Exercise 1

A. Listen to three people talking about their earliest childhood memory and answer the questions for each speaker.

1   How old was he / she?

2   What event was his / her memory of?

3   What emotion(s) did he / she feel?


Speaker 1

Age: About three

Memory: letting go of a balloon he had just been given at a county fair

Emotion(s): sadness

Speaker 2

Age: three or four

Memory: her uncle pretending to read a book to her, but making it all up

Emotion(s): annoyance

Speaker 3

Age: nearly three

Memory: moving into a new apartment, where the electricity wasn’t working

Emotion(s): excitement, then disappointment



My, my earliest memory, I must have been about three, I guess, maybe two, was when we’d been to, to a county fair and I would have gone with my brother, who’s a little older than me, and my parents, and I’d been bought, a, a helium balloon, and for some reason the balloon had a snowman inside it, it was only September; I don’t why there was a snowman, but, but there was, and I took it out into the back garden and because it was full of helium, obviously, it was pulling on the string, it wanted to, to fly away, and I let go, I didn’t let go by accident, I remember letting go on purpose, to see what would happen, and of course what happened was the balloon flew up into the sky over the neighbors’ trees and disappeared, and I was absolutely devastated, heartbroken by the loss of the balloon, and stood there crying and crying, and my dad had to go back to the county fair and get me another identical balloon, which did nothing to console me, I kept crying and crying and crying and that’s my my earliest memory, not a very happy one!


My earliest memory is probably from when I was about three or four years old and it was Christmas and I was at my nana’s house with all my family and my uncle was reading to me, he was reading The Little Mermaid except that he was making it up, he wasn’t actually reading the words in the book, he was just saying things like “Ariel went to buy some peanut butter and jelly” and things like that, and that made me really mad because I was at an age where I couldn’t really read myself, but I knew that he was reading it wrong. So I got really annoyed at him and told him to read it the right way, but yeah, that’s my earliest memory.


My earliest memory is from when, I must have been about three and we were moving to a new house, we moved to an apartment building and I remember arriving and it was, it was dark and we’d had a very long trip and we arrived and we went in the door and we turned the lights on and nothing happened, and the whole apartment was completely black and dark, no power, no electricity, no lights, and I thought this was terrific, and we had a flashlight and I was just running around, running around the, the hall and the rooms, finding all these new rooms all with a flashlight and I imagined that it was always going to be like that, that we’d, we’d arrived in an apartment that wasn’t going to have lights, so I was always going to have to use a flashlight. And I thought that was going to be amazing. My mother was in tears, obviously she, she was very stressed out from the trip and arriving somewhere and having no power. But I, I was really, really excited by it, and the next day when the power came on I was really disappointed.

B. You’re going to listen to a radio program about some research that has been done on first memories. Before you listen, discuss the following questions with a partner.

1   How far back in our lives can we usually remember things?

2   Why can’t we remember things before that age?

3   What kinds of a) feelings and b) events might people be more likely to remember?

4   Are our first memories mostly visual or of sounds and smells?

5   Why might some people’s first memories be unreliable?

C. Listen to what the speaker says and compare your answers. Were you surprised by anything? How reliable do you think your first memory is?


1   back to the age of two to four

2   Because we don’t have a clear sense of ourselves as individuals and because we usually can’t use the past tense yet.

3 a) strong feelings, e.g., happiness, unhappiness, pain, surprise, fear

  1. b) the birth of a baby brother or sister, a death, or a family visit. Festive celebrations.

4   Mostly visual

5   Because they might not be real memories but something someone has told us or we have seen in a photo.


H = host, J = John Fisher

H   Are our first memories reliable, or are they always based on something people have told us? What age do most people’s first memories come from? John Fisher has been reading a fascinating new book about memory by Professor Draaisma called How Memory Shapes our Past, and he’s going to answer these questions for us and more. Hello, John.


H   Let’s start at the beginning, then. At what age do first memories generally occur?

 Well, according to both past and present research, 80% of our first memories are of things which happened to us between the ages of two and four. It’s very unusual to remember anything that happened before that age.

H   Why is that?

 There seem to be two main reasons, according to Professor Draaisma. The first reason is that before the age of two, children don’t have a clear sense of themselves as individuals – they can’t usually identify themselves in a photo. And you know how a very small child enjoys seeing himself in a mirror, but he doesn’t actually realize that the person he can see is him. Children of this age also have problems with the pronouns I and you. And a memory without I is impossible. That’s to say, we can’t begin to have memories until we have an awareness of self.

