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Bilinguals and their Language Bound Memories

Teaching an English Workshop at Hong Kong IED in 2007

After college, I spent 11 months in Hong Kong, teaching English. I was awestruck for a number of reasons, but I will aspire to stay on topic. Traveling to a place where you encounter a bevy of situations in which your native language is sparingly spoken, reminds you that there are other ways to communicate. I remember playing a pickup game of charades at a convenient store in the New Territories region of Hong Kong. A young woman, who worked at that store, was my impromptu partner. She was good; we could have been champions. Her eyes lit up once she realized what my friends and I needed; just a few balloons to decorate a space at the college where we worked and lived. She smiled; stared into our victorious faces – we just broke through the language barrier – and said, “sorry, we don’t have those.” We eventually found balloons and realized that we need to learn more Cantonese. I never learned enough to order a cup of coffee at Starbucks like a local. Therefore, Cantonese was left merely as an acoustic backdrop of Hong Kong like Florida fowls and my neighbor’s donkey are typically the soundtrack of my morning. In fact, despite French and Latin lessons in elementary school (I’m a Montessori kid) and Spanish in high-school and college, albeit I was a poor student, I am fluent in only one language and that language is sometimes bested by my southern tongue’s propensity to mash phonemes.

Don’t forget that language is an intricate part of a memory wherein the pieces of experience can be linguistically represented. However, to know two languages is to have two sets of lexical tools to reflect experience. Moreover, these linguistic reflections are not different colors of the same dress, they are more like different wardrobes; two collections of outfits that overlap in function, but share little style. Amy Tan, famed American novelist, makes this clear when she writes, “ No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached.” (from The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life).

In Front of the Bank of China in Hong Kong City

Alas, for me, hearing Mandarin or Cantonese is only a melodious retrieval cue of my time in China. However, if I knew the language, it would be a representation of reality; it would clothe the moment. The reason our experiences can be dressed by a specific language is because we think in a language, a process called inner speech. While we monolinguals scratch our heads at this concept, bilinguals simply nod in agreement, because they intimately understand the process; they have felt the linguistic tune of their thoughts change. Through inner speech, when experiences are stored away, the language used in the moment is stitched to the pieces of that moment be it mundane, precious, or sorrowful. More specifically, this process means that when someone who is a Cantonese-English bilingual has an experience in English, the memory trace of that moment is encoded with English linguistic properties. Moreover, accessing that English memory may be easier when thinking in English compared to when thinking in Cantonese, a phenomenon called the language dependent recall effect (LDR). Of course, my description of the effect bypasses factors like language proficiency and dominance as well as the period of life and context in which both languages were acquired; these are all factors that could influence the mental mechanics of the effect.

LDR is described in the case studies of clinical psychologists who realized that their bilingual patients sometime needed to switch languages during a session to access parts of their past and discover cathartic moments. I found interest in the effect early in graduate school, through my readings of cognitive scientist, Dr. Viorica Marian. I designed a simple experiment to test whether the LDR effect influenced the quality of recalled memories. I found that Spanish-English bilinguals, who spent their childhood mostly in Spanish, reported more details in their childhood memories when using Spanish than English. I published my findings in a 2015 article titled, the language dependent recall effect influences the number of items recalled in autobiographical memory reports.

This effect does not necessarily mean that moments experienced in Spanish are completely inaccessible when thinking in English. Rather, pieces of that Spanish moment may be left behind as you drag the details up to conscious awareness. As we learn as kids, language is a tool for sharing our past. But, for the bilingual, the specific language tacked to the past, may be the key to revealing many of its layers and even its secrets.

In the Forbidden City in Beijing, China
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