Gestures help language acquisition

By Zihan Wang, Staff writer

University researchers found teachers can use gestures to help students learning a foreign language, even if the gestures are not directly related to the words themselves.

Kiel Christianson, educational psychology professor and leading author, and Xiaoyi “Kellie” Huang, alumna of the University and lead author of the study, found an existing research paper made a mistake in its suggestion that gestures cannot help with learning the foreign language if the words are abstract.

He said their experiment was based on limited research. Now, Christianson’s research team is focusing its effort on an experiment with 30 participants who have never learned Mandarin or any other Chinese language. In the experiment, the learners are provided with 18 words and the researchers examine if gestures can help them learn the language.

Christianson said the theory he and the team are studying focuses on providing unique cues to recall words that will help students to encode and retrieve words better. Even if the gestures are not specific, or not directly related to the words, the gestures could still help.

Christianson mentioned the participants have made a significant improvement in learning the language.

“(The improvement is) 10 to 12 percent, which doesn’t sound big, but that’s a great level,” Christianson said. “So if you get a C and you get a 10 percent up, then that’s a B. It’s not huge, but it’s not insignificant, either.”

Christianson said the research results could apply to all languages, not only Mandarin or other Chinese languages.

Although the team has not applied its research results to the real world, Christianson told his wife about what the team had found. He said his wife mentioned there is a Spanish teacher at Next Generation School, a primary school in Champaign where she teaches, who uses gestures to teach all words, including words like “and” and “therefore,” which he believes could be an example of their research in reality.

Christianson said he hopes to have some other students who are interested in this issue join the team to move on to the next stage and create some follow-up experiments on the topic. He welcomes both graduate and undergraduate students.

Christianson hopes when he starts the follow-up experiment, material will consist of more general scale words to examine so he can try to apply the research results to other subjects.

“My colleagues in the department are interested in using gestures in mathematics, for example, and teaching mathematics with gestures. It seems to be a very useful (strategy), too,” he said.

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