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The area I live in has a very large population of Chinese people. I also speak fluent Chinese as a second language (10+ years learning and also speak at home). For various reasons I regularly meet new people and may stay in contact with them for a period of time.

I personally find it hard remembering the name of Chinese people if they don't provide me with an English name. So if they introduce themselves as Steve Wang, in most cases I won't have trouble remembering Steve's name, but if someone introduces themselves as Wang Da Wei then I will usually forget. I have in certain cases had people say (in Chinese) "just call me Steve" because they will notice that I struggle to remember their name after asking a few times.

I think it's important to remember peoples names because it shows that you are interested in them and its a poor way to start a friendship if you can't remember their name or have to ask each time you meet.

So, my question is two-fold:

  • Is it just me, or has it been shown that remembering names which come from a foreign language are more difficult to learn?
  • Is this issue exacerbated in languages such as Japanese or Chinese where you need to have the name written down or each character described?
  • Do you also have trouble remembering uncommon English names? – acattle Sep 12 '13 at 6:24
  • I know it is extremely difficult for me to remember Chinese names, but I don't speak Chinese. So I'm a bit surprised to hear that it is still hard for you. I have no idea whether this is common. – Cerberus Sep 12 '13 at 15:22
  • I'm learning Chinese now. I have the same problem. I cannot remember Chinese names for the life of me. It's horrible! – Tim Osborne Aug 5 '14 at 13:09
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I can't refer to specific research for this case, but according to language acquisition theory, language is a tool or retrieval system that accesses a cognitive conceptual base. This base is where concepts that are formed by our earliest experiences are stored.

Let's say that experience is stored in clusters such as "things with 4 legs" or "people's names". New languages access this one experiential-conceptual base, but each language attends to somewhat different details and thus categorizes differently any given phenomenon. The task in new language learning is to develop a new place in the brain to store the new sound, grammar, concept, etc. patterns (note that languages take up their own territory in the brain, which is why some multilingual stroke patients will lose one language but not another).

Yet in your consciousness, the "front office" or "work space" of your brain, there is interference from first language patterns and concepts. Your mother tongue draws you back to familiar habits and familiar conceptualizations of things, all as if they are implicitly "normal" and "correct". Your mother tongue is whizzing along out-of-awareness, but the language you are learning has to be made explicit to some degree, then stored in its territory to hopefully function out-of-awareness as a language should. This explicit learning is the hard work of second language learning because (1) your first language is more a hinderance than help and (2) you have to rely heavily on those work space resources (language learning makes you tired!) because the new language territory is not fully formed.

So then: Your English effortlessly accesses the cluster "people's names" (though it's relatively easy to forget names because there is so much overlap, so many Steves and Ashleys), but your Chinese has difficulty accessing that cluster, maybe because there's the surname-given name issue to deal with. Maybe "first names" and "being on a first name basis" are closely related clusters connected to "people's names". You indicate that you show respect or friendliness by remembering (first) names. Anyway, Chinese presents a cognitive twist that can cause frequent derailings on the path from the Chinese language territory to the common conceptual base.

Just an idea.

(The theory of the common underlying conceptual base is from Istvan Kecskes.)

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