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How Gestures and Images Boost Language Learning

Imagine that you need to learn a new word in a foreign language. Would you read it, listen to a recording, or even make an appropriate gesture? Turns out that the best way might involve all three methods. A new study suggests that people can learn a foreign language more easily when they activate multiple senses at the same time.

Why gestures are important to language learning

language learningThe scientists demonstrated the importance of gesture and images by testing the ability of participants to memorize an artificial language called Vimmish. The group who had access to pictures and gestures as well as written words and recordings performed better than the group who only had written words and recordings.

However, while we know that single sensory learning, such as reading from a list, tends to be less effective than multi sensory learning, science has yet to propose a definitive “best way to learn a new language.” The human brain still holds many mysteries.

Gestures more important than images when it comes to language learning

You might have guessed that pictures help us to learn more words, but did you know that gestures are even more beneficial than pictures? This is particularly true when the learner makes the gesture herself. Gestures engage the motor senses, and have long been part of the ‘Total Physical Response’ (TPR) school of teaching.

Katharina von Kriegstein, professor of the Neural Mechanisms of Human Communication Group at Max Planck, tested the ability of young men and women to memorize both concrete and abstract nouns in Vimmish. Researchers also took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of their brains.

Learners were able to remember more words when their learning was supplemented with pictures and gestures that they performed themselves. The brain scans revealed that different parts of the brain were activated according to the different learning methods employed. Remembering words learned through images activated the visual system, while remembering words learned through gesture activated the motor system.

What does the study mean for the classroom?

While MRI scans and electrodes are well suited to the lab, they sadly still don’t have a place in the classroom. There seem to be two plausible conclusions that we can draw from the results of the experiment. The first explanation would be: “the more senses activated, the more likely it is that the subject will remember the word.” This means that if you wanted to teach the word “manzana” to someone, the best way would involve written and audio versions of the word while the learner held the apple, smelled the apple and even tasted it.

The second explanation is that “different learners are better suited to learning through different senses.” This means that appealing to a wide array of senses is important when teaching a large class as you are making an effort to ‘hit’ the preferred sense of every learner. But it also might mean that an individual learner doesn’t need a multisensory approach to learning, they simply need to know which single sense is right for them. The study highlights the importance of including actions and images in the classroom, and shows that learning by list alone isn’t as effective.

Go beyond learning by rote. Take the multisensory approach to learning with Spanish Tutor DC.

Photo Credit: Charlotte90T

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