Gesture Your Way to Fluency

Written by Yuri Karabatov. See what I have to share on Twitter.

All people gesture when they speak: gestures help get the meaning across almost as well as words.

Gestures, however, are much more than that. We can use them not only to convey meaning, but to learn it.

You can literally gesture your way to fluency.

Let me show you how.


I’m often browsing scientific work in psychology: though not all of it may be applied to learning languages, some research looks like a blueprint ready for testing.

The latter was the case when I stumbled upon “Gesturing makes learning last” by Susan Wagner Cook, Zachary Mitchell & Susan Goldin-Meadow, in which children were encouraged either to speak, to gesture or to gesture and speak at the same time while learning to solve certain mathematical expressions. The results were stunning: 90% of the children who had gestured while learning could solve problems three weeks later — in contrast to a mere 33% of the children who hadn’t gestured.

I thought “That can be used in language learning!” and started looking for similar research, it had to exist. It did, and I found a 20-page report “Gesture Gives a Hand to Language and Learning: Perspectives from Cognitive Neuroscience, Developmental Psychology and Education” by Spencer D. Kelly, Sarah M. Manning and Sabrina Rodak, which was even more eye-opening.

It turns out that speech is actually tied to gestures, neurally: they share the same part of the brain, so-called Broca’s area. It means that neural areas responsible for hand actions and language are linked. Hand-movement strengthens semantic memory, the memory for word meaning.

Gesture how-to

Gestures facilitate language learning, but you’ll have to follow some guidelines to make the most use of them.

1. Only use meaningful gestures

Both of these papers’ authors stress that gestures do not aid learning if they are just “hand-waving”.

Make gestures meaningful: if you say “chop”, make an up-down slashing movement with your arm; if you say “drink”, lift an invisible glass to your mouth; you get the idea.

This approach works best with so-called iconic gestures, which mimic real-world movements. If you learn abstract-meaning words, convey meaning with a gesture as best you can, and be consistent afterwards: use the same gesture for a particular word later on.

2. Speak and gesture

Saying words and phrases aloud trains your speech organs and helps you remember these words better. The more you practice speaking, the more automatic it will become, and your accent will also get better and better. See the post “Mt. Native Accent” for more tips on speaking.

Add gestures into the mix: when you pronounce words, move your hands, as if speaking to an invisible conversation partner.

Watch videos showing live speech between the native dwellers of the country where people speak your target language: their gestures may differ from yours, so learn from them to be more natural in conversation.

3. Combine writing and gestures

Writing does strengthen memory, but to a lesser extent, than natural gestures. Writing is all about small hand movement, while gestures usually involve movement of both arms — it stimulates brain more actively than writing.

To get the best of both worlds, combine writing with gestures: trace the letters in the air with your index finger. In this way you retain correct spelling as well as move your arm, not only your fingers, as is the case with regular writing or typing.

I’ve also come across the post “Using Gestures in Teaching & Learning” from Larry Ferlazzo, in which he says that writing words in the air while learning new vocabulary “seems to work very well.” That’s great: it proves that the technique works.

Bear in mind, that gesture research is far from finished, but I’ve based these guidelines on research-proven facts, so don’t hesitate to use them, if you include them in your learning routine.

Good luck in your studies!

If you have questions or want to share your own experience, feel free to drop me a line on Twitter or in the comments!

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