A new study recently published shows that playing word and picture games greatly helps language learners.
The study from researchers at The University of Nottingham and published in journal PLUS ONE, found that fun and informal ways of learning not only helped people new to language learning, but actually made traditional methods much more effective.
The study was led by several members of Nottingham University’s School of Psychology: PhD student Marie-Josée Bisson, and Drs Walter van Heuven, Kathy Conklin and Richard Tunney. Ms Bisson said, “The results of this study have implications not only for language learning and teaching, but also for anyone interested in improving their knowledge of a foreign language.
“They show that informal exposure can play an important role in foreign language word learning. Through informal exposure, learning can occur without intention, in a more effortless manner.
“Anyone attempting to learn another language would benefit from activities such as simple games using foreign language words and pictures, or foreign language films with subtitles where they can enjoy the activity without focusing on trying to learn the words. The results of this study suggest that these kinds of informal activities can facilitate language learning, even days afterwards.”
The advantages of learning a foreign language are numerous, allowing for better cultural understanding and awareness and better employment prospects. But, learning a second language can be a difficult and stressful process.
The idea of informal learning is not a new one – many language teachers and students have watched foreign language films, spent time immersed in a foreign country and have found these techniques to deliver great results. It is however, the first time that an academic study has been able to validate students’ and teachers’ long-held opinions on the matter.
The University of Nottingham study used spoken and written foreign language words along with pictures depicting their meaning to measure foreign vocabulary learning in complete novices.
Split in to two parts, the study aimed to see if informal exposure to foreign language vocabulary helped learning. The first part of the study involved English speakers who knew no Welsh. They were shown some Welsh words on a computer screen and asked whether a particular letter had appeared in each word. They also heard a recording of the pronunciation of the word whilst viewing it, as well as viewing a picture of the word’s meaning. The important point of part one of the study is that the pictures and words shown to the students were irrelevant to the task they were given and they specifically had not been asked to learn or memorise the Welsh words.
The second part of the study attempted to see what the students had passively retained during part one. The students were specifically directed to learn the English translations of Welsh words. Pairs of written English words and spoken Welsh words were presented to students and each then had to determine which was the correct translation. Whether they were correct or not was fed back to the students, enabling them to learn from their mistakes and ultimately to learn the vocabulary. Key to the study was the fact that half the Welsh words in part two were introduced in part one of the study.
The results showed that students performed better on the words that had been introduced informally earlier, than words that hadn’t. Further, this better performance was found to also be true some time after they were informally introduced to the words. The researchers found that participants retained knowledge unintentionally learnt during the informal phase even as much as a week later following further explicit learning of the Welsh words.