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Thoughts on Language

Language Learning with Five Senses: Sight

I cannot commit a word to memory until I’ve seen it written. Preferably multiple times. Ideally with some photographic assistance. Once I realized that, I started powering through reading material in my target language.

Yet again flying to Poland, I am surrounded by a language very different to my own. Consonants brush past my ear. I don’t have a chance to absorb their meaning.

Winnie the pooh in Polish and English

Opening the in-flight magazine, I see my native language peppered throughout the blocks of Polish text. My eyes savor the unfamiliar words at their own pace. I imagine the sounds, decipher the meaning and relate text to imagery. The pages awaken words that laid dormant and forge new connections.

Words on a page require your undivided attention. As an avid multitasker who is mildly addicted to podcasts and Instagram, giving my mind nothing but text to absorb is surprisingly refreshing. I can break apart the words into bite-sized meanings, put together the puzzle of an entire phrase, or let the page transport me into a story. Language learning is a generally social endeavor, but reading is one of the times when it can be delightfully solitary.

Books aren’t the only way to absorb language with your eyes. If you are in an immersive setting, you are surrounded by signage, advertisements, graffiti and pamphlets. Everywhere you turn is an opportunity to enjoy a new bit of vocabulary.

Another way to think about learning through your sense of sight is to imagine how you learned new words as a baby. When you learned to speak, someone would say “ball” and point to a ball. Your mind had a direct connection from word to object. The thing existed because it had a name. As adult learners, we don’t have a kind and patient person who will follow us around telling us the word for everything we see. That’s why we put sticky notes on our trashcan to remind us it’s “basura”. Trust me, if you take the time to do this, the visual reminder will never leave your head.

Eine Tasse, which means "a mug" in German, written on a sticky note on coffee mug to learn German

This image-to-word can be reverse engineered thanks to the modern wonders of the Internet. The next time you encounter a word you don’t know, try an image search. The context of the word plus the variety of images may help the meaning click on a deeper level.

Vorto app interface with

When I studied Latin in high school, I used to draw pictures of the words on my cards. It helped me remember. These days, I can’t imagine taking the time to make flashcards by hand, much less drawing visual reminders. Selfishly, we created Vorto with ourselves in mind. As Michal was putting together the learning interface, he added images. That’s why, when you add a word or phrase to your library in Vorto, it’s automatically paired with the top result from a Google Image search (don’t worry, it’s the safe search). The algorithm can yield some strange results, but I’ve found that the more unexpected images burn the meaning into my brain even more than expected.

Whether you take the digital or the analogue approach, I highly recommend incorporating more eye candy into your language learning routine. If I take my own advice, maybe the next flight to Poland won’t leave me feeling so exasperated.

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