, Volume 28, Issue 4, pp 616-623

Internal languages of retrieval: The bilingual encoding of memories for the personal past


In contrast to most research on bilingual memory that focuses on how words in either lexicon are mapped onto memory for objects and concepts, we focus on memory for events in the personal past. Using a word-cue technique in sessions devoted exclusively to one language, we found that older Hispanic immigrants who had come to the United States as adults internally retrieved autobiographical memories in Spanish for events in the country of origin and in English for events in the U.S. These participants were consistently capable of discerning whether a memory had come to them “in words” or not, reflecting the distinction between purely imagistic or conceptual memories and specifically linguistic memories. Via examination of other phenomenological features of these memories (sense of reliving, sensory detail, emotionality, and rehearsal), we conclude that the linguistic/nonlinguistic distinction is fundamental and independent of these other characteristics. Bilinguals encode and retrieve certain autobiographical memories in one or the other language according to the context of encoding, and these linguistic characteristics are stable properties of those memories over time.

This research was supported by National Institute of Aging Grant 1R01 AG16340-01A1.