Jorge Sanchez

Jorge Sanchez

A wordologist and avid language learner!

How to Learn Mandarin Using Your Hands

We think of learning as something we do with our eyes and our ears. Whether you’re studying on your own or taking Mandarin lessons, think about how much time you spend looking at characters, and listening and repeating. You’re probably not paying any mind to what your hands are doing—and in doing so, missing out on one of the best ways to learn Mandarin: using gestures.

Gestures and language

Gestures are movements you do, mostly with your hands, that help convey meaning or add emphasis. Scientists now think that gestures and speech are a package deal, and possibly even what comes first when babies first learn language (it’s a chicken or the egg thing though). 

But gestures aren’t just important for babies. When people are restrained (gently and for scientific purposes, of course) so they can’t make hand gestures, they suddenly can’t find the right words, even in their native language. 

So, okay, hand gestures are an essential part of language. It’s no wonder every single language has them, even Mandarin. But can they actually help us learn Mandarin? 

You can’t see what I’m gesturing right now, but the answer is yes. And here’s how:

Gestures improve memory & word recall

It turns out, what you do with your hands can help you set words in memory and bring them up later when you need them. 

Scientists have discovered something called the “enactment effect,” but you can call it the “paint a picture with your hands to remember a word” effect. When you pair a word you’re learning with a gesture that represents it, you create a “memory trace” (scientists came up with that one, but wasn’t that a Keanu Reeves movie, too?) that links your gesture with that word, helping to lock it into memory. 

Movement binds memory.

Interestingly, the word trace means both the act of drawing a picture of something (in this case, making air pictures with your hands) and a sign that can guide you back to the word you are trying to remember.

Think of gestures as breadcrumbs that your brain can follow back to the Mandarin word you’re trying to learn. 

It’s easy to see how you can apply gestures to learning to write Chinese because you can “trace” the characters in the air to leverage that movement to memory connection. But you can also apply the same technique to more abstract words and even concepts!

Gestures improve Mandarin comprehension

Hand gestures not only can help you memorize vocabulary and Chinese characters, but they can also help you remember more complex concepts. They come in handy (pun intended) when learning emotions, spatial relationships, verbs, and adjectives.

Remember emotions in Mandarin 

As we learned earlier, there’s a strong link between language and movement, what scientists call the relationship between “visuo-spatial and linguistic aspects of a language”. What you see and what you say are connected—and how you feel. Think about your body language when you’re feeling sad versus elated, or annoyed. If you’re learning emotions in Mandarin, try acting out the emotion with your body to help you internalize it better.

Give directions in Mandarin

Another area where gestures can help you learn Mandarin is with describing things in space. Whether you’re trying to explain the layout of a room (where the couch sits relative to the TV) or giving directions, chances are you’ll naturally use some hand gestures already. When you’re learning concepts like “in front,” “behind,” “next to,” and “over yonder,” exaggerating the gestures as you say the words out loud will help you memorize them better than repetition alone. 

Improvise those Mandarin verbs

Gestures can help you learn verbs because you can mimic the action you’re talking about, whether it’s swimming or drinking tea. Scientists have even shown that some verbs are wired in the brain with the body parts that make them possible, like running, kicking, or flipping an omelet. You can use this natural mind connection to your advantage by acting out the action as you learn the verb in Mandarin. You’ll be surprised at how many more verbs you can remember! 

Recall Mandarin adjectives 

Gestures can help you remember ways to describe things because it’s easy to associate a gesture with an adjective. Pretend you went to the zoo and are trying to describe all the funny looking animals you saw there, in Mandarin—I can already see how you’d move your hands to describe long, as in the giraffe’s long neck. And that close association is just what the brain loves to store all those Mandarin adjectives in your memory. 

Gestures improve Mandarin comprehension

Okay, so you made the leap to speak in Mandarin, maybe with a language buddy, in the Hangouts or out in the world. But you don’t know every single word (because, who does?) so at times, you get stuck. The right word in Mandarin just doesn’t come up. Here come gestures to the rescue! 

Not only can making a gesture help you recall the word by reaching into that “memory trace” (aka memory breadcrumbs) we learned about, but gesturing helps you keep the conversation going.

Gestures help you unlock the confidence you need to start speaking sooner while you build your Mandarin vocab. Remember, you can use them to remember Chinese characters, convey emotions, give directions, signal verbs and describe things in the world (not just animals at the zoo!).

Ready to get handy learning Mandarin?

Gestures are a powerful tool to learn Mandarin, and one that’s already at your disposal. Totally free, no downloads required. 

To recap, gestures boost memory in two ways: First, you’re building meaning onto the word by using more than just your hearing and vision, which makes it easier to memorize versus standard repetition. Second, making a gesture to represent a Mandarin word or concept you’re learning creates those mental breadcrumbs that lead you back to it—and that means easier recall later.

Look, the point isn’t to turn you into a Mandarin speaking mime (although, that would still be pretty cool, eh?), but to take advantage of the brain’s natural tendency to remember things better when they’re tied to a gesture.  

So what do you say, err, gesture, to getting more hands on with your Mandarin learning?

Mandaboo is OUT!

It’s a guessing challenge where the speaker gives you clues but they are not allowed to say certain taboo words to keep you guessing longer. You’ll hang on every clue until you make a Mandarin breakthrough…or bust! Will you be stumped? Only one way to know!

Play on your own with the built-in Mandaboos or play with friends by creating your own Mandaboos for friends to guess, or try your guessing prowess with your friends’ Mandaboos and keep the learning going.

a game of unspeakable Mandarin fun

Follow clues to guess the Mandarin word in this Mandarin game of improv, learning and laughs.

Leave a Reply