When Learning New Vocabulary, Reaching for a Virtual Object Can Help

Using all of the senses to learn: Many people have difficulty learning new vocabulary.

The experimental approach; photo credit: JKU
The experimental approach; photo credit: JKU

A new study conducted at the Johannes Kepler University Linz has now revealed that virtual assistance can help people learn a foreign language, especially those who may have difficulty learning new languages.

When learning a new language, many are familiar with the fact when learning the word “ball”, actually picking a ball up can help retain the word. Dr. Manuela Macedonia (Institute of Information Engineering) and her team have now demonstrated that reaching for a virtual object can also help language learners retain new vocabulary, and those learning new languages do not necessarily have to hold the actual object in order to activate a learning response. The experiment has now been published in the renowned journal Educational Psychology Review.

Dr. Macedonia remarked: "The theory of 'embodied cognition' states that language acquisition and language representation in the brain depend strongly on sensorimotor experiences acquired during the learning process."

During the latest study, 46 adult participants (ranging from less linguistically talented to more linguistically talented) learned new vocabulary in a virtual reality environment.

The study involved three different scenarios. As part of the first scenario, the test subjects were asked to learn a certain set of written and oral vocabulary. As part of the second scenario, the vocabulary included a virtual depiction of the object shown together with the specific words. As part of the third scenario, the test subjects read and listened to the vocabulary and were given an opportunity to reach for the virtual object.

Helping those who have difficulty learning new languages
The JKU researcher spoke about the experimental approach: "At the Ars Alectronica Center's Deep Space, the test subjects were placed in a 3D simulation of a virtual coral reef. Everyday objects were virtually displayed as if they were falling into the water from above, for example from a boat. The test subjects were instructed to reach for the virtual objects. Although these objects weren’t real and the test subjects grasped at thin air, they still saw the objects."

The findings revealed that all of the participants, regardless of their level of language aptitude, benefited greatly after having been shown both the written vocabulary and the virtual object. Those who have more difficulty learning languages benefited most when reaching for the object. The ‘virtual grasping’ activity did not improve the performance of those considered to have less difficulty when learning a new language.

Dr. Macedonia says, "We can interpret these new findings in terms of differences in accessing two types of memory systems, retaining words and lists (declarative memory), and procedural memory, meaning the one for motion sequences. Those who have difficulty learning new languages would seem to benefit more from learning vocabulary using sensorimotor skills." Above all, however, the experiment reveals new approaches to helping people learn a foreign language, especially those who find it difficult.

Read the paper at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-023-09835-0, opens an external URL in a new window or
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-023-09835-0, opens an external URL in a new window