How Your Native Language Affects Your Memory

Researchers at the University of San Diego have found that the language you speak may determine the quality of your working memory. Running memory tests on participants in eight different cultures around the world, they found a difference in working memory capacity among speakers of various languages. The difference stemmed from the syntax of a typical sentence and how much the speaker must keep in mind before reaching the main point.

The team studied eight languages from Africa, Asia, and Europe. Half of the languages were “Right Branching” (RB), meaning a phrase begins with a subject and expands into detail about that subject (“the man who was sitting at the bus stop”). The other half were “Left Branching” (LB), meaning they begin with details about the subject and lead up to revealing the subject (“who was sitting at the bus stop, the man”). Other examples of LB phrases would be “a full of people room,” “a containing private documents briefcase,” “a satisfied with his work teacher,” “a similar to mine academic career,” “a published in the UK book,” “a born in 2005 Japanese girl,” and “a near Heathrow airport luxury hotel.”

RB languages included Ndonga, Khmer, Thai, and Italian. LB languages were Sidaama, Khoekhoe, Korean, and Japanese. For each language group, the researchers tested 24–30 adult native speakers of both sexes, in three widely used working memory (WM) and three widely used short-term memory (STM) tasks, containing sets of 2–9 numerical, spatial or word stimuli.

They found that native speakers of Left Branching languages had significantly better working memory capacity for items presented early in a memory task, and that native speakers of Right Branching languages had far better memory for items presented later. In other words, the way we speak affects the way we think.

“LB and RB speakers were significantly different in their ability to recall initial and final stimuli, showing a clear link between branching direction and working memory,” the researchers report. “Real-time sentence comprehension relies more heavily on retaining initial information in LB languages but not in RB languages.”

You might be wondering which other languages fall under the category of RB or LB. English is mostly RB but sometimes employs LB structures. Turkish is almost entirely LB, as is Mandarin. You can read more about different languages and their branching structures here.

“The fact that branching and word order may be linked to such a fundamental cognitive process like memory opens up new exciting avenues for psycholinguistic research towards expanding the pool of languages and populations investigated,” the authors conclude.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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