Bilingualism. Memory, and Emotion

by Hugh Knickerbocker and Jeanette Altarriba
University at Albany, State University of New York

Several models of bilingual memory describe the interplay between lexical and semantic stores of memory in bilingual individuals attempting to comprehend and produce speech. However, while these models have emphasized the pattern of connections between general linguistic and semantic clusters across languages, only a small amount of work has investigated the perception of emotion across languages. Numerous lines of research have showcased emotion effects and have provided insight into the effects of emotion and language on semantic and autobiographical memory.

Multiple studies have investigated the automatic activation of emotion words across first (L1) and second (L2) languages. The findings of these studies are heavily influenced by the pattern of language dominance exhibited by the sample of participants. Procedures such as the Stroop task, where participants report the presentation color of a word rather than the word itself (e.g., the word ‘fear’ presented in the color blue is responded to more slowly, as opposed to the word ‘box’ in the color blue), or priming, where response to a target word is faster when it is preceded by a related prime word (e.g., participants respond faster to ‘depressed’ when primed by ‘sad’) as compared to an unrelated word, have shown similar emotion effects when bilinguals are fluent and regularly use both languages (Fazio, Sanbonmatsu, Powell, & Kardes, 1986; Sutton, Altarriba, Gianico, & Basnight-Brown, 2007). However, emotion effects can be limited to one language if bilinguals have a clear dominant language.

Research into the automatic processing of emotional language has led to even more interesting insights into the structure of autobiographical memory in bilingual individuals. Research has utilized skin conductance response (SCR) where changes in the conductivity of the skin are measured as an indication of autonomic nervous system responses. Stressors should result in an autonomic nervous system response that can be detected by monitoring sweat levels on the skin. Increases in sweat increase the conductance across participants’ skin. Bilingual research using SCR measures provides insight into the automatic processing of emotion across L1 and L2. This research has found that late learners of L2 exhibited SCR effects to emotion words (e.g., sadness) in both their L2 and L1, but only exhibited SCR effects for reprimands (e.g., shame on you) when they were presented in their L1. During debriefing interviews, participants reported unique automatic memory retrievals from their youth when presented with reprimands. These memories were typically events where participants were reprimanded as children by a family member or other authority figure. These findings provided strong evidence of the existence of language-specific memories that can best be retrieved through the use of a specific language (Harris, 2004; Harris, Ayçiçeği, & Berko-Gleason, 2003).

Research into conscious retrieval and autobiographical memory has also provided evidence of language-specific memories. Investigations have found that memories tend to be more available for retrieval in the language in which they originally occurred. Bilinguals generally provide memories with a greater level of detail and elaboration when retrieving a memory in the language in which the event occurred. Studies of the autobiographical memory of bilingual immigrants who changed their daily language usage as a result of emigrating have bolstered this view. This research has examined the ‘reminiscence bump’ which is a time period between the approximate ages of 10 and 30 that results in a greater number of autobiographical memories. The reminiscence bump tended to shift to match the time period of emigration. More interesting, the memories of the participants were clearly divided between their two known languages. Memories before immigration (and the reminiscence bump) were stored in participants’ original language. Later memories that were from a post-immigration period were stored and more easily retrievable in the language that participants were forced to switch to as a result of their immigration event (Schrauf, & Rubin, 1998, 2000, 2001).

The processing of emotional speech by bilinguals has already begun to clarify some of the idiosyncrasies of semantic and autobiographical memory retrieval and structure. We now know that emotional stimuli can have the same impact regardless of language, as long as participants have similar levels of fluency and daily usage in all known languages. However, some emotional connections remain unique and highlight features of autobiographical memory.

Fazio, R. H., Sanbonmatsu, D. M., Powell, M. C., & Kardes, F. R. (1986). On the automatic activation of attitudes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 229-238.

Harris, C. L. (2004). Bilingual speakers in the lab: Psychophysiological measures of emotional reactivity. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 25, 223-247.

Harris, C. L., Ayçiçeği, A., & Berko-Gleason, J. B. (2003). Taboo words and reprimands elicit greater autonomic reactivity in a first language than in a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 24, 561-579.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (1998). Bilingual autobiographical memory in older adult immigrants: A test of cognitive explanations of the reminiscence bump and the linguistic encoding of memories. Journal of Memory and Language, 39, 437-457.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2000). Internal languages of retrieval: The bilingual encoding of memories for the personal past. Memory & Cognition, 28, 616-623.

Schrauf, R. W., & Rubin, D.C. (2001). Effects of voluntary immigration on the distribution of autobiographical memory over the lifespan. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 15, S75-S88.

Sutton, T. M., Altarriba, J., Gianico, J. L., & Basnight-Brown, D. M. (2007). The automatic access of emotion: Emotional Stroop effects in Spanish-English bilingual speakers. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 1077-1090.


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