sei sempre tu a parlare.

Linguistic relativity

We tend to recall events and information in the context-relevant language. Of course, we are able to translate what had been told at the time, and sometimes we happen not to remember which language had been in use altogether. That movie – have I seen it in English or in Polish? Not a clue. How is memory connected to our language proficiency? How are past events linguistically coded for bilingual speakers?

According to the recent research, bilinguals develop what is called language-dependent memory. Slobin, who we remember as the author of the “thinking for speaking” theory, has noted that “it is quite likely that the language in which information is presented .. . plays a role in the ways in which information is stored and evaluated” (Language and thought online: cognitive consequences of linguistic relativity, 2003). In short, language serves us as a mental frame, helping us to recall and evaluate information and events. For bilingual speakers, it may be the case that we will be able to recall more details if we retrieve information in the same language we encoded it.

The fact that the content of memory may be affected by the language used to encode memories seems to be supported by the linguistic relativity theory, which we have discussed not so long ago. The main idea here was that language, due to its linguistic structure and cognitive dimensions, imposes a specific worldview on its speakers and thus influences the way we represent and categorize the world and in effect, the way we remember things.

Memory in bilinguals

Let’s have a look at the results of a study by Javier et al. (Autobiographical memory in bilinguals. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 1993). The researchers had bilingual participants describe an interesting or dramatic event from their personal life.  Later they were asked to discuss the same experience, in the alternate language. The experimenters analyzed their recall protocols in terms of numbers of ideas or idea units expressed and the organizational structure of the ideas that were recalled. Across languages, differences were observed in the quantity (length of story and amount of details) and quality (of emotional load) of the idea units that were recalled. Experiences appeared to be related more vividly and with more particulars when discussed in the language in which they had been experienced.

What do you think about it? Have you ever noticed such dependence, when trying to remember past events or when trying to recall specific information, let’s say during an exam? Do you find language cues useful for retrieval of memories? I am waiting for your comments.

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