Bonjour! Comment allez-vous? (That’s French for Hi! How are you?) During my first week abroad, there have been so many changes: living with new people, exploring a new city, immersing myself in an unknown culture. Through all these changes, the hardest one to adjust to has been learning a new language that I haven’t heard or seen since the fourth grade. Even though it has been such a short amount of time, I feel that it has gotten easier for me to communicate and understand conversations in French. I came into this trip knowing almost no French, but in just seven days, I notice myself recognizing words at the supermarket, and knowing how to respond to people who speak French fluently. I was actually amazed at how quickly I was able to start learning a new language!
Language cognition has been studied to better understand how and where the process of language occurs. There have been new models of language cognition that demonstrate the use procedural memory (long term memory associated with how to do things) and declarative memory (memory of things that can be consciously recalled) in learning a new language (Ullman, 2016). Previous studies have noted that word learning has been a product of our declarative memory, while grammar is heavily dependent on our procedural memory (Davachi et al, 2003, Lum et al, 2012). This process of learning new languages is important, but perhaps not the only thing that has been beneficial during my first week in France.
Although types of memory play an important role in learning new languages, one of the reasons I have been able to grasp French this efficiently is because of gestures and their role in learning language. Gestures are using the body to convey a meaning. Recently, I have been noticing that I have been using my hands a lot more than I usually do while conversing with people. When I see people in the grocery store or the chocolate shops in Belgium, I can communicate with them through the use of gestures to supplement the little French I do know. This helps me learn new words while communicating effectively with people who would not understand me otherwise. Gestures have become a prominent part of my communication method because they are able convey a different type of speech and help me produce speech (Goldin-Meadow and Alibali, 2012).
In an fMRI study done by Weisberg et al (2017), the activation of language regions (shown below) in the brain were reduced when related gestures accompanied speech, as shown in the fMRI data below.
However, when gestures were used alone, there was a greater activation in language comprehension areas. The figure shows that speech accompanied by meaningful gestures does not require as much neuronal resources and thus there is not as much activation in regions associated with action representation or language comprehension (Weisberg et al, 2017). Both of these systems rely on each other to create a more efficient method of communicating using less resources.
There has also been evidence provided that gestures increase the activation of the word they are describing to make it easier for the speaker to access that word (Krauss, 1998). Krauss coined this method as the Lexical Gesture Process Model. In further studies, Krauss found that regardless of spontaneous speech or rehearsed speech, gestures are activated prior or simultaneously to its lexical affiliate, the word the gesture describes. The figure below shows the difference of onset time for speech minus the onset time for gesture and the times are all either happening simultaneously or the gesture is activated before speech. This helps show that the gestures are used as an aid to help communicate in speech because they are activated prior to the words (Krauss, 1998). Thank goodness for these gestures guiding me through these new changes and helping me learn the words!
I am so lucky to have these gestures as a part of my communication vocabulary because it has made it easier to learn French words and gotten me through the first week. Although I plan on learning more of the language, I am grateful for the grace gestures have given me as I attempt to blend in and communicate with others.
- Davachi, L., Mitchell, J. P., & Wagner, A. D. (2003, February 18). Multiple routes to memory: Distinct medial temporal lobe processes build item and source memories. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12578977
- Goldin-Meadow, S., & Alibali, M. W. (2013). Gesture’s role in speaking, learning, and creating language. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22830562
- Krauss, R. (1998). Why Do We Gesture When We Speak? Current Directions in Psychological Science,7(2), 54-60. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20182502
- Krauss RM, Chen Y, Chawla P. Nonverbal Behavior and Nonverbal Communication: What do Conversational Hand Gestures Tell Us? (2008, April 11). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0065260108602415
- Lum, J. A., Conti-Ramsden, G., Morgan, A. T., & Ullman, M. T. (2014). Procedural learning deficits in specific language impairment (SLI): a meta-analysis of serial reaction time task performance. Cortex; a journal devoted to the study of the nervous system and behavior, 51(100), 1–10. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2013.10.011
- Weisberg, J., Hubbard, A. L., & Emmorey, K. (2017). Multimodal integration of spontaneously produced representational co-speech gestures: an fMRI study. Language, cognition and neuroscience, 32(2), 158–174. doi:10.1080/23273798.2016.1245426
Picture of Language Region