Learning a new language makes it difficult to remember previously learned ones: scientists talk about “retroactive inhibition”

Learning a new language makes it difficult to remember previously learned ones: scientists talk about “retroactive inhibition”

New translations of old words displace knowledge in memory

A study conducted in the Netherlands found that learning new vocabulary in a foreign language can make it more difficult to remember words from another previously learned foreign language. The researchers found that native Dutch speakers who learned Spanish translations of English words they already knew had more difficulty remembering those English words later.

Most people have had the experience of having difficulty remembering information they had previously learned when learning new information. This phenomenon is called retroactive inhibition. This phenomenon works by interfering with the process of memory consolidation. When new information is learned, it can disrupt the stabilization and integration of previously learned information into long-term memory.

This disorder occurs because the brain has limited resources for processing and storing information, and new data competes with old data for these resources. As a result, recalling earlier information becomes more difficult, resulting in decreased performance in remembering that information.

Research has shown that knowledge of different foreign languages ​​competes with each other. Because of this, when, for example, a person who speaks several foreign languages ​​wants to remember a word for a certain object, it often happens that a word in another language comes to mind. In some cases, a person may not remember a word in the desired language at all, especially if he has not used this language for a long time.

Study author Anne Mikan and her colleagues wanted to find out whether and under what circumstances learning a new language inhibits access to previously learned and well-rehearsed words in a foreign language.

The first experiment involved 31 people for whom English was a second language and they did not know Spanish. They first took a vocabulary test to confirm their familiarity with English words. They then learned the Spanish translation of half of these English words, which could potentially affect their retention of the English words. The researchers subsequently assessed how quickly and accurately the participants could recall English words.

The second experiment involved 86 native Dutch speakers who did not participate in the first experiment. They all reported that English was their primary and most frequently used foreign language and did not know Spanish. This experiment replicated the first, except that the initial English language proficiency test was administered the day before participants learned the Spanish words.

After the Spanish class, participants were divided into two groups: one of them took a second English test on the same day, and the other took a second test in English a day later, allowing the researchers to evaluate the impact of overnight reinforcement.

The results showed that learning Spanish words did not affect the accuracy of learning English words; participants were equally accurate regardless of whether they studied the Spanish translations. However, they were faster at recalling English words for which they had not learned Spanish translations. Notably, the group that had an extra day to consolidate their Spanish skills showed a greater difference in recall accuracy and experienced greater acceleration in answering the English vocabulary test, especially for words without a Spanish translation.

“Thus, multilingual people are not wrong in their belief that adding a language to their repertoire, at least in the early stages of learning a new language, will make it difficult to access other foreign languages, even if those languages ​​were learned a long time ago and at a high level of proficiency . Moreover, our results show that these effects are immediate and do not depend critically on the time of consolidation of newly learned language words,” the experts concluded.

The study sheds light on how retroactive inhibition affects language learning. However, it should be noted that the study was conducted only on a sample of words that were learned for the first time and were very close in time to the time of learning. The long-term effects of learning new languages ​​can vary.

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