Carnegie Education

Learning a foreign language through visual arts

A strong aid to teaching a foreign language is implementing a visual association, where students can learn with the help of images. This makes for a more complete and effective learning experience.

A selection of photos on a green floor, a hand can be seen pointing at one

When people think about learning a foreign language, they often feel overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary to learn after initial enthusiasm. This is one of the main reason why many students give up during the first year of study.

One of the most rewarding uses of language, used as early as in ancient Greece, is to immerse a reader in an imaginary world – to activate their visual imagination and evoke images. (DÉCHERY, 1999) But if we reverse this process and think about using images to evoke words, we can unleash a powerful language learning strategy.

How a visual approach can aid language learning

Memorising new words is a complex process that involves many areas of our brain. The information that we receive is initially processed as short-term memory; afterwards, different parts of the brain turn some of this information into long-term memory. Interestingly, the easiest form of information to convert into long-term memory is the visual due to how our brain works. The American language educator Joan Rubin stated that a good language learner attends to meaning – a component as important as the grammar of language and surface form of speech (Rubin, 1975). Adding a visual aspect to learning a language can help to focus on the meaning of words, thus learning more efficiently.

For this reason, images can facilitate the storage of information when we are learning a foreign language. Going a step back in the process of memorisation, if the prerequisite of learning is a strong motivation, it is now clear that we can fuel this by using images and visual arts. They clearly facilitate the codification and the consolidation of the information, creating a rewarding feeling in students and boosting their motivation.

Over the past twenty years, international research has shown that art-based teaching strategies have effectively developed the capacity to learn and install motivation (Lampert, 2006).  Visual art stimulates a constructive learning process, engaging both creative and critical thinking. In fact, images induce our sensory perception, which helps us go deep into thoughts, increasing our cognitive abilities. When perceiving a picture, our brain develops semantic operations, associating the present image to past experiences, either similar or opposite, where there is resemblance and contiguity in time and/or space (Lynn C. Hartle, 2015).

For a lesson to be educationally valuable to students, incorporating an aesthetic experience in the classroom is very important. It has been labelled different things (aesthetics in teaching, art infusion, art integration, etc.), but the main focus is to use art not as a main subject, but to practise a higher order of thinking skills (Ingraham, 2016). Replacing translations with images helps to keep students’ thinking process “in the groove of the target language” (Grosjean, 1999).

Psychologically, the urge to identify with what one sees means learning the language is also a more personal and involving experience. In 1958, Professor Robert Politzer at the University of Michigan reported that students taught using audio-visual techniques did “infinitely better” and achieved higher scores in oral comprehension. (Borglum, 1959)

My experience using a visual teaching technique

For at least a decade I have been using visual arts to teach Italian as a second language at all levels, engaging students from very different cultural backgrounds and often with little knowledge of arts. 

When using visual arts to teach Italian, it is easy to observe how much the students initially just see a picture passively. Still, after having understood how to analyse it, they are able to look at it intentionally and actively. This focused analysis and association stimulates the students to expand their range of vocabulary and to memorise what they are learning.

Since we are in an area of subjectivity, visual arts offer the ideal space for students to feel confident in expressing their opinions and interpretations, much more than in a traditional learning situation. Presenting a picture of a famous artist related to the subject opens space for the subjective interpretation of students, and there are no right or wrong answers; one can place value on each student’s opinion and observation without judgements.

Rather than translating words from English to Italian, the learner goes from an image directly to the Italian words (Grosjean, 1999). For instance, observing the famous Basket of Fruits painted by Caravaggio, the beginner students could name all the different fruits in Italian, formulating a paratactic description. While instead, intermediate level students would develop a syntactic and more articulated description and the advanced ones organise a focused description that would include more creative tasks, such as inventing a story from the image.


Borglum, G. J. (1959). The Visual in Audio-Visual Language Teaching. The French Review, vol. 33, no. 1, 53–58.

DÉCHERY, L. (1999). Turning Words into Colors: Robbe-Grillet's Visual Language. Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 32, no. 3, 59–74.

Ingraham, N. &. (2016). The Story of an Arts Integration School on English-Language-Learner Development: A Qualitative Study of Collaboration, Integrity, and Confidence. International Journal of Education & the Arts.

Grosjean, F (1999) The bilingual language mode.

Kandel, E.R., In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, 2007.

Lampert, N., Critical thinking dispositions as an outcome of art education.  Study in Art education. Volume 47, 2006. Issue 3, 215-228.

Lynn C. Hartle, P. P. (2015). ArtsIN: Arts Integration and Infusion Framework. Early Childhood Education Journal, 289–298.
Rubin, J. (1975). What the "Good Language Learner" Can Teach Us. TESOL Quarterly, 41-51.
Stephan, M., A Transformation Theory of Aesthetics, 1999; J. Courtés, Analyse sémiotique du language, 1991.

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