Under the Hood

Sensory Integration, Use Of Gestures Or Taste, Help Lock In The Memory Of New Words

learning a language
We learn best when our brains can link new words from a foreign language with other sensory perceptions, especially gestures. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Are you someone who is considered smart but struggles when trying to learn a new language? New research from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences may help you solve this problem. We learn best, the results of a new study suggest, when our brains can link new information with other sensory perceptions. This means any language learning method that involves several senses, and especially gestures, will help you to learn more and faster than a method based solely on listening or reading.

"If for example we follow a new term with a gesture, we create additional input that facilitates the brain's learning," Dr. Katharina von Kriegstein, head of the study, said in a release.

The study began with the scientists digging up a language called Vimmish — it is an artificial language they created especially for experiments. (Using Vimmish, instead of an existing language, means every word will be equally new to all the participants in any given study.) Over the course of a week, young women and men memorized the meaning of both abstract and concrete Vimmi-nouns under two different experimental conditions.

In the first instance, the participants heard each new word and then observed a corresponding image or a gesture. In the second experiment, they either drew the new words they were learning in the air or expressed each word with a gesture. Following each experiment, the researchers tested all the participants at different intervals after the learning period to see how much of the new vocabulary they could recall.

The participants remembered best when they expressed a word using a gesture. By contrast, tracing a term or observing a gesture was no better than just hearing the new word and then being expected to remember it. And the method which involved both hearing the word while observing an image worked not quite as well as the gesture method, but better than listening alone.

Supporting Brain Data

After testing each participant's recall abilities, the researchers next analyzed the brain activity of each. Regions of the brain responsible for the motor system were active when a subject translated a word previously learned through gesture, while areas of the visual system were active when translating terms learned with the help of images. Associations, the researcher say, appear to be mutually reinforcing. In fact, the study suggests our brains learn foreign words more easily when they are linked to information from more than one sensory organ.

“If we're on the phone with someone we know, for example, the areas of the brain responsible for facial recognition are active during the phone call,” von Kriegstein said. Our brains, it seems, will simulate information it cannot capture with our eyes in order to see for itself.

Planned future experiments include figuring out whether activity in the brain’s motor and visual centers is the root cause of improved learning. The researchers plan to investigate this by using electrodes to activate neurons in these regions and then measuring the impact on learning.

And so we have come full circle, returning to the problem of learning a new language. For those who are not naturals, von Kriegstein provides one final hint. Ideally, she says, when learning new words in a new language, the sensory impressions should match. To learn the French word for "apple," say, it would be best to look at a picture of an apple or, better still, taste one. Bon appetit!

Source: Mayer KM, Yildiz IB, Macedonia M, von Kriegstein K. Visual and motor cortices differentially support the translation of foreign language words. Current Biology. 2015.

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