Every Sunday morning I would wake up, sometimes with the sun, and take a long metro ride to a suburb on the outskirts of Shanghai to teach a group of 11 nine-year-olds English, despite being a student with limited Mandarin skills. While you may question how someone can effectively learn a language when there is no common language spoken between the educator and the students, there are other means of communication that can serve as a language of their own. 

This approach started when trying to gauge a group proficiency level during our first class together. Upon finding that many, if not all, of my students know their colors in English, I decided to use this as a stepping stone in the introduction of new topics. Every class would include several opportunities for students to use markers and paper to illustrate the concepts being taught. Sometimes I would utilize the reverse strategy, telling the students that they could draw anything they wanted as long as they could articulate their thoughts in English. This not only helped me to understand what their interests were but also helped them gain practical language skills that are likely to be used outside of the classroom.

This strategy formed closer bonds between the students and their peers, as well as myself and the students, while simultaneously fostering cross-cultural communication. Utilizing their artwork and other visual means like cartoon episodes with subtitles and hand-made games, the language learning process became fun for the students, and myself. The language barrier did not result in many limitations, and there were very few of them that couldn’t be solved by utilizing a translator.

Using visual art as a mode of communication has been used for an extremely long time, and I believe it is undervalued. It is a very useful and intimate way to express your thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Just as we go to an art museum and look at more interpretive pieces, attaching our own meaning to them, or looking at other works with distinct meanings, feeling the emotion through the piece, we can do the same in other settings. When words fail, whether for a lack of knowledge in a language or the abundance of feelings that cannot be narrowly defined through speech, there are other modes that can speak for you.

Through teaching my students words for the concepts or objects they were drawing, I got to know them: what their hobbies are, what their lives outside of the classroom might look like, and what they’re passionate about. 

Taking visual learning to the next level has really made all the difference in my experience teaching and being in many classrooms. I can recall taking a human geography course in high school and having to make our own maps of the continents we were learning about instead of being handed printed copies, which greatly aided in memorization. 

When learning a language, knowing how to express what is most relevant and personal to you is very important. I believe this is more easily done because it feels more practical. In my experience learning Chinese, I seldom forget words that I can attach personal context to. Additionally, learning a pictographic language like Chinese in my experience has been easier than learning Spanish because the characters can resemble concepts or words. 

Art is up to the interpreter and can hold countless meanings for many people. When learning a language, it can cement the language into someone’s mind through personal connections, artistic application, and the gamification of the language learning process through other artistic means.

Learning through art and applying it in various ways can be a fun way to accumulate new knowledge. In my experience teaching, it has made a tremendous difference, and has given my classroom a common language to speak through.