Why gestures enhance foreign language learning

14. Januar 2013


It is well known that language and gesture are highly interdependent systems that
reciprocally influence each other. Interestingly, gestures performed during learning
of words and phrases enhance their memorability compared to pure verbal learn-
ing. In this talk, I will focus on studies I conducted on the impact of gestures in for-
eign language learning. The results show that concrete and abstract words are
significantly better retained over time if accompanied by self-performed symbolic
gestures during encoding. I will also present a brain imaging experiment demon-
strating that gestures enrich the neural representation of words by creating com-
plex and extended multimodal networks. They connect perception and motor acts
occurred during learning. Multimodal networks communicate faster and decay
slower than poor networks. This is possibly the reason leading to the enhanced
memory performance not only immediately after learning but over time. However,
gestures used must be plausible and match an internal semantic representation of
the word. If this is not the case, the brain shows activity patterns denoting distur-
bance and cognitive control.
Taken together, the results indicate that gestures may reinforce the sensorimotor
representation of a word, making it resistant to decay. In foreign language learn-
ing, gestures can create embodied representations of novel words that otherwise
would be limited to audio-visual networks. In the case of abstract words like ad-
verbs, gestures possibly create a multimodal representation from scratch.
This research suggests that the use of gestures accompanying language should
be considered in domains such as second language education and possibly also
language rehabilitation within a sensorimotor framework integrating body and