An Unconventional and Superior Method for Learning Vocabulary?


gestures-vocab_1When it comes to learning foreign vocabulary, rote learning is what most language learners dread most.

If you’re a little up-to-date on recent developments in the language-learning community, you know that:

1. It isn’t a very efficient way to spend your time and 2. It’s boring as hell.

Fortunately, research now suggests that vocabulary is best learned by using the different senses.

According to a recent study, done by the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, performing gestures while learning new words is particularly effective.

Mind you, not just any gestures, but iconic gestures: gestures that convey the meaning of the words.

The Most Useless Language of the World? Maybe Not!

In the study, the participants were to remember as much words as possible. To make sure they didn’t have any pre-existing knowledge of the words, the researchers used the language Vimmish.

No, Vimmish isn’t the official language of Uzbekistan or Moldova. It’s an artificial language specifically designed for research purposes!

The persons were divided between two experiments. In both experiments the participants heard the word and its translation.

The difference between the two experiments was that in the first experiment the participants were to either view an image and then draw the image in the air or view a video of a gesture and then perform the gesture, and in the second experiment the participants had no motor tasks. That is: they either only viewed the images or the gestures.

Watch the video below to see the gesture used for the Vimmish word for “thought”.

Results Please!

The results show that the participants best remembered the words when they themselves had expressed them with gestures.

Only hearing a term and observing an image also did better than the other conditions.

The objective of the participants was to learn as much Vimmish words as possible during a 8 day learning process. Surprisingly, there wasn’t much difference between all conditions after the 8 day study period.

The superiority of performing gestures only started to tell when the participants were subjected to two previously unannounced tests at two and four months after the end of the study period.

It could be that the intensity of vocab learning in all conditions canceled out the short-term benefits that gesturing has on vocab learning. Or it could be that gesturing while learning new words has an especially strong effect on long-term memory.

The scientists made another interesting discovery.

They found out that the motor areas in the brain were activated when the participants translated a word learned while performing gestures. Similarly, the visual system in the brain was activated when translating a term learned through images.

The team of researchers, led by Katja M. Mayer, PhD, concludes that the brain learns better when several senses are activated at the same time.

And it makes sense.

I mean, these results aren’t all that surprising, are they? I don’t know about you but somewhere, on some level, I already knew that was true.

Language learning isn’t just about hearing (and speaking). By using more senses you can maximize your learning performance.

In case you wondered, this isn’t the only study done on the subject

Studies as far back as 34 years ago were already suggesting that iconic gestures help learners to significantly better retain verbal information.

Language Learning in the 21th Century

I think it’s all pretty exciting stuff. Traditional methods are slowly being replaced by more modern learning techniques.

And although I’ve been somewhat critical of the frantic search for fun in language learning – demanding LL to be entertaining can breed procrastination – it can’t be denied that when something is interesting you learn better.

Learning foreign vocab with the help of gestures, for example, involves more than just reading study books or listening to and repeating audio.

Instead of sitting, slouching, half drifting off, your whole body joins in!

It’s more active and entertaining. And that little extra oxygen and blood flow to your brain might just help you keep awake and mentally sharper.

You can’t help but be more receptive to what you’re learning!

Not Quite There Yet

Now let’s back off a little bit.

The method holds promise. No doubt.

But I’m certainly not suggesting it’s the holy grail of vocabulary learning.

For now, it’s an important hint of the potential of gesturing while learning new words. But … more experiments are needed.

The method as used in the study is most probably inferior to others like the excellent Magnetic Memory Method I did a case study on.


Well, the participants in the gesture study had to learn a maximum of 90 words (both concrete and abstract nouns) in 8 days. Each day they learned for 4(!) hours including breaks.

After the 8th day they scored a little more than 80% of the words correct (dropping to about 40% for the 6-months post study-period test). With such a time investment, I think with methods like the Magnetic Memory Method you could expect that to be quite a bit higher.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that the gesture study wasn’t about maximizing vocab scores, but rather about finding out if performing meaningful gestures while learning vocab outperforms other (basic) methods.

And it did.

Question Marks

It’ll be interesting to see if these same researchers follow up on this study to answer some of the remaining questions.

For example, it’s popular right now to learn a new language without translating back to your native language.

What would happen if the participants don’t listen to the translations but instead infer the meaning from the gestures only?

Another important thing to remember is that the participants performed pre-determined gestures. That is, gestures that they themselves had NOT come up with.