H   And the second reason?

J   The second reason is related to language. According to the research, first memories coincide with the development of linguistic skills, with a child learning to talk. And as far as autobiographical memory is concerned, it’s essential for a child to be able to use the past tense, so that he or she can talk about something that happened in the past, and then remember it.

H   I see. What are first memories usually about? I mean, is it possible to generalize at all?

 Early memories seem to be related to strong emotions, such as happiness, unhappiness, pain, and surprise. Recent research suggests that three quarters of first memories are related to fear, to frightening experiences like being left alone, or a large dog, or having an accident – things like falling off a swing in a park. And of course this makes sense, and bears out the evolutionary theory that the human memory is linked to self-preservation. You remember these things in order to be prepared if they happen again, so that you can protect yourself.

H   Are first memories only related to emotions or are there any specific events that tend to become first memories?

J   The events that are most often remembered, and these are always related to one of the emotions I mentioned before, are the birth of a baby brother or sister, a death, or a family visit. Festive celebrations with bright lights were also mentioned quite frequently, much more frequently than events we might have expected to be significant, like a child’s first day at school. Another interesting aspect is that first memories tend to be very visual. They’re almost invariably described as pictures, not smells or sounds.

H   First memories are often considered unreliable, in that perhaps sometimes they’re not real memories, just things other people have told us about ourselves or that we have seen in photos. Is that true, according to Professor Draaisma?

J   Absolutely! He cites the famous case of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget…

D. Now listen to the speaker talk about psychologist Jean Piaget’s first memory. Write down what you think are the key words. Listen again and try to add more detail. Compare your words with a partner and then retell the story together.


Suggested key words in bold

He was sitting in his stroller as a one-year-old baby. A man tried to kidnap him. He remembered his nanny fighting to save him. His parents gave her a reward (a watch). Years later when he was 15 the nanny wrote his parents a letter and returned the watch. She confessed that she had made up the whole story.


H   First memories are often considered unreliable, in that perhaps sometimes they’re not real memories, just things other people have told us about ourselves or that we have seen in photos. Is that true, according to Professor Draaisma?

J   Absolutely! He cites the famous case of the Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget had always thought that his first memory was of sitting in his stroller as a one-year-old baby when a man tried to kidnap him. He remembered his nanny fighting the kidnapper to save him. The nanny was then given a watch as a reward by Jean’s parents. But many years later, I think when Jean was 15, the parents received a letter from the nanny in which she returned the watch to them. The nanny, who was by now an old woman, confessed in the letter that she’d made up the whole story, and that was why she was returning the watch. Of course, Jean had heard the story told so many times that he was convinced that he’d remembered the whole incident.

Exercise 2

A. Listen to five people talking about their earliest memories. Which speaker doubts whether they can actually remember experiencing the incident?

B. Listen again and answer the questions with speakers 1-5. Use each speaker twice. Who talks about …?

___ A   a significant day in many people’s lives

___ B   an everyday occurrence

___ C   a moment just before or after a flight

___ D   some dramatic weather

___ E   finding something beautiful

___ F   something that others may find boring

___ G   receiving advice from a parent

___ H   seeing a photo of themselves

___   damage to a property

___  feeling anxious on this day



Speaker 4


A 3   B 1   C 4   D 2   E 5

F 1   G 5   H 4   I 2   J 3


Speaker 1   My earliest memory is from when I was about three years old and I was at home with my mom and I was playing with my red plastic vacuum cleaner, which I really liked as a toy when I was little. Um, it might have seemed a bit dull, but I really enjoyed playing with it.

Speaker 2   My earliest memory is of, uh, living in Malta when I was young and looking out of the window to see, um, the grapevine and the veranda outside my bedroom window, uh, having been destroyed by a whirlwind that had just gone through the, gone through the garden of the house. It hadn’t touched the house itself just taken out the veranda and the grapevine.

Speaker 3   My earliest memory is my first day of school when I was about five because I was really nervous and I forgot to tell the other people my name so people were kind of confused. •

Speaker 4   My earliest memory is probably at the local airport, but um I’ve got a feeling that it’s a memory of looking at a photograph of myself in a stroller at the local airport. So it’s hard to distinguish whether that’s a real memory or a perceived one.

Speaker 5   Um, my earliest memory is walking on a beach with my family collecting shells. I somehow remember finding a piece of blue glass that had been worn smooth by the waves. When I showed it to my mom, she told me to keep it because it was such a pretty color.

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