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One Picture Says a Thousand Words Posted by on Aug 15, 2012 in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

When you see a picture, what goes through your mind? Can you describe it to someone? Or can they describe it to you and you can see in your imagination what they’re describing? How about describing a situation to your friend who wasn’t there but can imagine what happened based on your description of it?

Let’s apply this describing process to learning a language – let’s use French for this example. As you’re reading a text passage in French, you come upon the word ‘voiture’ and you think to yourself; “I know that word….I saw it last week in my lesson.” You reach for your trusty English-French-English dictionary and look it up. “Oh, yes! It means ‘car’. How could I forget that?”

When you think about it, the word ‘voiture’ does not mean car much like the English word ‘car’ does not mean ‘voiture’. Confused yet? Let me use another example. Looking at the picture here, what do you see?


Now, if you’re studying another language, or you already speak another language, what is this object called in that language? You see, when you look up a foreign word in your language dictionary, you’re looking up an equivalent so that you will understand what that object or concept or idea is. But what you may not realize is that the physical object you see in the picture above is not an equivalent word. It is a ‘tree’, a Spanish speaker calls it an ‘árbol’, Germans call it a ‘Baum’, and in Hebrew ‘ עֵץ‘. The written word exists so you can understand the subject of a conversation about trees.

This is an important idea for learning languages. When you see a new word spelled differently from your own native language, you may be tempted to look it up in a dictionary to get immediate results. This is a good thing to do. But eventually, you’ll need to know the word when your trusty dictionary is nowhere to be found.

Keep your native language to a minimum

Traditional dictionaries have you look up a word and then show you the translation in your native language. So if you memorize this word and its translation and later you hear a word you know, the thought process for most language learners is something like “עֵץ… ummm… ah! Ok, I remember – it’s tree”. Speaking this way slows you down and often leads to saying word whiskers* because you’re going through twice as many words just to say the same thing.

When you keep switching between a foreign language and your own native language, the entire flow and rhythm in speaking is lost, breaking up the conversation and, eventually, frustrating you because you’re not sounding natural and smooth. So what do you do?

Look at that picture of the tree again. But this time say what it is in the language you’re learning. Do not say it in your own native language. From now on when you see that object outside, or in another picture, call it what it is – an árbol, or a Baum or even עֵץ. Try to associate it with the concept, not with the word “tree”. This does not mean you can’t use a dictionary, go ahead and use it. But don’t rely on it all the time.

Learning new vocabulary this way is not as hard as you think because it’s how we learned new words in our own native language during the first five years of our life. The same approach is just as effective when learning your second (or third) language. I have a great way to help you out in this regard.

Google it!

You may be familiar with as a quick way to get an image from the Internet. You can also find these type of searches on Yahoo ( or Microsoft’s Bing ( All you need to do is simply put in the foreign word and hit “enter”. Try it for my examples above (árbol, voiture). Try it with any word you are learning! Here’s one – look up the word komár (a Czech word) and see what pops up (hint: it’s not the motorcycle).

Always associate that word with what the picture shows you without thinking about the translation in your native language. Next time you hear the word or see that particular object, you will understand quicker because you’re not slowing yourself down with the double translation.

Beware of what you see

There are two things to keep in mind, though. When looking up verbs, it’s hard to find good representations of concepts and ideas. Another thing to be aware of is when looking for a word in this way, you may find an inappropriate picture pop up – make sure your family settings are in place so these will not surprise you.

Give it a try! Let us know if it works. Again, traditional dictionaries aren’t all that bad; I still use them when I need. The point of this blog post is to help you get used to NOT thinking via your native language. If you do look the word up in a dictionary, imagine what the word represents and associate the image with the foreign language word, not the English word with the foreign language word.

*Word whisker: An irrelevant, meaningless word or noise that is interjected into speech when the speaker has run out of words, but is determined to keep on speaking. – “Well, um… I er, ah, well you know, like it’s like this you see, I really don’t have anything to say. But it makes me feel really important to hear myself talking. “

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About the Author: Sean Young

Learning languages since 1978 and studying over 50 (achieving fluency in 10). Sean L. Young loves giving tips, advice and the secrets you need to learn a language successfully no matter what language you're learning. Currently studying Hindi and blogging his progress right here at Transparent Language -

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