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How mother tongues delay forgetfulness in old age

[By Humphrey Kapau]

It is common to hear an old person utter statements like: “where did I put my glasses? Did I close the car doors? Wait a minute, is today Thursday or Friday?”

Others even forget their vehicles at work and board a bus, thinking they never came for work using their own transport. Upon reaching home and seeing an empty garage, that is when they remember that they left their car at work. I know of one senior citizen (a Tonga) who even declared the shoes he was wearing as missing in action (MIA) and he began searching for them everywhere, declaring a state of emergency similar to that of Idi Amin Dada, only that it was in his house. He only realised he was wearing the shoes after stepping on hot coals. For a moment, he thought he was fire resistant until he looked down and saw his faithful German-made pair of shoes braving the hot coals.

Undoubtedly, forgetfulness is inevitable in old age due to an aging brain. However, besides delaying it through healthy living (e.g. healthy food and exercising), how does the mastery of a mother tongue in childhood help delay forgetfulness in old age? To answer the question, join me for an epic journey through the kingdom of cognitive linguistics. For this article, the word ‘mother tongue’ is defined as the language we were first introduced to when we were born, also called the first language (L1) (Nordquist, 2019).

What is memory?

To understand the relationship between mother tongues and forgetfulness, we first need to understand what memory is. The human memory is concerned with aspects of life which help a person maintain rational contact of occurrences in the past, present and future. In achieving this responsibility, memory has to do with the following three basic functions: organisation and storage of knowledge; retention of information; and retrieval of information.

Traditionally, memory has three parts, namely, Sensory Memory (also known as the Sensory Information Store (SIS); the Short Term Memory (also called the Primary Store (PS) or Intermediate Store (IS); and the Long Term Memory (also referred to as the Secondary Store (SS). In the light of the aforesaid, forgetting can be defined as our inability to retrieve information previously held in our memory – be it from our Sensory, Short Term or Long Term memories (see Atkinson and Shiffrin, 1968).

Below are ways in which mother tongues help delay memory loss in old age:

Most mother tongue concepts survive in old age

In a study conducted by the Polish-American linguist Uriel Weinreich in 1953, he established that in individuals with concretised mother tongue knowledge acquired during childhood, the mother tongue (e.g. Namwanga) tends to establish a broader mental concept storage from which our second language (e.g. English) merely taps (Weinreich, 1953). This is made possible by our ability to absorb concepts as early as we are born using the first language we are exposed to.

Using sensory receptors dotted all over our bodies, childhood concepts were first introduced to our brain using different sub-types of our Sensory Memory. What we saw (e.g. a spoon) was absorbed by the iconic sensory memory; what we heard (e.g. sound of thunder) was received by the echoic sensory memory; what we touched (e.g. fur) was recorded by the haptic sensory memory. What we tasted and smelled was also recorded although no specific name is given to the two sub-types of sensory memory (Mathew and Morton, 2012).

Once approved by the sensory memory, our childhood concepts and experiences were pushed to the Short Term Memory for approval or discarding. Eventually, approved information was pushed to the Long Term Memory whose memory stamina is long-lasting and valuable in old age. Even as we acquire a second language such as English, the concepts we acquired in childhood using the first language tend to be solidified and survive the test of time (even in old age) compared to concepts in the second language.

Further evidence that mother tongues can delay memory loss in old age arises from findings where patients hit by a Cerebral Vascular Accident (i.e. stroke) usually first recover their mother tongue (L1) before recovering their second language (L2). This law of language recovery is called Ribot’s Law and confirms that mother tongues tend to be deeply rooted in our brains compared to second languages.

We usually think in a mother tongue even in old age
Since most of our early life experiences and concepts are coded in a mother tongue, we tend to continue thinking and view the world from the perspective of our mother tongue even in old age. This is the reason we sometimes construct sentences in English from the perspective of our mother-tongue (e.g. we sometimes say ‘the car is crying’ to mean ‘the engine is running’; and say ‘Messi has gone to the ball’ instead of saying ‘Messi has gone to play soccer’). This is called subordinate bilingualism and such people are called subordinate bilinguals.
One of the reasons we tend to think in a mother tongue is because most of our childhood experiences are stored in the Long Term Memory (LTM) using the first language (e.g. Namwanga) and when retrieving them for communication, they remain closely attached to that language. Moreover, we first learn how to do basic things like how to wash our hands using our first language and this information is stored in a special type of LTM called procedural/implicit memory.

On the other hand, our childhood events and facts tend to be stored in the LTM sub-type memory called the declarative/explicit memory; and our childhood knowledge of who did what, why, when and how they did it is engraved in the LTM sub-type memory called the episodic memory, while our childhood emotions find their place in the emotional sub-type memory of the LTM (Kendra, 2020). As we grow old, we easily relate to this childhood information because it is more engraved in us than concepts acquired later. Additionally, as we age, our sensory memory declines, reducing entry of newer experiences and forcing us to use concepts mostly acquired in childhood instead. This is why the elderly find it hard operating new gadgets but love sticking to old things, including choice of conversations (e.g. how they met Hitler in 1939).

The firm grounding of mother tongue in our brains is the reason we unconsciously prefer to cry in our first language whenever we receive a good beating. Therefore, although memory loss in old age is inevitable due to an aging brain, “the language we are born hearing, however young, has a strange way of staying with us,” thereby eluding the onset of memory loss in old age (Cohut, 2019:3).

Mother tongues provide ground to fight Alzheimer’s disease
The disease of progressive forgetfulness in old age is called Alzheimer’s disease. Research has shown that learning a mother tongue at an early age before mastering a second language is a cardinal prerequisite to reducing Alzheimer’s disease (Cohut, 2019). How? Our first language is responsible for providing initial surface area upon which languages learnt later in life are cognitively placed. With new languages coming in, our brains learn to multitask in concepts stored in different languages. Such a scenario keeps the brain flexible and active, thereby effectively slowing down the devastating effects of Alzheimer’s disease (Cohut, 2019).

Mother tongues trigger neural linguistic competition
Recent research has also shown that mother tongues provide good competition for second language because the language regions of the brain called the frontal and temporal regions (specifically the left supramarginal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus) are always activated and expanded when they are faced with competition of speech sounds from another language, thanks to the prior presence of mother tongues in our brains (Gardner, 1980; and Marian, 2017).

In neuroscience, ‘activation’ refers to the rapid increase in the excitability of the nervous system (to which the brain is a part) in relation to a particular task such as mother tongue acquisition in this case (Decéty, 2004; p.15). The competition arises from continuous antagonism between what we already know in a mother tongue and conflicting experiences that the second language brings. In psychology, such a conflict of concepts and experiences in our mind is known as cognitive dissonance, conceptual conflict, disequilibrium or simply cognitive conflict (Mathew and Morton, 2012) and it forces a child to form newer mental structure/scheme for conflicting experiences (Piaget, 1972; Gardner, 1980). The result of such competition is like taking your brain to the gym: it exercises its cognitive muscles, thereby delaying brain aging and forgetfulness.
For next week, I will explore the linguistic politics regarding the differences between ‘language’, ‘dialect’ and ‘accent’.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA.
Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com; 0956315380

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