Berlitz & Rosetta Stone courses got it wrong.

Pictures fail to convey meaning


Pictures can clarify many words, but, as empirical studies have shown, they are not good at clarifying constructions to a point where they can be re-used and modified to fit new situations. Learners must comprehend how the different meaning components interact to produce the overall meaning. In other words, constructions must become transparent. Pictures can’t do this, but another language can.  “Will you make me a sandwich?” Pictures can illustrate this scenario but not the precise wording that was actually used to produce the meaning. It could have been: “I could do with a sandwich now.”  Or: “What about a sandwich?” Or: “Have you got a sandwich for me?” etc.  A mere situational or global understanding as illustrated by a picture is not good enough to help learners understand a construction to the extent that they could induce the structure and adapt it to different situations, thus making – according to Humboldt –  “infinite use of finite means”: “Will you make him /her / them a sandwich?” “Will you make us a drink?”  Pictures never ever have the perspectival flex­ibility of a language to clarify the constructions of another language. If we can use the learner’s mother tongue, many problems disappear. It is the structural richness of one language that best explains the structural complexities of another.

Looking backward: When audiovisual textbooks with dialogues accompanied by picture strips and audioversions on tape appeared on the market in the 1970s, it was claimed that, at long last, a purely monolingual approach could be fully implemented. With the help of the pictures, so the authors maintained, every teacher could easily convey the meanings of the dialogue lines. The direct method was said to have failed in the past only because of the artificial conditions of classrooms which excluded real life. But carefully devised pictures, also available as slides, could bring the real world into classrooms and do the job. Bilingual vocabulary lists were no longer necessary.- This reasoning should be confined to the dustbin of history. A naturally acquired language, usually the mother-tongue, is the sharpest tool to cut into the anatomy of another language.