Bilingual immigrants recall childhood memories better in mother tongue

March 04, 2001

CHICAGO --- Bilingual immigrants recall childhood events better and in more detail in their mother tongue than in their adopted language.

Such memories are also more salient and emotional, said Robert W. Schrauf, a psychological anthropologist at Northwestern University Medical School. He believes one explanation for this, a cognitive one, is that remembering is "state dependent" - that is, memory has language.

Schrauf, a research assistant professor in the Buehler Center on Aging, has been studying cognitive patterns in bilinguals for several years. An article on his research on bilingual autobiographical memory recently was published the journal Culture & Psychology.

"There is a tantalizing array of evidence, from formal and experimental to informal and testimonial, that suggests that becoming bicultural and speaking two languages has the 'feel' of living in two worlds and perhaps of being different persons in those worlds," Schrauf said.

"Studying bilingual memory opens a unique window onto the relationship of language and memory," he said. Results of Schrauf's studies may have major significance in the treatment of bilingual patients in psychological therapy and aging bilingual patients and immigrants who develop Alzheimer's disease.

The number of foreign-born immigrants living in the United States tripled from 1970 through 1998, totaling over 26 million in 2001. Three million of these individuals are 65 and older.

Schrauf noted that prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among the nation's aging immigrant population is at least equal to that of natives. Therefore, it is highly likely that a growing number of older immigrants will have Alzheimer's disease.

Research shows that for persons with Alzheimer's disease, the detailed recollection of personal events is compromised during the progression of the disease and is increasingly focused on events from youth and childhood.

Research by Schrauf and others has shown that the person who immigrates as an adult undergoes considerable cognitive change from the first half of life to the second. Memories of childhood and youth are stored under one set of conditions - mother tongue, life in the homeland - and are remembered under a different set of conditions - second language, adopted country.

Because stimulating memories in the mother tongue leads to specific, detailed and emotionally salient recollections of the personal past, these memories may "jump start" further recollection of past events and open a window onto a past that might otherwise remain dim, Schrauf said.

"Since knowing who we are is so critically tied to our stories about the past, the identification of key factors that optimize autobiographical retrieval will assist in the testing and evaluation of cognitive impairments and the development of appropriate 'reminiscence' therapies for patients suffering from Alzheimer's disease," he said.

Schrauf and collaborator David Rubin of Duke University recently received a grant from the National Institute on Aging to investigate the memories of people who migrated and learned a second language as adults. With researchers in the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center of Northwestern University and the Alzheimer's Association, he also is developing support programs for patients with Alzheimer's disease and their families at Casa Central, Chicago's largest Hispanic social service agency.

Northwestern University

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