6/29/2018 Katie E. Machen

Analyzing Bilingual Autobiographical Memory

How does speaking two languages affect the way we remember and retell our personal experiences?

To answer this question, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics Jessica Cox and her previous Hackman Scholars recorded more than 80 oral narratives of bilingual English and Spanish speakers from the Franklin & Marshall College and Lancaster communities. Now, two new Hackman Scholars, rising junior Vicente Brambila, from Los Angeles, and rising sophomore Lily Rodriguez, from Miami, have stayed on campus this summer to assist with the project.

“A person who is bilingual has twice the resources to think back on something,” said Cox. “If you see a word in English, will you remember the event in English or Spanish?” 

  • Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics Jessica Cox and her two Hackman Scholars, Vicente Brambila ’20 and Lilian Rodriguez ’21, study "Bilingual Autobiographical Memory." Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics Jessica Cox and her two Hackman Scholars, Vicente Brambila ’20 and Lilian Rodriguez ’21, study "Bilingual Autobiographical Memory." Image Credit: Deb Grove

Cox presented the interviewees with cue words, like “hand” or “lonely” to provoke them to think of a specific memory. Depending on the language in which the cue word was presented, Cox, Brambila and Rodriguez, each bilingual in English and Spanish, analyze the recordings to see how the interviewees chose to express their narratives. They mark the places where they code-switch, or go back and forth between Spanish and English, in their storytelling.

“If a bilingual person knows the person they’re talking with is also bilingual, they [might] code-switch, but if they’re in a setting that’s monolingual, there’s less of it,” explained Brambila, a government and economics joint major with a minor in Spanish.

“It’s really interesting and also hands-on work. In some of the interviews, the code-switching happens very naturally,” Brambila said. “Since I’m bilingual, I tend to code-switch a lot. I can do it with Professor Cox and Lily because they understand what I’m saying regardless; it is not a burden to what I can express.”

“Hearing the stories of the participants is very interesting, but I also like reading articles on code-switching and the research behind it,” said Rodriguez, who was connected to Cox by Assistant Professor of Psychology Josh Rottman when she worked in his psychology lab.

“I found details pertaining to my home community in Miami — I might code-switch at home more than I do here,” she said.

At July's 35th annual San Juan Bautista Hispanic Festival in Lancaster, Cox, Brambila and Rodriguez will share a booth with the Department of Spanish and feature details of their research as well as the department’s initiatives and connection to the Spanish-speaking Lancaster community.

The festival, of which F&M is a sponsor, runs July 25-28. The free event includes food and music of many Hispanic cultures. According to Data USA, 38.5 percent of Lancaster residents identify as Hispanic as of 2016, and 27.1 percent are native Spanish speakers.

“We're interested both in getting our students involved hands-on with community partners in Lancaster City, and making our on-campus events accessible and useful to community members,” said Cox. 

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