This cool toy, FITTLE, that teaches blind (and seeing!) kids how to read braille reminded me of the advantages of using input from multiple modalities (senses) in learning. When we study new information, new vocabulary in Spanish for example, we mainly focus on the auditory modality (hearing). Even if we just read the word (visual input), the letters almost automatically translate in our brain to sounds, and that’s how we encode the new words and remember them later (you don’t really remember what font the word ‘perro’ was typed in when you first saw it, do you?).
However, learning in the real world almost always involves input from multiple modalities. When you first learned the word ‘dog’ in your native language, you heard an adult pronounce it (auditory) while pointing at the furry animal (visual) and encouraging you to pat it so you’ll see how friendly it was (tactile). Maybe you even remember what the dog smelled like, and how loud it barked.
Not surprisingly, when we associate information from multiple modalities with an object, our brain interprets it as more real, and real is something worth remembering (because it may become useful in the near future). Studies support that hypothesis: it is easier to remember an object when we have at least several cues to help us retrieve it, and the more vivid the cues are – the better!
How can we use this habit of our brain to our advantage when we learn a language? Here are 3 hands-on examples of ways to bring your language learning to life with more (sensory) information:
1) Never alone! Always learn new words in the context of a sentence. This is a great way to stage a vivid, multiple modality scene in our mind and attach it to the word we are trying to learn. We may not have the time to go visit the neighbor’s dog and try and associate the full experience with the word ‘perro’ in Spanish, but we can easily recite the sentence: “el perro rojo se escondió en la caja de música” (the red dog hid in the music box). We can then try to imagine a furry red dog jumping out of a loud music box. Yes, the more elaborate, vivid, and potentially silly the sentences we make up are, the better they will be remembered!
In Lingua.ly, you can see your new vocabulary ‘in action’: your personalized reading suggestions include articles that help you practice the new words you have learned in real context (and at your level!). You can also practice your new vocabulary with our automatically generated flashcards, that always include an example sentence.
2) A picture is worth a thousand words. A picture can indeed pack quite a lot of information about the meaning of the word and the way it is used. Again, don’t be afraid to associate the word you’re learning with unusual, funny, or vivid pictures. They are the ones that work best!
Extra trick: a useful exercise is to try to tell a story about the picture, using the new word. This will make you create a lively scene using sensory information, and will also help you practice the grammatical properties of the word. For example: the word ‘perro’ is masculine in Spanish, which is easier to remember when you actually use it in a description of a scene: “El perro pequeño está cansado porque trabajaba todo el día” (the little dog is tired because he worked all day). The adjectives ‘pequeño’ (little) and ‘cansado’ (tired) have to match the gender (‘o’), and this is a great way to remember it in the context of the scene you created.
Lingua.ly automatically generates an interactive flashcard for each new word you learn. You can choose and add the picture that will help you remember the word best, and yes – because we automatically search for pictures to match your word, sometimes we get funny results… all the better for your memory!
3) The sounds of music. Have you ever had trouble getting a song out of your head? Music is a powerful mnemonic (memory aid), and it is especially useful when it comes to learning a language. If imagining a whole scene or remembering a sentence with your new words in it is a little challenging, music may be the answer. Lyrics of popular songs are often very simple, frequent, words, and catchy music can make them even more memorable. Remember the power of multiple sensory input? Try to add familiar music to sentences you’re trying to memorize (even if you can’t find a song that already contains the vocabulary you’re learning).
Extra trick: Adding body movements to the song will add more sensory information and more cues for remembering the lyrics. This is why songs like “Itsy bitsy spider” or “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” that come with hand or body movements are so popular with young kids who are in the process of learning a language. So don’t be embarrassed: sing, dance, and learn!
Got more tips you would like to share with the Lingua.ly community? Join the discussion in the comments section or in our forum.