Learning by Doing: Hands in Language Learning

This might sound like a funny question . . . Which parts of your body do you use most to learn your target language?

If you’re an introvert, you use your ears and eyes a lot, to read and listen to your new language. And you probably worry that you don’t use your mouth enough. (Don’t worry! It will catch up in time.) But how about your hands? If you are also a tactile or kinesthetic learner, you know that hands-on methods are best for you. (Source) But even those who are more visual or auditory can benefit from adding more “layers” to language learning.

I have already blogged about changing the way I count on my fingers. (See the earlier post: Do you keep a language journal?) Since I was used to counting from pinky to thumb, and now had to count from thumb to pinky, it was a bigger change than it sounds. It made a good parallel to learning a whole new language!

The good news is that small changes can be just as helpful! The following suggestions are ways to optimize activities that are already normal for you, so that they make your new language feel normal, too.

Change Your Punctuation

If your target language has different punctuation rules, use them even when you are writing in your first language. In Spanish, for example, questions do not just end with regular question marks, but also begin with upside-down question marks. If you are learning Spanish, practice writing all your questions this way.

For fellow learners of German, there are the quotation marks. There are actually three acceptable ways of making these (Source), but my favorite is the Gänsefüßchen (literally, „little feet of geese”!). These are just like double quotes, but those at the beginning of a quotation are near the base of the letters, like commas.  It took a while for me to remember this rule, but now it feels very natural. I just wish I knew an efficient way to do it on a computer.

If you really enjoy writing by hand, then there is a second thing you can do . . .

Keep a Quotations Journal

This is different from the language journal where you record your progress and reflections. For this one, you just copy quotations from your target language that you really like and want to remember. I highly recommend it because it is one of the exercises that helped me to learn English.

For German, I started with lyrics of songs that I wanted to memorize. Soon I included funny lines from cartoons and tweets about top news stories. Now I also copy longer paragraphs from literature!

This is a good exercise because it normalizes writing in your target language. And you don’t have to worry about being witty, intelligent, or even grammatically correct, because the writers you are copying already did that for you! Just write whatever you like and soon the spelling, punctuation, and common patterns of your target language will feel more familiar.

Some people do not keep quotations journals because they prefer flashcards or SRS „cards.” (More on these in a future post!)

Play an Instrument

If you like listening to songs in your target language, it would help greatly for you to play them, too. The best instruments would be those like piano or guitar, because they also let you sing along.

Notes or chords may not be available online, but pop songs often follow similar patterns. And every instrumentalist eventually learns how to play something new by ear. This extra challenge lets you layer not just singing (mouth) and playing (hands), but also memorizing lyrics (language) and reproducing notes (music). Remember that the more activities you can do at the same time, the more normal your new language will feel. And the more normal it feels, the better you will be at it.

Do Your Hobby

That is, learn the terminology for your hobby in your target language. Then you can use the new words in your mind when you are doing your hobby. This is a great way to remember vocabulary that is meaningful to you, so that you can use it well later on. It also, as I have been saying, normalizes your new language.

In my case, I learned the words for knitting and crocheting. I already talk to myself when crafting, and now I can talk to myself in German. Instead of reminding myself to „knit one, purl two,” I can say either, „eine Masche rechts, zwei Maschen links” or simply „eine rechts, zwei links.”

A natural way to pick up this vocabulary is to watch tutorials in your target language. I started doing this before I thought of using my hands to learn a language. In fact, it was because I started saying „Luftmasche” (literally, „air stitch”) instead of „chain stitch” after watching one crochet video that I got this idea!

How do you use your hands in language learning?

4 thoughts on “Learning by Doing: Hands in Language Learning

  1. Jesse C. M.

    Definitely, singing in this or that language has helped me pick up things! There’s something about music that makes poetry more memorable (though, of course, choral rehearsal helps a bunch, too).

    !dahay mag miha tevehs mian hamu vot am heniH

    (that’s probably not quite the change of punctuation you really mean, is it?)

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      I don’t even know what you mean!

  2. The French book I just got for Sophie focuses on learning to describe actions while doing them. The child memorizes a sequence of sentences in English while performing the actions they describe: I take the book. I open the book. I close the book. Then they identify the verbs and memorize them in order. Then they learn the French verbs in that order and finally they learn the French sentences: Je prends le livre. J’ouvre le livre. Je ferme le livre. All of these while taking the book, opening it, then closing it with each utterance of the verb. Then I start to give her phrases with other nouns as we do things. Je prends la fraise. J’ouvre la porte. It’s fun and very much learning by doing.

    1. Cristina @Linguavert

      Sophie’s book makes me think of interactive pop-up books. Those would definitely help tactile learners remember verbs and prepositions!

      A friend of mine just gave me a set of simple recipe cards for children. Milch und Butter zum Kochen bringen. Rosinen gut waschen. Reis und Rosinen in die kochende Milch einstreuen . . . Language learners who love cooking would have an especially wonderful time “learning by doing,” I think!

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