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Research: Bilingualism and memory recall

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In a new study published in the academic journal Science Advances, linguistic researchers explore the relationship between bilingualism and the brain’s memory functions.

The peer-reviewed study by researchers from the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Northwestern University, specifically sought to explore recollection and identification processes in bilingual individuals, compared to monolingual counterparts. 

Previous research in this area has shown that homophones (words with similar pronunciation but different meanings) can directly impact the brain’s ability to remember and store words. 

Words with a greater amount of homophones generally have a slower recollection time, and in this case the researchers wanted to explore this trend among speakers of two or more languages. 

In this study, researchers Matias Fernandez-Duque, Sayuri Hayakawa and Viorica Marian focused on episodic memory (specific events and their contexts, usually prompted by imagery, sounds or words) and tested 84 bilingual Spanish-English speakers and 42 monolingual English speakers. The participants were asked to complete a visual search test while their eye movements were tracked.

During the test, names of objects were called out in English and individuals had to identify the connecting image from a set of four images. The images included words with competing sounds. 

For example, the word ‘clock’ would be called out and the accompanying images would include a clock, an image identifying the competing word such as ‘clown’, and an image of a competing word in the second language, for example ‘clavo’ (nail in Spanish).

The team found that monolinguals could more easily locate the correct image than bilinguals. This could be explained by a fewer number of stored words to process amongst the images. 

Results also suggested that bilingual people with a greater proficiency in Spanish, showed a preference towards images that competed in Spanish, while participants with a lower proficiency in Spanish produced the same results as monolingual individuals.

Additionally, the researchers observed that monolingual people spent longer looking at English-competing images.

Testing memory recall in bilingual individuals, the researchers found that participants were able to remember words more effectively when there was a competing word in English.  With their ultimate findings, the researchers suggested that this could show that memory recollection is cohesive with greater cognitive function or higher nonverbal IQ predictors.

“Our finding that within-language competitors are remembered better than control items is consistent with research showing that feature overlap with targets during visual search can facilitate encoding of competitor items into memory,” the researchers explained in the study. 

“Our results show that phonological competition during visual search affects long-term memory. This adds to the small but growing body of evidence that coactivated labels during speech comprehension can have long-term consequences for higher-order processes such as memory.”

“Our study provides evidence of significant interactivity in the cognitive system, not only across different languages but also across domains of cognitive function.”



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