Gestures Can Help Vocabulary Learning

Andrew Warner reports on research supporting kinetic associations with words

Language educators may find that incorporating gestures or other types of movements in their vocabulary lessons improves learning outcomes, according to a study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience. The study, conducted by researchers at Germany’s Dresden University of Technology, explored the ways in which stimulating the brain’s motor cortex impacts the acquisition of new vocabulary.

“Many often-used teaching methods for learning new foreign language vocabulary rely on only audio or visual information, such as studying written word lists,” said Brian Mathias, the primary author of the study. “Our findings shed light on why learning techniques that integrate the body’s motor system typically outperform these other learning strategies.”

During a series of training sessions held over four consecutive days, the participants in the study were instructed to perform gestures while studying a series of new words in a foreign language, associating each new word with a semantically-related gesture of some sort. After they completed the initial trainings, the subjects then performed a task in which they were asked to translate the new words into their native language; during this translation task, the researchers also employed repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) in order to interfere with activity in the motor cortex.

rTMS is a method of brain stimulation frequently used by neuroscience researchers, which involves using magnetic pulses to stimulate an electrical current in a targeted region of the brain. In this case, the researchers targeted a region of the brain involved in motion control (i.e., the motor cortex) to see how this would affect their performance on the translation task; the researchers found that when they interfered with activity in the motor cortex, the subjects’ struggled the translate the words which they had associated with specific gestures in the original training. These results indicate that gestures could be a useful tool for language instructors to incorporate into their teaching of new vocabulary items.

The researchers note that this effect was seen regardless of whether the new vocabulary item was a tangible, concrete noun or a more abstract one—this suggests that even if a gesture is not clearly connected to the meaning of the vocabulary word (as in say, a charades-type situation), gestures may help students to strengthen their acquisition of new vocabulary.

“Behavioral performance in vocabulary translation following sensorimotor-enriched training is supported at least in part by representations in the motor cortex,” the study concludes. “The translation of recently-acquired L2 words may therefore rely not only on auditory information stored in memory or modality-independent L2 representations, but also on the sensorimotor context in which the words have been experienced.”

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