Much of our learning experience revolves around visual and auditory input, whether it's through a computer screen or in a traditional classroom setting. When we encounter difficulties in learning, we often attempt to modify our approach by utilizing the same senses. For instance, we may resort to using flashcards or listening to podcasts in the target language.
However, it is worth considering whether incorporating additional senses into the learning process can provide benefits that cannot be achieved solely by altering how information is perceived by our eyes and ears.
In this article, we will delve into some of the reasons why it can be advantageous to involve more than just your brain in the process of learning a foreign language.
Enhancing Language Learning Through Movement
A recent study conducted by researchers at the Technical University of Dresden has uncovered the potential of the motor cortex (a brain region associated with movement) in facilitating faster acquisition of foreign vocabulary. The researchers state that employing learning techniques involving gestures, as opposed to solely relying on audio or visual information, can be advantageous for learners. Here is an overview of how the study was conducted:
During a four-day training period, participants learned new foreign vocabulary by associating gestures with the words. Following the training, they underwent a translation test that required them to recall and translate the words into their native language. Meanwhile, neuroscientists employed Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to inhibit the activity in the motor cortex.
When the motor cortex activity was suppressed, the participants experienced difficulty in recalling the vocabulary they had associated with gestures. To validate their results, the researchers also tested the effect of motor cortex suppression on students who had only observed pictures related to the vocabulary, without creating gestures. The recall of these students was unaffected.
These findings suggest that, for participants who utilized gestures, movement became intertwined with the encoding process of new vocabulary in their brains. Consequently, retrieving the vocabulary also required the activation of the motor cortex, regardless of whether gestures were employed during recall.
The first author of the study, Brian Mathias, highlights the intriguing aspect that the effect was observed for both concrete words like "violin" and abstract words like "democracy." He explains, "These findings imply that our memory of recently-learned foreign language words relies on the sensorimotor context experienced during the learning process."
Mathias emphasizes that many foreign language vocabulary techniques primarily rely on auditory or visual information. "Our findings provide insights into why learning techniques that incorporate the body's motor system generally outperform these alternative strategies.
Enhancing Learning Through Sensorimotor Enrichment
Learning inherently involves multiple senses. When identifying a new friend's voice, for example, we rely not only on auditory cues but also on a combination of their appearance and voice. We absorb new information through various means such as flashcards, videos, video games, songs, poetry, and interactive activities using electronic devices like phones, tablets, and laptops.
However, according to a 2020 paper published in Educational Psychology Review, while some of these "enrichment strategies" have been studied and implemented in educational settings to enhance learning outcomes, others have been largely overlooked. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that motor learning, referred to as "sensorimotor enrichment," can improve learning efficiency and memory performance.
In a recent study, the authors of the paper discovered that teaching foreign vocabulary to eight-year-old school children using gestures and pictures resulted in enhanced vocabulary retention for several months following the learning period. During the experiments, German children were trained for five days using auditory presentations of English vocabulary, including both concrete and abstract words.
In the first experiment, students learned words alongside self-performed gestures ("gesture enrichment"). In the second experiment, gesture enrichment was compared to picture enrichment. The children were tested for recall and translation three days, two months, and six months after the initial training.
The authors state, "Both gesture and picture enrichment improved children's performance in tests compared to non-enriched learning." Furthermore, the benefits of gesture and picture enrichment persisted for up to six months after training and were observed for both concrete and abstract words.
Unlocking Creativity Through Movement
Paragraph: In their research paper titled "Body In Mind: How Gestures Empower Foreign Language Learning," Manuela Macedonia and Thomas Knösche from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, propose that incorporating body movements alongside vocabulary helps improve not only word recall but also stimulates the generation of new sentences. This suggests that the impact of body movement and gestures on learning extends beyond mere language retrieval to language production.
For the study, twenty students participated in a six-day course on Vimmi, an artificial language. Half of the course focused solely on spoken and written instructions, while the other half involved integrating body movements that the students were instructed to perform.
The results revealed that students demonstrated better recall for words learned in conjunction with gestures. In a separate test, they were tasked with constructing sentences using the newly acquired words. Interestingly, students utilized the words that were encoded through gestures more frequently, indicating their enhanced accessibility in memory and their facilitative role in generating new sentences.
The Body's Role in Supporting the Brain
Numerous studies conducted across diverse populations have provided evidence for the "enactment effect," leading scholars to debate whether language development specifically evolved to aid gestures or whether they are separate processes that happen to overlap in the brain.
According to the gesture-first hypothesis, the act of grasping and manipulating objects gave rise to a protolanguage, initially combining gestural and vocal communication and eventually transitioning from gestures to vocalizations. Others question the likelihood of this transition and propose that language developed primarily for social reasons, becoming more complex as social organization evolved. However, it is evident that movement plays a crucial role in language acquisition and production.
A research team from Johannes Kepler University in Linz, Austria, emphasizes the impact of grasping on the brain's representation of objects. They refer to a study by Madan and Singhal in which participants memorized words associated with objects of varying manipulability (i.e., objects requiring more motor-related processing), such as camera and table. The results demonstrated superior memory performance for words linked to highly manipulable objects.
Neuroimaging studies focusing on words related to tools or instruments consistently reveal increased activity in the motor areas of the brain compared to less manipulable objects. The researchers state, "The more actively we interact with objects, the more robustly they are represented in our brains."
Although scientists have yet to determine precisely why this phenomenon occurs, there is an entire field dedicated to investigating it: embodied cognition. Embodied cognitive scientists explore the interaction between the body and the brain, viewing human experience, including learning, as the result of a brain situated within a body rather than a brain solely controlling a body.
The Linz researchers explain that embodied cognition theory posits that cognitive processes are deeply rooted in the body's interaction with the surrounding world. Consequently, language, as a cognitive ability, is grounded in our sensorimotor systems, and the representation of words is intricately connected to the bodily experiences we acquire during the learning process.
They highlight the fact that infants frequently grasp and manipulate objects during language acquisition without explicit instruction from caregivers. "By doing so, infants gather multiple sensorimotor experiences from their environment." Therefore, as adults learning foreign languages, it is worth considering emulating the natural body engagement observed during infancy, a period believed to be most conducive to language acquisition.
Your Inherent Tool: Embodied Cognition
Embodied cognition is making a significant impact across various fields beyond language learning, encompassing disciplines such as neurobiology, developmental psychology, and artificial intelligence. Therefore, before resorting to flashcards or podcasts, consider leveraging the resource you possess inherently to enhance fluency in your desired language: your own body.