Studies have long shown that people better recall events when their mood state or the environmental context in which information is presented--such as the specific location in which information was learned--matches that of when the memory is retrieved. In a novel extension of that research, experiments using Russian-English bilinguals have shown that a match between the language of encoding and the language of retrieval also yields enhanced memory effects.
The study, authored by psychologists Viorica Marian, PhD, of Northwestern University and Ulric Neisser, PhD, of Cornell University, was published in the September issue of APA's Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (Vol. 129, No. 3).
Marian's interest in language-dependent memory grew out of her own experience as a Romanian-English bilingual. "I would often notice that when I would try to think of the name of someone or some place in my home country while speaking English, I couldn't remember it," she recalls. "But then later, when I was speaking in Romanian, it would come to me."
To examine the role language plays in organizing memory, the researchers placed participants in interviews in both English and Russian, varying the order in which the two languages were used. An experimenter prompted participants with a series of words such as "summer," "neighbors" and "doctor," or the Russian translations of such words. They asked participants to describe an event from their lives that was brought to mind by each cue.
Participants recalled more English events than Russian events when they were interviewed in English and prompted with English words, the researchers found. When participants were interviewed in Russian and prompted with Russian words, they accessed more Russian memories than English memories.
In a second experiment, Marian and Neisser discovered that the effect appeared to be driven not simply by the language of the prompt words, but by the general "language milieu" of the interview. Participants recalled more English events than Russian events when they were interviewed in English, even when the prompt words were in Russian.The reverse occurred for participants interviewed in Russian. That provides support, the authors believe, for the notion that bilingual individuals possess two separate language modes, which can create different general mindsets or ways of thinking.
Marian and Neisser also found that participants recalled markedly fewer events from the time period immediately surrounding their immigration to the United States than from earlier and later periods. Although further research is required to account for this pattern, Marian proposes two possible explanations. First, she speculates, the period immediately after immigration may include more mixed-language events than single-language events, perhaps leading to a mismatch between the languages of encoding and retrieval.
A second possibility, she says, is that "people are coming into a new world, and they don't yet have schemas for events like going through a drive-through restaurant." Without such schemas, she suggests, people may not encode events as thoroughly as when firm schemas are in place.
Marian says it's important to understand language processing in bilinguals for both theoretical and practical reasons. In addition to gaining greater understanding of general principles of memory, she says, research on bilingual language processing is also valuable as an end in itself.
She notes, "The proportion of bilinguals in the United States is extremely large, and in the world in general it's estimated that there are more bilinguals and multilinguals than monolinguals. In my research, I look at bilinguals to understand more general principles like language-dependent memory, but also as an end in itself, to see how greater sensitivity to this phenomenon can benefit this segment of the population.
"In the long run," Marian suggests, "this could benefit people in the legal world in terms of interviewing bilingual witnesses." Another implication, she suggests, concerns therapy for bilingual clients, whose likelihood of benefiting from counseling may depend on the language of the counseling.