Education and Skills

Bilingual speakers remember things more accurately in their second language, study shows

Yet another benefit of knowing or learning a second language.

Yet another benefit of knowing or learning a second language. Image: Unsplash/sigmund

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Thinking in a foreign language reduces the likelihood of having false memories, a new study finds.
  • The study’s findings could form the basis for further research, for example on the relationship between visual and auditory information.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety addresses the issue of fake online content.

How often have you questioned your memory?

Your answer might be different if you speak more than one language, with new research expanding our understanding of the relationship between memory and bilingualism.

People monitor their memories more closely when using a second language, according to a study published by the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and that means they have fewer false memories. In fact, according to the researchers, thinking in a second language uses a different system of reasoning – one that’s less automatic or instinctive.

“When you're using a second language, it activates this mindset of being more careful with your judgements and your decision making,” said Professor David Gallo, who leads the Memory Research Lab at UChicago. “You might not even be aware that you're doing this.”

Foreign language use can eliminate false memories

False memories occur when you ‘remember’ something that didn’t really happen. The study examined how using a native or foreign language affected people’s susceptibility to these false memories.

The study focused on 120 native Mandarin Chinese speakers who also knew English.

During one experiment that focused on words and memory, the researchers found that individuals were more accurate in identifying false memories when using their foreign language.

In the second part, the native Mandarin speakers watched silent videos of a crime and then listened to audio of the event in English and a separate one in Mandarin, which included some untruths. This experiment found that processing information in a foreign language eliminated false memories.

Infographic illustrating the benefits of a bilingual brain. second language
Bilingualism can reduce dementia risk – but also identify false memories. Image: Hatching Dragons

The benefits of bilingualism

There are many benefits of knowing or learning a second language, including increased attention, improved multitasking, better listening skills and reduced dementia risk.

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What is the World Economic Forum doing to combat Alzheimer's?

The findings of the study on bilingualism have wide-ranging implications for helping the understanding of what information we trust and when. What we take in as fact when we’re functioning on autopilot is different from when we’re thinking actively.

And it could form the basis for further research, for example on the relationship between visual and auditory information.

Fake news, false information, harmful content and bad online behaviour are an increasing part of our digital lives. The World Economic Forum’s Global Coalition for Digital Safety brings together leaders to accelerate public-private cooperation to address this and promote a safer online environment.

It advocates for creating a common language for online harms that can underpin discussions about them and it has published The Typology of Online Harms to facilitate a common understanding.

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