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Bilingual Memory

The three autobiographies of Vladimir Nabokov.

Post written by Aneta Pavlenko.

It is a great honor and a privilege to share this blog with François Grosjean, whose book, Life with two languages, inspired me to study bilingualism; who, years later, helped me publish my first article; and who has now found a new means for a general conversation about bilingualism. My first entry is inspired by François’ reflections on writing his new book in French (see here). I wanted to look at another instance where changing language leads to a different book but this time the book is an autobiography of one of the most famous multilingual writers of the 20th century (see here).

Born in 1899, in a wealthy aristocratic Russian family, Vladimir Nabokov was raised in three languages: Russian, French, beloved by Russian aristocracy, and English, highly esteemed by his Anglophile father. In 1919, the family, forced to flee from the Russian revolution, moved to England, where Vladimir attended Cambridge, and then made a home in Berlin. By the time Nabokov arrived in the U.S. in 1940, he had been writing in Russian for more than three decades and publishing for two yet he is primarily known as an English-language writer. Nabokov’s mastery of English was such that he never hesitated at writing his memoir in English, but the task turned out to be extremely challenging even for this master stylist, due to the tension between the language of the memories (primarily Russian) and the language of the telling (English).

His memoir, entitled Conclusive Evidence, came out in 1951 and Nabokov was already working on Lolita, when a newly founded Russian-language publishing house asked for a translation of one of his English-language novels. He offered his memoir instead. The translation for an audience of Russian émigrés made many explanations unnecessary but the use of his childhood language also triggered new memories, akin to the Proustian madeleine. Now that his words and memories were in sync, Nabokov recalled more details and events, and with more precision. The new book was published under the title Drugie berega [Other shores] in 1954.

Then, Nabokov felt compelled to revise his English-language memoir, guided by the changes made in the Russian version and by the reminiscences and documents he had received from his sisters and his genealogically-minded cousin Sergey. In the preface to the new memoir, published in 1966 as Speak memory: An autobiography revisited, Nabokov acknowledges the agonizing difficulty of fitting his Russian memories back into the straitjacket of English: “This re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place, proved to be a diabolical task...” (pp. 12-13). These comments raise an interesting question: What is the relationship between languages and memories in bilingual and multilingual speakers? Surely, we remember ourselves in images and not in words?

The answers to these questions are furnished by recent research on bilingual autobiographical memory, where bilingual participants are given word cues and asked what autobiographical events come to their mind in association with these words. Cues in different languages are given on different days and the results are compared to see whether there are any meaningful links between autobiographical memory and language (see here for an earlier post on this topic). To make the comparison easier, these studies are commonly conducted with people who learned one language in childhood and the other one later in life, in another country. What the researchers find, time and again, is that the first language of these bilinguals is more likely to trigger memories of childhood events and the country of origin, and the second language memories of events that took place later in life.

These findings suggest that our languages and memories are integrated in two interesting ways. On the one hand, language used during particular events becomes a stable property or "tag" of autobiographical memories—when we recall events in the language in which they took place they come to memory faster and in more detail, as seen in Nabokov’s Other shores. This does not mean, of course, that memories encoded in one language are inaccessible in another—we can translate our memories, as Nabokov did, yet something may be "lost in translation."

This intangible "something" is the feeling of a seamless concord between words and things. In languages learned in childhood, words are integrated with autobiographical events, emotions, images, smells, and sensations, which is what makes them feel so "real." Words learned in the classroom are not linked to experiences in the same unmediated way, and words learned in interaction later in life are linked to experiences differently, because by then we learn to suppress our emotions. And so, when memory is asked to speak, Nabokov’s memory of his childhood speaks Russian and so does my own. I would be very curious to hear what languages the readers of this blog remember their childhood in.

Dr. Aneta Pavlenko is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Temple University.


Nabokov, V. (1966) Speak, memory: An autobiography revisited. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Pavlenko, A. (2014) The bilingual mind and what it tells us about language and thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.