Hand gesture: a better way to learn foreign words

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Hand Gesture_learn foreign words

Nowadays picture dictionaries become quite popular. Instead of just giving bilingual word lists, these dictionaries provide vivid pictures about the word meaning.

A typical item in an English-Chinese picture dictionary will be like this: A printed Chinese new word (e.g., for bridge), its English translation, and a picture of bridge.

When a person tries to learn the meaning of the Chinese word , the bridge picture can facilitate his/her memory because the color, the shape, and the contour create a rich memory trace for the word.

Pictures seem to be quite helpful for foreign language learning. But are they the best way?

A recent study published in Current Biology answered this question.

In the first experiment, researchers asked native German speakers to learn artificial Italian words via three methods: (1) learning from listening to German translations, (2) learning from performing hand gestures related to the word meaning, and (3) copying the outline of pictures about the word meaning.

After learning, participants did a paper-and-pencil translation test to see how well they could remember the “Italian” words. They did the same task again 2 months and 6 months after the learning.

The result showed that immediately after learning, participants showed good memory of the words in all three conditions.

But after 2 months and 6 months, learning via gestures beat other two methods: participants remembered more words when they performed gestures during learning than when they copied the pictures or just listened to the German translations.

In the second experiment, researchers again asked native German speakers to learn Vimmi via three methods: (1) learning from listening to German translations, (2) learning from watching gesture videos related to the word meaning, and (3) viewing pictures about the word meaning.

Again immediately after learning, 2 months after learning, and 6 months after learning, participants did a translation task to test their memory about the Vimmi words.

Researchers found that this time viewing pictures helped participants remember words better than the other two methods.

This basically supports the idea that using picture dictionaries during language learning is helpful.

However, when researchers directly compared the facilitation effects from performing gestures and viewing pictures, they found that performing gestures was better.

This finding suggests that engaging body actions into language learning can help people remember the foreign language better.


Citation: Mayer KM, Yildiz IB, Macedonia M, von Kriegstein K. (2015) Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Current Biology, 25: 530-535. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2014.11.068
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