Study: Learning New Languages Negatively Affects “Language Memory”

A recent study conducted in the Netherlands revealed a new aspect of language learning: acquiring new vocabulary in a foreign language can hinder the recall of words from other foreign languages previously learned. The study, published by the site psypost, addressed the phenomenon of retroactive inhibition and shed light on its impact on language memory.

Led by the study’s author, Ann Meeuws, and her team, the study focused on native Dutch speakers who learned Spanish translations of English words they were already familiar with. The results indicated that this process made it more difficult to recall English words later, indicating the presence of retroactive inhibition in language acquisition.

Retroactive inhibition occurs when newly acquired information disrupts the process of unifying previously acquired knowledge. This interference arises from the brain’s limited capacity to process and store information, leading to competition between different sets of knowledge for cognitive resources.

The study comprised two experiments involving Dutch speakers fluent in English but with no prior knowledge of Spanish. In the first experiment, participants took a vocabulary test to confirm their familiarity with certain English words, then learned the Spanish translations of some of these words, potentially interfering with their recall of the English words. Subsequent assessments revealed that participants remembered English words they had not learned to translate into Spanish more quickly.

A second experiment confirmed these findings with additional insights, dividing participants into groups based on when they took an English vocabulary test after learning Spanish words, allowing researchers to analyze the effect of knowledge unification overnight. The results showed interference effects affecting the accuracy and speed of recall of English words, with those having an additional day to reinforce their Spanish learning showing clear differences in recall accuracy and response speed.

The study’s findings indicate that polyglots may encounter obstacles in accessing previously learned foreign languages, especially during the early stages of learning a new language. These effects, according to the study’s authors, manifest immediately and depend not only on the timing of integration of newly acquired linguistic words.

However, in highlighting the role of retroactive inhibition in language learning, it is important to note that the study focused on a limited set of words learned for the first time in close temporal proximity to the language acquisition process. Therefore, the long-term effects of learning new languages may vary and require further investigation.

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