Curriculum Opinion

To Learn A New Language, You’ve Got to Move More Than Your Mouth!

By Anthony Jackson — February 24, 2012 4 min read
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Most travelers in a foreign land, unable to speak the local language, have probably gestured wildly as a crude form of communication. As we near the end of Discover Languages month, my colleague Chris Livaccari shares why gesturing is not such a primitive idea, and why we should see more of it in American schools.

I am painfully aware of the way my interlocutors’ eyes follow my hands when I speak. I notice this particularly in China and Japan, where talking with one’s hands is a bit more socially awkward than in the United States, Latin America, or Southern Europe. Bowing, on the other hand, is something that is ubiquitous in Japan, and something I cannot help doing when speaking Japanese, even on the phone (which usually causes my wife to roar with laughter). I had never really considered the fact that there might be a method to all this kinesthetic madness until I discovered some exciting new research.

A study reported in the journal Mind, Brain, and Education (Volume 5, Issue 4, pages 196-211, December 2011) shows that the use of gestures “empowers foreign language learning.” According to the study, learners of an artificial language were able to use words that were encoded through gestures more frequently than words that were simply memorized, “demonstrating their enhanced accessibility in memory.”

While I have no prior empirical evidence for this idea, I think I know it intuitively. After all, as a teacher of the Chinese and Japanese languages, I have always used a lot of movement, especially in my beginner level classes. When learning the words for “sit,” “stand,” or “jump,” how better to reinforce meaning than to have students go through the motions? I still cringe when viewing a TV Globo Brazil story on one of my first year Chinese classes (all in Portuguese, so I have no idea what they are saying about me) that largely features video of me teaching terms for various sports and physical activities by showing rather than telling. And there is, of course, no better way to learn about travel and directions than to have students walking, running, and leaping all over the school campus (just make sure you have those parental release forms handy).

So this seems intuitive, even obvious. What is somewhat more surprising about this work is that it suggests that gestures are useful for encoding not just action words, but even more abstract terms. A New Scientist (January 9, 2012) report on the study points out that this method worked for abstract words, such as “rather,” that have no obvious gestural equivalent just as well as it did for words that have a physical counterpart, such as “cut.” The authors of the study see all of this as further evidence of a paradigm in cognitive science known as “embodied cognition.” Embodied cognition is essentially “the idea that the mind is not only connected to the body but that the body influences the mind,” according to a recent article on the subject in Scientific American (November 4, 2011).

A discussion of embodied cognition could get us into deeply philosophical ground, as it is now the subject of intense debate among philosophers and psychologists, and is emerging as part of a key research agenda in cognitive science. In their seminal 1980 book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson used this idea to show that many of our expressions in English are based on physical metaphors: for example, the understanding that control is expressed by the concepts “above,” “over,” and “up,” while being under another’s control is expressed by the concepts “down,” “under,” or “below.” Taking this idea of embodied cognition a step further, perhaps we could ask language students to gesture as if they are tightly grasping something with a fist when saying the word “control” or pressing down with their hand when saying “oppress.”

The idea that movement enhances language learning is not completely new in language education. Since at least the early 1970s, many teachers have employed the techniques of Total Physical Response (TPR) and later Total Physical Response Storytelling (TPRS) in their classrooms. This new research suggests not only the efficacy of such approaches as one tool in the language teacher’s kit, but also that the cognitive advantages of pairing sound with gesture are even more profound than previously thought. Among the study’s conclusions are that learners should “forsake their archaic vocabulary lists and instead invent and perform their own actions accompanying new items, either individually or in sentences.” Carried to an extreme, this could become almost ridiculous, but as part of a broader and more comprehensive teaching methodology, could be very useful. So the next time you think that Spanish class down the hall is completely out of control, just realize that there is indeed method to all of that kinesthetic madness being employed and encouraged by language teachers.

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