Language Learning: The Benefits of Talking about Art

I teach a number of subjects. When I am teaching technology or science, one of the activities I miss most when I’m not teaching art or English is talking about art. It is easy to spend hours productively drawing or painting. I can go to museums, even during the pandemic. I can research sketchbooks by master artists and even watch art tutorials on YouTube. Finding good conversations about art is more difficult.

Talking and writing about art with others is a unique pleasure and builds powerful language skills. There really is no better training for fluency in language than talking about visual phenomena. Many activities are just as good but none better. Conversations about the visual use language to enhance observation, require us to describe what we see and make various connections with what we think. Then, we learn to reverse the process and understand what other people see, think, and feel. We come to appreciate so many things about art and maybe more importantly, we learn more about each other, how we think and feel. This combines my favorite parts of literature discussions with the kinds of visual analysis that I have come to love so much. I have also come to greatly appreciate the unexpected payoffs in other life and work activities. These skills are also becoming more and more important as infographics, visualized data and virtual communication increase online.

Most of us can recall at least one time when an artist or a creative person was talking about their work leaving us blinking and having no idea what they are talking about. This problem comes from two directions. The first is that few of us are trained in speaking and listening to speech about visual phenomena. Second, talking about visual things is difficult.

For language learners, especially those who want to work in creative industries or study in a foreign language learn profound descriptive skills in their new language.

The secret to talking about art and visual phenomena is the Elements of Art and Principles of Design. This shared vocabulary of mostly simple terms allows for handling complex and slippery ideas. This opens the door to more difficult and powerful concepts and language. By first discussing works, using annotation skills to make visual notations and then write about it has other benefits as well. Writing any kind of essay can be difficult to learn how to do well. The payoff of writing art analysis essays is really great, however.

This process can lead to being able to create solid theories about art from the visual information alone. And if that’s not enough, the other great benefit is that the same terms can teach how to train art skills and compose increasingly powerful works. When I first began teaching art, I was really not a fan of the Elements of Art and Principles of design. Honestly, they annoyed me. It wasn’t until later when I began to see the connections between the simple training connecting to becoming the scaffolding for the really difficult ideas and practices. Ever since then, I have been sold on them. I try to make sure I teach them in an unobtrusive way so instruction doesn’t seem artificial or formulaic. Especially since I have always felt that art disciplines should exist in service to ideas and experiences, just like language. I can’t recommend these skills highly enough.

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