Learning a language may come down to gestures

January 9, 2012
Gestures make it easier to learn a language, researchers discover

Language classes of the future might come with a physical workout because people learn a new tongue more easily when words are accompanied by movement.

Manuela Macedonia and Thomas Knoesche at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, enrolled 20 volunteers in a six-day course to learn “Vimmi”, a phony language designed to make study results easier to interpret. Half of the material was taught using only spoken and written instructions and exercises, while the other half was taught with body movements to accompany each word, which the students were asked to act out.

Students remembered significantly more of the words taught with movement, and they used them more readily when creating sentences, according to the researchers.

While this may seem intuitive for words that have a physical counterpart, such as “cut,” the pair found that the trick also worked for abstract words, such as “rather,” that have no obvious gestural equivalent.

Based on brain scans, the pair argue that enactment helps memory by creating a representation of the word that makes it more easily retrieved. Unpublished results from tests in real language classes suggest that the method “could really speed up foreign language learning in schools,” says Macedonia.

New Scientist

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