Gestures improve language learning

February, 2012

Those learning a new language benefit from making suitable gestures as they repeat new vocabulary, and this can even extend to gestures arbitrarily linked to abstract adverbs.

I always like gesture studies. I think I’m probably right in saying that they started with language learning. Way back in 1980 it was shown that acting out action phrases meant they were remembered better than if the phrases had been only heard or read (the “enactment effect”). Enacted items, it turned out, “popped out” effortlessly in free recall tests — in other words, enactment had made the phrases highly accessible. Subsequent research found that this effect occurred both for both older and younger adults, and in immediate and delayed recall tests — suggesting not only that such items are more accessible but that forgetting is slower.

Following these demonstrations, there have been a few studies that have specifically looked at the effect of gestures on learning foreign languages, which have confirmed the benefits of gestures. But there are various confounding factors that are hard to remove when using natural languages, which is why the present researchers have developed an artificial language (“Vimmi”) to use in their research. In their first study, as in most other studies, the words and phrases used related to actions. In a new study, the findings were extended to more abstract vocabulary.

In this study, 20 German-speakers participated in a six-day language class to study Vimmi. The training material included 32 sentences, each containing a subject, verb, adverb, and object. While the subject nouns were concrete agents (e.g., musician, director), the other words were all abstract. Here’s a couple of sample sentences (translated, obviously): (The) designer frequently shapes (the) style. (The) pilot really enjoys (the) view. The length of the words was controlled: nouns all had 3 syllables; verbs and adverbs all had two.

For 16 of the sentences, participants saw the word in Vimmi and heard it. The translation of the word appeared on the screen fractionally later, while at the same time a video appeared in which woman performed the gesture relating to the word. The audio of the word was replayed, and participants were cued to imitate the gesture as they repeated the word. For the other 16 sentences, a video with a still image of the actress appeared, and the participants were simply cued to repeat the word when the audio was replayed.

While many of the words used gestures similar to their meaning (such as a cutting gesture for the word “cut”), the researchers found that the use of any gesture made a difference as long as it was unique and connected to a specific word. For example, the abstract word “rather” does not have an obvious gesture that would go with it. However, a gesture attached to this word also worked.

Each daily session lasted three hours. From day 2, sessions began with a free recall and a cued recall test. In the free recall test, participants were asked to write as many items as possible in both German and Vimmi. Items had to be perfectly correct to be counted. From day 4, participants were also required to produce new sentences with the words they had learned.

Right from the beginning, free recall of items which had been enacted was superior to those which hadn’t been — in German. However, in Vimmi, significant benefits from enactment occurred only from day 3. The main problem here was not forgetting the items, but correctly spelling them. In the cued recall test (translating from Vimmi to German, or German to Vimmi), again, the superiority of the enactment condition only showed up from day 3.

Perhaps the most interesting result came from the written production test. Here, people reproduced the same number of sentences they had learned on each of the three days of the test, and although enacted words were remembered at a higher rate, that rate didn’t alter, and didn’t reach significance. However, the production of new sentences improved each day, and the benefits of enactment increased each day. These benefits were significant from day 5.

The main question, however, was whether the benefits of enactment depended on word category. As expected, concrete nouns were remembered than verbs, followed by abstract nouns, and finally adverbs. When all the tests were lumped together, there was a significant benefit of enactment for all types of word. However, the situation became a little more nuanced when the data was separately analyzed.

In free recall, for Vimmi, enactment was only of significant benefit for concrete nouns and verbs. In cued recall, for translating German into Vimmi, the enactment benefit was significant for all except concrete nouns (I’m guessing concrete nouns have enough ‘natural’ power not to need gestures in this situation). For translating Vimmi into German, the benefit was only significant for verbs and abstract nouns. In new sentence production, interestingly, participants used significantly more items of all four categories if they had been enacted. This is perhaps the best evidence that enactment makes items more accessible in memory.

What all this suggests is that acting out new words helps you learn them, but some types of words may benefit more from this strategy than others. But I think we need more research before being sure about such subtleties. The pattern of results make it clear that we really need longer training, and longer delays, to get a better picture of the most effective way to use this strategy.

For example, it may be that adverbs, although they showed the most inconsistent benefits, are potentially the category that stands to gain the most from this strategy — because they are the hardest type of word to remember. Because any embodiment of such an abstract adverb must be arbitrary — symbolic rather than representational — it naturally is going to be harder to learn (yes, some adverbs could be represented, but the ones used in this study, and the ones I am talking about, are of the “rather”, “really”, “otherwise” ilk). But if you persist in learning the association between concept and gesture, you may derive greater benefit from enactment than you would from easier words, which need less help.

Here’s a practical discussion of all this from a language teacher’s perspective.

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