Academic journal article Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology

Learning a Second Language Naturally the Voice Movement Icon Approach

Academic journal article Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology

Learning a Second Language Naturally the Voice Movement Icon Approach

Article excerpt


Second language (L2) instruction greatly differs from natural input during native language (L1) acquisition. Whereas a child collects sensorimotor experience while learning novel words, L2 employs primarily reading, writing and listening and comprehension. We describe an alternative proposal that integrates the body into the learning process: the Voice Movement Icon (VMI) approach. A VMI consists of a word that is read and spoken in L2 and synchronously paired with an action or a gesture. A VMI is first performed by the language trainer and then imitated by the learners. Behavioral experiments demonstrate that words encoded through VMIs are easier to memorize than audio-visually encoded words and that they are better retained over time. The reasons why gestures promote language learning are manifold. First, we focus on language as an embodied phenomenon of cognition. Then we review evidence that gestures scaffold the acquisition of L1. Because VMIs reconnect language learning with the body, they can be considered as a more natural tool for language instruction than audio-visual activities.

Keywords: second language, foreign language, learning, instruction, action, gesture, embodiment, memory

1. Introduction

Often, when L2-teachers employ authentic recordings of foreign language materials such as dialogs, students listen to the audio files and fill gaps in an accompanying text (Macaro, 2006). This trains listening skills and enables learners to understand foreign language speakers. Also, listening to authentic language is intended to provide appropriate training for detecting unknown vocabulary items, novel morphological and syntactic structures and to prepare for language production. However, the validity of listening comprehension activities for language domains has not been questioned in the last decades, nor has their efficiency been empirically tested (Plonsky, 2011). Similarly, it is not clear how language production can benefit from listening comprehension training. Certainly it is more natural to hear spoken language than to only read it as learners did before the advent of audio-visuals. However, reading can be helpful when hearing is impaired or pronunciation is idiosyncratic.

Nonetheless, audio-visual encoding of language is far from natural input, far from native language learning, where, a child also collects multiple sensorimotor experiences linked to a concept. For example, an infant hearing "lemon" has already visually identified the object, i.e., its shape and color, the surface of the fruit, its position. The infant has touched, smelled, tasted and dropped the lemon. By doing so, the child assembles all possible pieces of sensorimotor experience in order to build a mental representation of the fruit and, in real life, to interact with it in an appropriate way. In this context, the name of the fruit, the word, is only one of the manifold components of the concept.

Sensorimotor experience is the natural way of acquiring words in a native language (Meltzoff, Kuhl, Movellan, & Sejnowski, 2009). Formal instruction does not provide the learner with an appropriate environment for learning language in a natural way. The learning process students undergo in the classroom does not match what happens during native language acquisition. Moreover, audio-visual encoding lacks all the body-related components necessary to naturally assimilate the novel phoneme sequence (Mandler, 2012). This might be an a priori explanation of why learning vocabulary from lists can be tedious and inefficient. Learners might be reluctant to reconstruct L1 learning experiences in the classroom. In fact, it is not easy to provide learners with the necessary objects (even if they are not abstract) and make them interact with them.

2. The Voice Movement Icon (VMI) Approach

During her teaching of Italian at the beginning of the 90ies, the author made extensive use of listening comprehension activities. …

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