Autobiographical memories, ‘linguacultures’ and words in specific languages

Some years ago, I was at a party with a Japanese woman, whom I’ll call “Yoko.” As an adult, Yoko had lived many years in a European country and come close to marrying a man there. When Yoko described her motivation for leaving and rebuilding a life in Japan, the reason she gave appeared to be linguistic in a very specific way, explaining that she wanted to be an “okaasan” not a “mother,” moving her hands as if framing the Japanese word for the maternal role and setting it down in front of her. She wasn’t focused so much on divergences in child-rearing practices or familial bonds as much as the word “okaasan” itself.

Yoko’s adherence to “okaasan” seems related to research on autobiographical memory. The applied linguists Robert Schrauf and David Rubin emphasize the notion of “linguacultures,” the fusing of language and culture. When adult bilinguals recall the past, it is only fully accessed in terms of detail and emotion through the mother tongue. They write, “It would be surprising if single words … would have the ability to cue the ‘linguaculturally saturated’ character of memories … but they do.” “Okaasan” triggers a linguacultural response in Yoko that “mother” doesn’t, and it’s one she clearly values.

Research specifically on Japanese bilinguals appears to back up Schrauf and Rubin’s assertions. Experimental psychologists Akiko Matsumoto and Claudia Stanny made a study of the autobiographical recall of Japanese students in the United States when cued in Japanese and English and compared their responses with English-monolingual American students cued only in English. In particular, Matsumoto and Stanny were interested in how the language of the cue words affected the triggering of particular memories. The Japanese students were given cue cards with 20 random words in Japanese and 20 in English.

The words comprised a wide range of nouns, like “salad,” “fur,” “church,” “kindness,” and “hostage.” The American students were given the same words, in English only. The students were asked to recall the earliest personal memory that was triggered by each word. Matsumoto and Stanny also noted the language in which the memories were encoded.

The number of memories produced from the cue cards was roughly the same. The American students recalled an average of 26.9 memories from the 40 cued words, and the Japanese came up with an average of 25.7. However, Japanese-cued memories were much greater in number than English-cued memories for the Japanese respondents and were much more likely to evoke memories encoded in Japanese. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the English cue words were more likely to trigger English memories and vice-versa, with an average of 5.8, compared to 3.4 for Japanese-activated memories, and 10.1 Japanese recollections as opposed to 5.8 English ones following Japanese cues.

Matsumoto and Stanny also timed how long it took the respondents to access their memories. It took the Japanese students somewhat longer to find memories than the American students — an average of 11 seconds compared to 6.3 seconds. The difference in recollection times based on the language of the cue words did not vary much, but was slightly longer when retrieving memories from Japanese cue words (11.65 seconds) than English (10.32 seconds).

A related question is — apart from experiments that instruct us to do so — what might inspire us to summon up autobiographical memories? Psychologists Yoichi Maki, Yayoi Kawasaki, Burcu Demiray and Steve Janssen conducted a study focusing on the autobiographical memories of Japanese students in Japanese only, investigating the function of memories. They made use of the Japanese version of the Thinking About Life Experiences questionnaire (TALE) created by Susan Bluck, Nicole Alea, Tilmann Habermas and David Rubin, and compared their results with those of Bluck and her colleagues who investigated American students.

TALE provides respondents with the beginning of a statement: “I think back over or talk about my life or certain periods of my life” and different endings to the statement. These endings fell into three functional categories: “directing behavior,” for example, “when I want to learn from my past mistakes”; “self-continuity,” such as, “when I want to understand how I have changed from who I was before”; and “social bonding,” with items like, “when I want to develop a closer relationship with someone.” The respondents were instructed to rate these completed statements from 1 (never) to 6 (very frequently).

The Japanese students’ responses had an average rating that was lower for all functions. “Social bonding” appeared the most prevalent of the three functions for both cultural groups, garnering an average of 4.12 for the Americans and 3.85 for the Japanese. For the Japanese students, “directing behavior” came second, with a mean of 3.72 compared to the Americans’ average of 3.84. For “self-continuity,” the mean score for the Americans was 3.94 compared to the Japanese students at 3.60.

Maki and his co-researchers next asked the Japanese students to come up with their most recent memory for each of the three functions, using one each of the TALE items. Recall was low: 51.2% could not report a memory related to any of the three functions and 32.8% came up with a memory for just one of the functions. Only 13.5% could retrieve a memory corresponding to two of the functions, and a measly 2.4% provided a memory associated with each of the three purposes.

The researchers conclude that Japanese people may use their autobiographical memories less often for “psychosocial” functions, and that, generally speaking, autobiographical memories may play a less central role than for Americans. I wonder if Yoko’s emphasis on “okaasan” might suggest a slightly different function, not so much “directing behavior” or “self-continuity” as “self-reflection and development,” making use of autobiographical memories as a fertile source of new potential identities. The autobiographical memories generated by “okaasan” seem to have exerted a compelling tug on her vision of her life in the future.

When Yoko spoke about the word “okaasan” at the party, we were in a group of about four or five people. One was a man whom she married a few years later, and a few years after that had a son with. Her autobiographical memories evoked by “okaasan” are now no doubt even richer.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.