Movements and images improve new vocabulary learning

  • Foreign words are learned better when gestures or pictures are used.
  • Imitating symbolic gestures is more beneficial than viewing illustrative pictures.
  • These benefits correlate with activity in specific brain regions.
  • The benefits are only found in translation tasks, not in free recall.

A small study using an artificial language adds to evidence that new vocabulary is learned more easily when the learner uses gestures.

“Vimmish”, the artificial language used in the study, follows similar phonetic rules to Italian. The German-speaking participants were given abstract and concrete nouns to learn over the course of a week. In the first experiment, the 21 subjects heard the words and their translations under one of three conditions:

  • with a video showing a symbolic gesture of the word's meaning, which they imitated
  • with a picture illustrating the word's meaning, which they traced in the air
  • with no gestures or pictures.

On the 8th day, the participants were tested while their brain activity was monitored. The test involved hearing the foreign word, then selecting the correct translation from four written options.

The researchers were interested in learning whether they could predict the learning condition from the brain activity patterns displayed when the participants were tested. They found that the gesture condition and control could be distinguished in two brain regions: a visual area that processes biological motion (part of the right superior temporal sulcus), and the left premotor cortex. Activity in these regions was also significantly correlated with performance. The picture condition and control could be distinguished in a visual area that processes objects (the right anterior lateral occipital cortex). There was a trend for this activity to correlate with performance, but it didn't reach significance.

Paper-and-pencil translation tests two and six months after learning showed that learning with gestures was significantly better than the other conditions. But note that there was no advantage for any condition in a free recall task.

A second experiment compared gesture and pictures in the more common picture scenario — participants only viewed the video or picture; there was no imitation. Unsurprisingly, there was no motor cortex involvement in this scenario: gesture and control conditions were distinguished only by activity in the biological motion part of the right superior temporal sulcus. The correlation of activity in the right anterior LOC with performance in the picture condition this time reached significance. But most importantly, this time the picture condition led to better translation accuracy than the other two conditions.

However, the most significant result is this: when both experiments were evaluated together, the gesture benefit in experiment 1 (when the participant copied the gesture) was greater than the picture benefit in the second experiment.

The findings are in keeping with other evidence that foreign words are learned more easily when multiple senses are involved.

http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/m-lwa020415.php

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