You’ve heard the expression ‘Monkey see, monkey do’, but did you know that imitation is one of the first ways children begin to interact with, and understand, the world around them?

According to research from the 1970s (Meltzoff), even tiny infants are capable of imitating the facial expressions and hand gestures of adults.

You might have seen or experienced it yourself if you’ve ever been around a baby or very young child. You laugh, they laugh. You act surprised, they respond in kind. Extend a hand to a baby, and chances are, they’ll extend one back.

More recent research from 2004 (Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2004) has shown that this kind of infant-adult imitation is no accident or phenomenon. It’s the result of a ‘mirror neuron system’, and it plays an important role in developing all kinds of skills, from fine motor skills, to language processing.

How do mirror neurons work?

Like all things brain-related, the exact process and purpose of mirror neurons is complex, but in essence, mirror neurons can be thought of as both mirrors, and as copy-cats.

Mirror neurons fire both when a person performs and observes an act performed by another.

For example, when person A sees person B performing an action —scratching their head, for example— the mirror neurons responsible for head scratching will fire in person A, as though they, too, were scratching their head.

Mirror neurons and language learning

It might seem obvious, then, even to the casual observer, that children who mentally imitate the actions of parents and teachers, would learn more quickly and effectively. But does this same system apply to language?

According to research by V. Rajmohan and E. Mohandas (2007) the answer could be yes.

Their research contains evidence that mirror neurons are present in an area of the brain called Broca’s area.

Broca’s area is responsible for language and speech production, and, according to Rajmohan and Mohandas, the presence of mirror neurons here suggests something interesting. It suggests that “human language may have evolved from a gesture performance/understanding system. The tasks like spontaneous speech and reading activate the hand motor area and the IFG (inferior frontal gyrus), on the left side.”

In other words?

Humans might have developed language, based on the imitation of actions and gestures.

Linking imitation and word learning

Taking what we know about mirror neurons, and their role in developing both language skills and comprehension of the world, how can you use imitation to boost your own child or pupil’s word learning?

How can you use mirror neurons to help children learn and retain new words?

Start by exploring each Mrs Wordsmith illustration together. Look at what the character is doing. How are they acting out the word? Ask your child to describe what the character is doing, and encourage them to perform the action themselves.

Take a look at this image of Plato devouring hamburgers.

The word this card illustrates is ‘Voracious’.

By asking your child to describe what Plato is doing (He’s throwing burgers into his mouth faster that he can swallow them) they’ll begin to connect the action with the word. And because children learn better visually, this speeds up learning and improves retention.

By now your child already has mirror neurons firing when they see what Plato is doing. Go further and ask them to mimic what Plato is doing (maybe without real hamburgers!) and the connection to voracious grows even stronger.

Visual word learning is more effective

The main reason we decided to use Hollywood illustration to bring our words to life, is that children learn better visually.

Linking words to images makes children want to learn, because it makes learning fun. Visual humour also makes it easier for children to remember new words.

By taking these hilarious visuals a step further, and taking advantage of mirror neurons, parents and teachers can hack Mrs Wordsmith to boost learning and retention even more.

Let us know what you think

Have you tried this with your child or class? Did it work?

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