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Voices in pictures: Learning foreign languages with images

Julia Göhring
Valoda: EN
Document available also in: DE

Author: Julia Göhring

Voices in pictures: Learning foreign languages with images

Pictures speak a language that everyone can understand – even if their cultural background leads them to appraise the image’s content differently. The VHS Olching has taken this idea and applied it to their language teaching. Working together with European partners, they have collected all kinds of pictures for the Voices in Pictures project and used them to create new teaching materials. Their goal is to open up a quick access method for students of all ages and educational levels to help them learn a foreign language.


Team des Projekts Voices in pictures in Le Puy en Valey

Hélène Sajons (2nd from left) with her team in Le Puy en Valey in France (Photo: © VHS Olching e.V.)

Show me your world! Using pictures to talk about countries and cultures

Where is that? Who is that? Why did you pick this picture? What’s the word for this or that in Spanish, German or English?  – Language teachers from Latvia, Poland, Wales, France, Spain and Germany started their joint project work with the topic “My World”. For this project, each of them collected ten pictures that were of special importance to the members of their group. The pictures raised questions – and suddenly everyone found themselves talking to one another.


A picture chosen by the Spanish team: dancing on the beach. (© VHS Olching e.V.)


“For example, the photos chosen by the Spanish team included lots of people. Our pictures showed more nature and countryside,” reports Hélène Sajons, project leader and chair of the adult education centre (Volkshochschule or VHS) in Olching, a small town on the outskirts of Munich. One of the guiding principles behind the project was the idea that pictures always tell us something about the culture they come from and that they can therefore play an important part in language teaching.

The project partners not only provided different pictures, but also different target groups. Both a Latvian primary school and a Spanish language school were involved in the project, as well as a French institute whose courses were primarily aimed at socially disadvantaged people. They all had the same goal – to develop detailed lesson plans using the pictures, which could be used by all the project’s participants and which could also be published for other interested parties, and all in multiple languages.

Discover another culture with foreign languages

Learning a language, the report states, is clearly linked with the discovery of other aspects of a culture. Hélène Sajons highlights the importance of this connection: “Language influences the manner in which we think.” From her own experience, she knows that people can only really understand the way of life in a foreign country, when they are able to speak the language well. Belgian by birth, she married a German in 1969 and her mother tongue is French. It was her father, once a prisoner of war in Germany, who encouraged her interest in foreign languages, saying “Learn German, languages are important for improving international understanding”.



A market in Latvia (© VHS Olching e.V.)

This inter-cultural aspect of language learning plays a key role in this project. After all, the project also serves to increase the participants knowledge of other European cultures. The partners specifically looked for images in which the cultural aspects of everyday life in their country were brought to the foreground, such as a market or certain facial expression. By working together to fill their pool of pictures, reflecting on differences or similarities, the participants not only found out more about foreign cultures, but also learnt something about their own culture. “The Latvian team had collected so many pictures from their village and the surrounding area that they ended up using them to create a little guidebook for their region,” Hélène Sajons explains.

The participants developed multi-level supporting materials that are to be used with the pictures to create activities for their students. Students can describe and compare their first impressions of the image – often in a playful manner – before working with a partner or group to create vocabulary lists, which then help the students to solve independent or joint tasks. The term VIP didactics (Voices in Pictures didactics) is used to describe this concept.

Everyone can learn better with pictures: an opportunity for the integration of refugees

“We can only learn well, when we can use all of our senses,” says Hélène Sajons, “and when we use these pictures in our language lessons, we see that our students become much better at remembering vocabulary and grammar.” Hélène herself has been teaching French for 33 years and has always collected pictures for her French and English courses, such as a variety of signs and notices. “There’s always things to talk about – why is there a woman on one sign and a man on the other? For example, in Bulgaria I took a picture of a sign by a restaurant door that prohibited people from carrying a weapon. A sign like that is very unusual for us!”

“At the VHS Olching, we are now using this idea to help teach refugees.” Hélène Sajons reports that feedback from teachers and lecturers has been very positive. “When it comes to integration, we need simple tools in order to even begin getting close to these people. For one thing, many of the refugees are illiterate. On the other hand, the pictures generally help people to express their memories, to talk about their life and to find connections with others. And that is what’s really important.”

The project group has published their pictures and teaching activities on their website and in an e-book.



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