How Certain Gestures Help You Learn New Words

Most people rely on the traditional methods of reading, writing and listening when learning a foreign language. However, if you gesture with your arms and learn the vocabulary, you will be able to remember it better even months later. The memory of a word's meaning is strengthened by linking it to the brain areas that are responsible for movement. After deliberately disabling these areas in language learners, a research team came to this conclusion using magnetic pulses. Brian Mathias from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, stated in a press release that "our results provide neuroscientific proof for why learning techniques which involve the body's movement system should be used less often."
Mathias and colleagues described how 22 German-speaking adults learned a total of 90 artificial words over the course of four days. The test subjects were shown a video showing a person performing a gesture that corresponded to the word's meaning. The subjects then performed the gesture when the word was repeated.

Five months later, they were required to translate the German vocabulary that they had learned in a multiple-choice exam. They also had an apparatus attached at their heads that sent weak magnetic pulses directly to their primary motor cortex, the brain area that controls voluntary arm movements. The subjects had difficulty recalling words when the interfering signals were active. The subjects remembered the words better when the apparatus didn't send any interfering signals, even though it appeared active to them. Researchers concluded that motor cortex was responsible for the translation of vocabulary acquired through gestures. This was true for both concrete words like "camera" and abstract words such as "thought."

There is a lot of literature that shows gestures are important in learning. "I think this study goes it a step further. I'm trying to understand why," Susan Goldin-Meadow from the University of Chicago, who studies gestures and learning. She was not part of the new study. This research, along with brain imaging, suggest that activation of brain's motor regions could be a factor. Goldin-Meadow says that although it is not the sole reason, it is likely to be a contributing factor.

This effect was not seen when test subjects were shown matching pictures and not gestures to learn vocabulary. Children, unlike adults, seem to be more able to learn vocabulary using pictures than gestures. The Leipzig research group conducted a five-day experiment in which eight-year old children and young adults listened to new vocabulary. Sometimes, they were paired with videos or pictures of gestures. The two methods were tied after two months. After six months, however, both methods were still tied. The adults received more benefit from gestures than the photos, while the children got equal help from both.

According to the study, adult brains use motor areas to retain foreign-language words. Learning isn't just about the motor component. Mathias's former colleague Manuela Macedonia also observed that gestures have an intrinsic meaning. This was evident in a previous study. An older study found that gestures can help with memory if they are pictorially related to the word.

A 1995 study found that these gestures were helpful in learning French-language. It was possible to transfer the words into a new context. Learners who accompanied new vocabulary with gestures were more likely than not to use it in new sentences.

Goldin-Meadow states that "I believe we underuse gestures in our classrooms." It can be used spontaneously by good teachers and listeners. However, we don’t always bring it to class if it isn’t thought about. We could use it more often and more effectively.

This article first appeared in Spektrum der Wissenschaft. It was reprinted with permission.