New in, old out: Does learning a new language make you forget previously learned foreign languages?
Anecdotal evidence suggests that learning a new foreign language (FL) makes you forget previously learned FLs. To seek empirical evidence for this claim, we tested whether learning words in a previously unknown L3 hampers subsequent retrieval of their L2 translation equivalents. In two experiments, Dutch native speakers with knowledge of English (L2), but not Spanish (L3), first completed an English vocabulary test, based on which 46 participant-specific, known English words were chosen. Half of those were then learned in Spanish. Finally, participants’ memory for all 46 English words was probed again in a picture naming task. In Experiment 1, all tests took place within one session. In Experiment 2, we separated the English pre-test from Spanish learning by a day and manipulated the timing of the English post-test (immediately after learning vs. 1 day later). By separating the post-test from Spanish learning, we asked whether consolidation of the new Spanish words would increase their interference strength. We found significant main effects of interference in naming latencies and accuracy: Participants speeded up less and were less accurate to recall words in English for which they had learned Spanish translations, compared with words for which they had not. Consolidation time did not significantly affect these interference effects. Thus, learning a new language indeed comes at the cost of subsequent retrieval ability in other FLs. Such interference effects set in immediately after learning and do not need time to emerge, even when the other FL has been known for a long time.
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Publication typeJournal article