The Voices Within

On the voices in our heads

Martha's memories

Lifelong links between memory and language.

In the last few years I have spent a lot of time talking to my grandmother, Martha, about the past. Armed with a digital voice recorder, I have interviewed her about her memories of her childhood in the East End of London, her experiences during the Blitz, and other details of a life that has spanned almost a century. It has been a very special project for me, and I got a chance to write about it recently in a piece for the Guardian:

"It is a cliché that the elderly are stuck in the past, able to remember events clearly from decades before but amnesic about what happened days or even hours ago. All of us are susceptible to the 'reminiscence bump', whereby events from your late teens and early twenties stick in memory better than anything else. Nanna's testimonies sample this time period very thoroughly, such as in her recollections of meeting my grandfather at the Labour League of Youth, or of coming out of a cinema in Loughton and smelling the cordite from a bomb that had dropped just up the street. Sometimes she can go even further back, remembering being five years old and teaching her bright, resilient, Yiddish-speaking mother to read and write in English. Different explanations have been put forward to explain the reminiscence bump, including the idea that your youth is remembered better simply because that's when the big events in your life will have tended to happen. For Nanna, the great upheavals mostly happened before the Second World War, and so that's where the story of her life has its focus."

The article goes on to describe how I recently tried a variation to my usual interviewing technique. One fundamental principle of memory, encoding specificity, means that information is recalled better if it is recalled in the same context as it was learned. In the case of someone born into an immigrant community, one crucial contextual factor is language. I had been reading a study of memory1 in a sample of twenty young Russian immigrants to the US who had left their home country in their teens. The participants recalled more memories from their childhoods when they were interviewed in Russian, compared to when the interview language was English. In a second experiment, the researchers independently manipulated the language of the memory cues and the language of the interview (for example, one condition might involve English cue words embedded in an interview that was otherwise conducted in Russian). They concluded that the interview language and cue language made separate contributions to the language-specific access to autobiographical memories, such that the effect was strongest when both the cues and the ambient language matched the memories.

Similar findings have been reported in a number of other studies2. In one recent report3, researchers worked with 18 native speakers of Japanese who were now studying at a Florida university. When cued with Japanese words, these bilinguals recalled more memories than when cued in English, and they also recalled memories from earlier in their lives. One respondent observed:

If you give me a word baby, I see pictures in my head of the kids that I babysat in America. If you give me a word akachan, images of my friends' babies that I have seen in pictures come to my mind—they are Japanese. (ibid., p. 378)

Matching the language of recall to the language spoken when the events happened seems to unlock otherwise inaccessible memories. In my case I also had to ask whether Nanna remembered the language, Yiddish, that I assumed would be associated with her earliest memories. Research shows a great deal of variation in how well people retain their mastery of a language spoken decades earlier. Some forget their native tongue completely, while others seem to revert to it naturally as they get old. This latter phenomenon is known as language reversion, and it may result from the second language becoming forgotten while the speaker's grasp of the first language strengthens with age4, 5.

In the end, I realised that Yiddish had probably not been as big a part of Martha's life as I had originally thought. I myself remember hearing bits of Yiddish as I grew up—I will still accuse a mischievous child of shmeikhlt vi a vantz (grinning like a bedbug), echoing the phrase I used to hear as a child. But Nanna did not actually talk a whole lot of Yiddish in her own childhood, preferring to converse with her brothers and friends in English. As a result, the switch of language did not make a huge amount of difference to her remembering—although, as you will see from the article, we did uncover at least one interesting new detail about her past.

I will be talking some more about my interviews with Martha on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Friday 22 April.

[Note added 4 Feb 2013: a link to the Radio 4 interview is here.]

1 Marian, V., & Neisser, U. (2000). Language-dependent recall of autobiographical memories. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 129(3), 361-368. doi:10.1037/0096-3445.129.3.361

2 Larsen, S. F., Schrauf, R. W., Fromholt, P., & Rubin, D. C. (2002). Inner speech and bilingual autobiographical memory: A Polish-Danish cross-cultural study. Memory, 10(1), 45. doi:10.1080/09658210143000218

3 Matsumoto, A., & Stanny, C. (2006). Language-dependent access to autobiographical memory in Japanese-English bilinguals and US - monolinguals. Memory, 14(3), 378. doi:10.1080/09658210500365763

4 Schmid, M. S., & Keijzer, M. (2009). First language attrition and reversion among older migrants. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2009(200), 83-101. doi:10.1515/IJSL.2009.046

5 Bot, K. D., & Clyne, M. (1989). Language Reversion Revisited. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 11(02), 167-177. doi:10.1017/S0272263100000590

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Charles Fernyhough is a Professor of Psychology at Durham University and author of Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Pasts.

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