Bilingual Episodic Memory and Eye-Witness Testimony

By Ketaki A. Tongaonkar
2017, Vol. 9 No. 02 | pg. 2/2 |

The Role of Language in Episodic Memories and Eye-Witness Testimonies

The organization of memories in the mind is determined by language. This is truer for bilinguals. Whether memory is selectively accessed in one language, or if both languages are accessed during recall because that is the way that the memories have been organized changes the way that the memories are remembered and consequently reported (Bartolotti & Marian, 2012).

The structure of the language itself changes the way that an event gets reported. For example, Spanish language users describe events using non-agentive language, whereas English language users describe events using agentive language. It changes the perception of the event entirely, as well as the blame that gets assigned. Similarly, the wording of the questions changes the way that eye-witnesses respond. In a study that was conducted, “how fast were the cars going when they crashed into each other?” got very different answers from the question “how fast were the cars going when they hit each other?” The subtle changes in the wording of the question change the perception of the event in the mind of the eye-witness, and consequently shift their answer to align with the question. This is true for bilinguals too. The language of questioning makes a difference to the case (Schroeder & Marian). This is due to a phenomenon known as encoding specificity.

According to this phenomenon, memory recall is improved when the contextual clues present at the time of encoding are also present during retrieval. Similarly, episodic memories are more easily and accurately recalled in the language that they were encoded in than in another language (Bartolotti & Marian, 2012). The knowledge of two languages and the subsequent retrieval and recounting of episodic memories requires a shift in perspective from the present to the past. This ability to shift, and the awareness of the shift, known as autonoetic consciousness is a crucial process in eye-witness testimony. The right kind of environment needs to be provided to individuals to ensure accuracy of retrieval (Hassabis & Maguire, 2007).

A certain language specific mechanism is trying to establish the idea that the language that a person speaks shapes the way that the individual thinks and behaves (Kay & Kempton, 1984). The linguistic structure and cultural associations influence perceptions of the world. This has resulted in the hypothesis that memories are cued by a particular way of thinking or acting characterised by the primary language being used, influenced by the second language spoken by bilinguals (Schroeder & Marian).


Language guides our every thought, perception and action. The knowledge and use of two languages implies there is an inter-play of the two languages that shape thought processes, perceptions and actions. One of the major aspects of the brain that is impacted by bilingualism is the formation and retrieval of memories, specifically episodic memories. Depending on the linguistic context that is present at the time, the encoding process changes in accordance with the syntax, phonetics, grammar, and cultural aspects of the language. Consequently, the retrieval process too, is influenced by the linguistic context (among other factors). present at the time of recall. Through a process known as encoding specificity, it has been established that similar linguistic and external contexts make the retrieval of specific episodic memories easier and more accurate in bilingual individuals.

Since episodic memories record events that can be pinned down to a specific location and time, they are greatly relied upon to help in court cases through eye-witness testimony. The reliability of episodic memory is called into questions because of the malleable nature of memories and the easy falsification of memories through suggestive questioning, or simply, the passage of time. However, with the right processes, it is possible to elicit accurate memories from individuals taking into account their individual perceptions and influences. With bilinguals, the process becomes complicated due to the presence of two linguistic influences that shape bilingual thoughts and perceptions in a unique way.

Special care needs to be taken when extracting memories from bilingual minds, keeping in mind encoding specificity, and the use of language that will yield very different results in response to subtle differences in the way that bilingual witnesses are questioned. There is a great need for further research in this field. Multiple researchers have established relationships between bilingualism and episodic memory, and episodic memory and eye-witness testimony accuracy. However, there is almost no data available on the structure of bilingual episodic memory and the consequent impact it has on eye-witness testimony accuracy. In today’s world, a very large percentage of people are bilingual or multilingual, which makes this an extremely relevant and necessary topic for empirically established research.


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