Language and memory

Some memories seem to be language-specific. For example, while working in Taipei I memorised various local addresses and phone numbers in Mandarin. If you asked me for such information in another language, e.g. English, I’d have to think of it in Mandarin first, then translate in my head. Similarly I know the contact details of Radio Cymru (the Welsh language radio station) in Welsh, but would have to mentally translate them first to give you them in English.

While in Taiwan, I drifted into the wonderful world of IT. Most of the things I learnt about computers were in Mandarin. So when I returned to the UK, I had to learn some of the terminology again, but this time in English. Has anybody had similar experiences of learning something in a foreign language, then having to relearn it in their native tongue?

When languages die, is the knowledge that people have built up over countless generations lost? Some of that knowledge may be translated into the new languages people adopt, but this is not always the case.

14 thoughts on “Language and memory

  1. I think I am too young for that to happen, but I had a similar experience with random words when I went to Quebec. While my stay there for two months, I had already forgotten much of the basic words which I knew in Tagalog and English. The word suitcase, for example, I knew in French, but I had forgotten their counterparts in the other languages.

    Whenever I am unfamiliar with a certain term and learn it, sometimes I must relearn of how to express the same concept in a different language. Or perhaps I may feel something in Tagalog that I can’t seem to express properly in English, thinking that certain words in their own language carry a distinctive ambience to them. Certain memories, I know first in French or Tagalog, and then I would have to translate it in my head before explaining in English that moment.

    It seems a little bit of the Sapir-Worf hypothesis working here. And of course, random bloggage! ^_^

  2. i’ve just realised this thing from the age of 16..
    there’s no perfection in translating a word..

    for example..
    the word “public” in English, usually translated with “masyarakat” in Indonesian, but actually the word “masyarakat” itself equal with “society” in English..

    that’s how limited a language when we use it to do some translation tasks..

    and i have one question for the webmaster, how many languages you’ve mastered..?? i’m too curious about that..

  3. I’m fluent in English and Mandarin Chinese, fairly fluent in French, have a conversational ability in eight others languages, and a basic knowledge of about ten others. I can read thirteen languages.

  4. (My comments are about one language causing a person to forget a words/structures in another language)

    I’m a foreign language translator, and my job does not require any spoken proficiency in any foreign language.

    In addition to English, I can *read* five other languages with decent comprehension (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Hebrew). I’m mostly self-taught out of books, but I studied Spanish and Hebrew in high school & university. Unfortunately, out of those five languages, I can only speak broken Hebrew, and severely broken Spanish.

    I’m frustrated that I’m not really fluent in any language other than English (and some might argue with that), and I’m considering a Rosetta Stone Course, but I’m concerned that I would sacrifice my ability (low is it may be) in another language I already know. Is this a real fear? Simon, have you lost any existing language ability as a result of learning a new language? (I wonder if my Spanish is so bad now because I studied Hebrew after studying Spanish).

  5. I don’t think learning a new language will necessarily reduce your ability in other languages, as long as you continue to practise using the languages you’ve already learnt. Finding opportunities to do this can be tricky though.

    That’s what I haven’t done with French, German and Japanese – I used to understand, speak, read and write them pretty well, but my abilities have atrophied due to lack of practise. Of these three, my French is best because I’ve spent more time in French-speaking countries, incluing three months working in France after leaving school. If I spent enough time immersed in any of these languages, I think my abilities would come back.

  6. Well, you’ve inspired me to work on one of my languages (or maybe try a new language) and try to become proficient. I just saw an ad on TV for the Rosetta Stone programs, and they look intriguing.

    Just out of curiosity, do you think there is a natural limit to the number of languages a person can master? How many languages can one person learn fluently? Are there any studies about this?

  7. I am fluent in only English and Esperanto (not counting my own languages). I agree with Simon as far as linguistic atrophy. I can read (and if I am up on my practice) write Latin. Even when I am not using it (for weeks at a time sometimes) I still have the inner workings of the language in the back of my mind (grammar and such). However, the longer I put it off, the more vocab I have to re-remember. Is it like that for you, Simon? Or anyone else? Perhaps this is why unused languages come back when they are called upon.

  8. Adam – I’m not sure whether a person can master only a certain number of languages. You hear of people who claim to speak many languages – apparently there’s some guy in Brazil who speaks over 50 for example – but somehow I doubt if they are equally proficient in all of them. I suppose it depends on your definition of ‘mastering’ a language.

