A new study from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences reports that adding movement to language learning can help with vocabulary acquisition. The study builds on research demonstrating more effective vocabulary acquisition when new words were paired with images—the researchers at the Max Planck Institute tested whether gestures could have the same effect. The participants remembered words best when they associated gestures with the words. The findings may lead to more effective methods for language instruction and to interventions for those who struggle with language acquisition.
For the study, the researchers created an artificial language called Vimmish, which resembled Italian. Its vocabulary was equally new to all of the participants. The participants were asked to memorize abstract and concrete Vimmish nouns over the course of a week. The researchers tested two methods of vocabulary memorization. For the first method, the participants heard the word and observed a corresponding image or gesture. For the second method, the participants either symbolically drew the word in the air or expressed the word using a related gesture. Afterwards, the researchers evaluated the participants’ vocabulary retention.
The participants demonstrated better recall when more senses had been active when they learned the words. The best recall resulted from the participants themselves using gestures to learn the words. Seeing an image of the word also improved recall, but not as much as using a gesture. Tracing words in the air and observing others make a gesture was no more effective than only hearing the words said aloud.
Various brain activity showed evidence of the learning methods. When the participants learned a word using a gesture, the researchers observed brain activity in motor regions. They observed activity in the visual areas of the brain for words learned with images.
The research suggests that the brain is better able to learn new words in foreign languages, and possibly from one’s native language, when they are associated with information from multiple senses. The researchers say their next investigation will focus on whether visual and motor brain activity is the cause of improved learning outcomes.
This research is published in the journal Current Biology.
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