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What Is Visual Vocabulary?

By Pablo Garcia
Updated May 23, 2024
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Visual vocabulary consists of images or pictures that stand for words and their meanings. In the same way that individual words make written language possible, individual images make a visual language possible. The term also applies to a theory of visual communication that says pictures and images can be “read” in the same way that words can. As the modern world becomes increasingly image oriented, visual communication may become more important as written communication. Educators are already using visual vocabulary to learn and reinforce written vocabulary.

The idea of learning a vocabulary visually is not entirely new. There are, for instance, the flash cards used to teach children words. There may be a picture of a cat on one side and the word “cat” on the other. Images can also be applied to more complex words. Adjectives like “sleepy,” “angry,” or “confused” can be conveyed in pictures.

Images can be used to learn a larger vocabulary when associated with lesser known or hard to remember words. For instance, expanding the image of sleepy can lead to learning the word “soporific,” something that makes a person sleepy. A picture showing a person looking confused or uncertain can become associated with the word “flummoxed.” Such picture and word associations are now being sold as study aids in the US for the vocabulary portion of college placement exams. Visual thesauruses are also available.

There appears little disagreement that the world has become increasingly visually oriented. Among younger people, particularly in industrial and Western cultures, the interest in written communication has declined. There is still debate as to whether a visual vocabulary will, or even can, overtake written language as the principal form of communication.

One theory is that culture is increasingly visual. The world is being understood through images and not by reading words. In the future, words may be only used for certain types of business and government transactions. Traditional printed books will be read by a minority of individuals. Some predict that by the turn of the century, almost all words and pictures will be conveyed through the Internet.

Linguistic theorists point out that images are representational and cannot be “read” like a sentence or book can. The brain “reads” a picture differently, and there is no way to devise rules that work for images in the way grammar and spelling rules apply to words. With written language, even a nonsense sentence makes sense when used as an example of breaking a rule: “John apple a red ate.”

A more cautious approach recognizes the rising importance and status of visual vocabulary. It points out that pictures and and words together can sometimes be the most powerful form of communication. Images still necessarily depend on written vocabulary though. A picture may be “worth a thousand words,” but it is only remembered by thinking about it with words.

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Discussion Comments

By Chmander — On Jul 19, 2014

In my opinion, visual vocabulary works the best when you're watching a silent film. Also, the best thing about this is that the directors are aware there's no dialogue, so they put their best efforts in the visuals so that you can be assured what's going on. Early in the movie industry, the black and white films about train robberies are a great example. They were comical and nonsensical, but they presented the material quite well.

By Viranty — On Jul 18, 2014

Mimes are a perfect example of visual vocabulary. While they may not say anything out loud, their expressions are a worth a thousand words. Just an example, but at your local church, have you ever seen any powerful skits involving mimes? That's some of the best visual vocabulary I've ever seen. Between their facial expressions, movements and body language, they say a lot more than anyone could say with their words.

By Euroxati — On Jul 17, 2014

Visual vocabulary really puts emphasis on the fact that sometimes, pictures are the best form of communication. For example, if you're in a counseling session, and the counselor is showing you a bunch of images which relate to how you're feeling, that's a better way to express emotions than simply asking - "How are you feeling today?". However, the article also mentions that visual and verbal communication are quite powerful when they work together, which I definitely agree with. While both have their strengths and weaknesses, they're worth a thousand words when combined.

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