I believe that in vocab learning it’s important to make personal connections with the words. To connect them to something you already know or have experienced.

I’m convinced that performing personal gestures – that still convey the meaning of the word for you – would significantly boost the recall rate of the method.

Use Your Body … and Your Keyboard

Gestures create additional sensory input that strengthens the memory of what we try to learn.

I think it’s worthwhile trying this out for yourself. I certainly will. At the very least, I can see it being an interesting and fresh way to learn foreign vocabulary.

But what do you think?

Is gesturing something you would apply to your language learning?

If so, what tweaks would you make to improve the method?

Let’s talk in the comments!


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  1. Hey Noel!

    Awesome article, thanks for bringing attention to this. I have always experienced much better memory retention through exercising while language learning. For me, this mostly means walking/hiking in nature and listening + speaking aloud audio lessons (textbook accompaniments, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, FSI/DLI courses, podcasts, etc). I am a bit chuffed that I discovered this personally before I read Alexander Arguelles’ material/method on Language Shadowing, another testament to applying physical movement in the language learning process:

    What is new to me here in your article is the conscious application of motor gestures that illicit as much as possible the meaning of the word – really deep stuff. I will give it a try in my personal language studies and see, totally subjectively, how it works.

    Thanks and keep up the great articles, I love to read your work:)

    1. Thanks, Chapman.
      That’s really an inspiring comment!

      Yeah, there’s something about moving a little bit while learning. You sit to rest. Learning is active. I guess that, more or less, if you sit still, so does your brain!

      That what’s interesting as well about gesturing: it helps to get you off your butt.

      Yes, please let me know how you’ll be doing. I’m hoping to do some tests myself as well. I only did some quick tryouts, so I’m very interested to see how it goes.


  2. Excellent piece, Noel. Having worked with gesture in pronunciation and vocabulary teaching and learning myself (and assembled a method based on that idea) one of the things we have learned is that working with the body is a highly complex process, involving both inter- and intra- personal factors.

    On the ‘intra’ side we have found both serious cognitive and cultural issues with the systematic manipulation of the body. There are probably something less than 5% who have real wiring problems with connecting sound and the visual field to learning. (The research in several fields is clear in that regard.) Typically in a class of 20, there’ll be one who has great difficulty just speaking and using controlled movement at the same time–in their native language, let alone an L2. I’m sure you can think of a few gestures (iconic or non-iconic) that might evoke strong reaction. I’m sure we have all observed the effect of an instructor who is a very high “gesticulator” on shy students. Students can be led to go beyond their somatic “comfort zone” but the process must be approach carefully and systemtatically.

    The interpersonal level can be even more problematic. Having somebody mirror your movement, in some cases especially, can evoke a very real sense of empathy. (That is, in fact, one of major “behaviours” involved in the experience of empathy.) In our our student reaction to “conducting” class body movement can be at least distracting. In fact, one smile or grimace out there can completely derail your concentration and focus. That is so much the case, in part because directing gesture takes some practice and ability to conduct your own body as well, that many of us “hapticians” use a video to do the training in what we call “pedagogical movement patterns” (gesture that anchors some aspect of speaking.)

    My point. It is exciting and sometimes pretty intoxicating stuff. My advice would be to approach it gradually, figuring out what works with your students as you go. Students generally love it. Your main “opposition” will come from other instructors, especially those who tend to be less empathetic or (really) can’t dance . . .

    1. Just noticed a couple of typos there. (The light grey shade on the comment input field is a bit had to manage on screen early in the morning!)

      One last point. Descartes’ error (also the title of a book that was a game changer for me by Damasio – ('_Error) Once we in “the West” separated mind from body, learning language efficiently was going to be problematic. Still is!

        1. Wow, thanks!

          Your comments really are a great addition to the article. In fact, it takes it to deeper levels I couldn’t have written about.

          What do you think is more important: to come up with your own gestures or to have a teacher to help you? Or is a combination the best way to go?

          I can see how for pronunciation it’s important to have someone help you, but I think making personal connections with the gestures could give that additional memory boost.

  3. Exactly. Out here in India, we moved to another state (each state has a different language), where Malayalam is spoken. Although it is similar to Tamil, which I speak, I had to learn many new words. I just chatted with people using gestures and soon learnt the language.
    I am currently learning Russian. Do you know of any course or youtube videos or anyone who teaches basic Russian using gestures?

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