Better Learning Through Visuals Posted by on Jan 13, 2016 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Coincidence?

I’m a visual guy. This may not come as a surprise to you, if you know that I draw comics and illustrate books and make films and take lots of photographs when I travel. Sight is without a doubt my most precious sense. I would rather be deprived of my senses of taste, feeling, hearing and smell (I’ve always held that there are more bad smells than good smells in this world anyway) than lose my beloved sight. I enjoy movies and paintings more than music, food or even massages – and I prefer those films and paintings that have some unique visual flair, rather than being just a rote reproduction of reality. Dr. Seuss all the way, baby.

But it goes farther than preference. I think visually. In my brain, I assign colors to each of the days of the week (Monday is purple, Friday is red), months of the year (January is light blue, February is, well…pink), and decades of our lives (the 20s are dark blue, the 30s are yellow, the teen years are a wild and untamed blast of various neons). So too with the languages I’m learning – thinking of French as violet and German as dark, woodsy green helps me keep from mixing up vocabularies and/or pronunciations. I can assign new words the appropriate color and deposit them in the correct language folder in my mind.

Which means I also learn visually. As my wife knows better than anyone, just telling me to do something is dangerous. It’s likely to go in one ear, notice that my brain is preoccupied with various visual fantasies and daydreams, and out the other ear. If I’m supposed to vacuum our place, she literally has to place the vacuum cleaner in the middle of the hallway so I’ll see it and remember what I’m supposed to do. Classroom learning is a nightmare for me, it’s why I complain so often about grammar tables and vocab lists – it’s just not the way I process information. But give it some visual spin, and I’ll never forget it.

I’ll never forget the name Cappadocia, the region in Turkey where you’ll find those fantastical “fairy chimney” cone-buildings in the comic above, because it’s such a striking visual. I’m not great at remembering peoples’ names, but I’m brilliant at remembering faces. And as for language learning, I revolutionized my vocab retention rate by assigning images to each word in my note card app. Rather than the reverse side showing the translated word, it shows an image. I’m able to memorize far more words, far faster.

So if you’re also a visual person, and you’re tired of memorizing from dull, dry lists or tables, try giving your learning a visual spin:

  1. Assign pictures, rather than translations, to your note cards. Google Images is your friend. Not only does it help you remember, it helps your brain assign that word to a concept, not another word that has to be translated back again whenever you want to think of it.
  2. Get friendly with colors. Having trouble remembering what gender nouns are? Assign each gender a color and always write new words in the color of that gender. Can’t wrap your mind around those conjugations or word endings? Write the root word in black and the ending in a certain color, a visual reminder that they’re separate.
  3. Draw! Doodle what you’re trying to learn, draw pictures representing words or even phrases. Your visual mind will take a mental photograph associating the concept with the drawing, and it’ll be very hard to forget. You can’t unsee something!

What about you? What kind of visual learning tricks have you picked up? Or are you not a visual learner at all?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. sunshine:

    I like grids and tables and columns! Always creating new ones for my students who seem to catch on! Then I give blank ones to fill out and they seem to like the concept of having to organize their vocabulary in these tables or columns.

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