    It would be great if I could be fluent in all the languages I’ve studied, but I realise this is perhaps an unrealistic ambition. So I’m aiming for fluency in Welsh and Spanish, and maybe a few others.

    According to the Multiligual Children’s Association (, raising a child to speak more than four languages is difficult as they don’t get enough exposure to each language.

    Thomas – my experiences are similar to yours: due to lack of use, vocab tends to get filed away in the depths of my memory and becomes difficult to retrive quickly. I read somewhere that even if you think you’ve completely forgotten a language, about 70% of it is still in your head just waiting to be reactivated.

    My brother is finding this at the moment – he’s sailing round the world and is currently somewhere near Panama. He’s been trying to communicate with the locals in what he calls ‘Spench’ – a mixture of Spanish, French, English and mime – but his Spanish, which he studied in Guatemala, is starting to come back to him.

  9. I’m currently studying Spanish in school, and have been for three years. I must admit I’ve had an addiction to languages and alphabets ever since I created my first writing system at the age of ten. Since then I’ve created roughly ten working alphabetic writing systems, none of which I’m quite satisfied with. I also tried to create my own language, maybe three or four times, but found it a substantially more difficult task. In addition to my studies in Spanish, I became interested in Italian (due in part to my paternal grandmother’s limited knowledge of a Northern Italian dialect, which neither of us can identify-her parents were from Lombardy). I picked up a translation dictionary and a Berlitz self-teacher. I studied it voraciously, and was able to maintain a clear distinction in my mind between Spanish and Italian (with the exception of accidently saying “citta'” in class instead of “ciudad”). My interest waned as I began to notice and look into Irish Gaelic (my paternal grandfather is Irish, but with no knowledge of Gaeilge). After studying it on and off through the internet (a strictly amateur course), I purchased a dictionary and a Teach-Yourself Irish book with audio discs. It does not affect my Spanish to any noticeable extent (though due to vast gap in pronunciation difficulty between the two, I must admit that Spanish has become a bit easier to speak), but I find it more difficult to memorise Irish vocabulary.

  10. I have definitely experienced interference from one language while trying to speak another. I studied Spanish for 4 years in high school and 3 years at the University level. I was never fluent, but I could communicate whenever I visited Mexico.

    Later, when I was studying Hebrew in an instensive language school in Israel (8 hours a day, 6 days a week), a few of us had the privilege of meeting with a group of Basque linguists from Spain, who were interested in reviving the Basque language. They were visiting Israel to speak with Hebrew linguists, because Hebrew is (I think) the only language in history known to have been revived from it’s “dead language” status.

    As we were introduced to the Basque linguists through a Hebrew-Spanish interpreter, I thought I would start out in Hebrew, and then impress all of them by switching to Spanish. Big mistake. On every third word or so, I would just unconsciously slip back into Hebrew. I couldn’t even plan a Spanish sentence in my head and then say it. It came out like this: Me llamo Adam y estoy סטודנט מאמריקה.

    However, I did notice that when I spoke Hebrew, and then heard the translator say my words in Spanish, I could understand him almost perfectly.

    So I think most of the knowledge is still buried there somewhere deep. at least, I hope that’s the case :-). But after reading Simon’s story, and those of Omniglot visitors, I’m also thinking that it depends a lot on individual skill, which maybe I don’t have.

  11. I have recently been having trouble remebering the word “notebook” in English. English is my native tongue. but I am bilingual in English and Spanish. It came up in a conversation with a friend of mine, when I realized while talking about something or other that I had totally forgotten the word notebook so instead, in the middle of my sentence came the word “cuaderno” instead. My friend thought I was kidding, when I had to describe the object and ask him what the English word was 🙂

  12. To answer the original question (sorry I’m late to the party), absolutely! My primary language is English, but I recently completed a three year Laurea program in Applied Linguistics in Italy. I never learned the terminology in English, so I definitely have to think before speaking about anything related to linguistics in English.

  13. I grew up with both English and French, and there are some words that come more naturally to me in French than in English. For example, I’ve referred to mushrooms as “champignons” while speaking English, and I tend to refer to the color maroon as “bordeaux.”

    Once I was trying to talk about a building that had scaffolding around it, and I could only come up with “echafaud.”

    One of my cousins has pointed out that I tend to code switch more often when I’m tired or upset.

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