A visual dictionary is a dictionary with a twist.
The twist? You’d never guess, but it actually provides the most natural way to learn vocabulary.
Think of a baby learning their native language—they point at an apple and mom or dad says, “That’s an apple!”
While your usual reference tools are full of words, words and more words, a visual dictionary is full of pictures (and words). For example, looking up for the word “ball” in an ordinary dictionary, you’ll be greeted with a definition that goes something along the lines of: “a spherical object often used in sports.”
A visual dictionary on the other hand will present you with just a picture—no phonetic symbols, no parts of speech, classifications, etc. It’s just a picture of a baseball, soccer ball or maybe a basketball, plus the word “ball” underneath the image.
Now, consider the language learning possibilities.
Your Complete Guide to Visual Dictionaries in Foreign Languages
A foreign language visual dictionary will not give you a definition of “ball.” Why? Because you already know what it means! You need to know what the word is in your target language in order to look that word up. While that may sound tricky, there are some clear benefits to working with this kind of dictionary when learning a foreign language.
You just need to see the picture and pair it with the translation so your brain can save it more efficiently.
The visual dictionary goes an extra step to give you more context for memory-boosting power. Unlike ordinary dictionaries, a visual dictionary is usually not arranged alphabetically. They are rather grouped thematically. So, for example, a spread in a visual dictionary might deal with “Fruits” and show you memorable pictures of fruits of all kinds. For a foreign language edition, the labels would be in the target language. Language learning programs such as FluentU works in this fashion to teach you relevant language that’s immediately applicable to the real world.
Consider again the language learning opportunities. A single picture needn’t have just one label. You can find multilingual visual dictionaries with multiple words for the same picture. For “Ball” you would see “Balle” (French), “Bola” (Spanish) and “Palla” (Italian) on the page, so you’re not just learning French, you’re also learning Spanish and Italian at the same time.
Another thing that’s special with a visual dictionary is that, with one picture, it can teach you a whole lot. One picture of a person can teach you all of the parts of the face in German, for example. You look at one image and you see where the kopf, (head) augen (eye) and mund (mouth) are all located.
A picture of a table setting could tell you where the French assiette (plate), fourchette (fork) and couteau (knife) are. A picture of a house can point you to where the Spanish cocina (kitchen), comedor (dining room) and cuarto (bedroom) are.
That’s how elegant a visual dictionary is. This tool works in perfect consonance with how the human brain works. Here’s why.
The Virtues of the Visual Dictionary
When you hear the word “apple,” you don’t see the word or imagine the letters one by one. Nope, you see a glistening red fruit you can almost bite into. You imagine the taste, smell, texture and color.
That’s because our minds think in pictures. In our minds, we see cows, cars and cats, not four-letter words. We visualize and see the big picture.
The images we see become so real we can almost touch them with bare hands. We even dream in pictures, and the visual cortex comprises a significant part of the human brain.
This is why a dry list of vocabulary words, translating foreign vocabulary words right into English words, is often hard to work with. Void of any visual stimulation, the brain finds it hard to embed anything into the long-term memory.
On the other hand, visual dictionaries exploit how the mind works, serving it just what it needs: Pictures that the brain can work with. Pictures that the brain can file into the long-term memory. Pictures that the brain can remember.
Visual dictionaries make it easier for us to memorize foreign vocabulary. They’re like flashcards, but in book form. And if I were you, I’d be hunting for foreign language visual dictionaries, like, right now.
Thematic Approach to Learning
Our brain links information with other information. The thing is, we don’t remember things in a vacuum or out of thin air. We remember things in relation to other things. We remember new information by connecting it to old, established information. And the more links there are for a certain piece of information, the stronger our memory is for that information.
Visual dictionaries, because they’re thematically arranged, help the brain to easily make the said connections.
Ordinary dictionaries, aside from being textually focused, are arranged in an alphabetical order. So there’s little rhyme or reason for the arrangement except that they come in alphabetical order. So you might find words like “banish,” “banal” and “banana” on the same page. The purpose of this order is clear: they’re arranged like this so that you can find them easily. But what relations do these have with each other?
Practically nada. The brain will have to get very creative to make anchor these words and make them stick in memory.
With a visual dictionary, in addition to visual stimulation, the entries are thematically/topically presented so you have sets of information instead of individualized entries. For example, a page might deal with “Fruits,” another might be about “Modes of Transportation” and another may be about “Different Parts of a Classroom.”
The presented images have an intuitive and natural relationship so that the brain will readily be able to make those connections.
And with those two reasons, the visually stunning images and the thematic presentation, the foreign language learner is that closer to mastering the vocabulary of his or her target language.
So, can’t wait to get your hands on those visual dictionaries? Here are some of the best resources.
The Best Sources of Foreign Language Visual Dictionaries
DK publishes illustrated reference books that are celebrated the world over. This British publishing company deals with a wide range of topics from history, science and health to movies and musicals. DK also has a series of bilingual visual dictionaries to make things that much easier.
This visual feast features over 6,000 Spanish terms that take language students into a world where the curtains are las cortinas and the coffee table is la mesa de café. In this bilingual visual dictionary, you’ll be learning Spanish starting from the book cover.
Elements of daily life get a French translation in this bilingual visual dictionary. The book features words depicted at home, in the office and even in the streets. With 360 pages of full color, your French will quickly get up to speed and trudging the streets of Paris will be like a walk in the park.
Would you like to know what die Gabel is? Or better yet, would you like to see how it looks? Take a bite of this German bilingual visual dictionary and also discover what a “keyboard” and “external hard drive” are in German.
The Chinese have a saying: Learning is as high as the mountains and as wide as the seas. But with this bilingual visual dictionary in hand, you can climb the mountains, sail the seas and, ultimately, tame the Chinese language. In this book, you’ll not only have awesome pictures, but also both the Chinese character and the pinyin transliteration for each word.
Looking at pictures is the most intuitive way to learn Japanese vocabulary, and in this highly visual presentation you’ll most definitely learn words that are hard to explain in any other way. With pages featuring life’s events, special celebrations, types of trains and more, learning Japanese vocabulary is many times more fun.
Barron’s is the leading name in the test prep arena. Founded in 1941 to help students prepare for college entrance examinations, Barron’s also offers foreign language instruction for language learners all over the world. The titles in this niche are:
There are 3,000 images in this book helping flesh out 15,000 Spanish terms. The words are divided into 13 categories that range from food, education, leisure and sports. So if you’re an absolute Spanish beginner, this book is an absolute must.
Whether you’re a French language enthusiast or a serious learner, you’ll find Barron’s French visual dictionary an enchanting trip to the language. Experience immersion right when you open its pages and get ready to learn more than you bargained for.
A visual dictionary has awesome pictures, that’s a given. Barron’s has more than that. It has text boxes that expand and extend the translation of words and abstract concepts. So for the Italian language lover, hold this one close to your heart.
5-Language Visual Dictionaries
Remember I told you earlier that there are even multiple language visual dictionaries? Well, they can go as many as five! Here are three great resources you could choose from:
If you want to learn English, French, German, Spanish and Italian at the same time, then DK’s offering is worthy of serious time. All 400 pages have that DK signature—awesome pics and clean, streamlined formatting. This is an impressive volume that will give you hours upon hours of productive study.
Merriam-Webster is one of the most trusted source for reference works. This edition covers the same 5 languages (English, French, German, Spanish and Italian) and is more compact—which is a good thing because once you start flipping through the pages, you’ll be so engrossed that you’ll find it hard to put down.
This edition includes 35,000 words grouped into 17 categories. The pages are color-coded so you can easily find the category you’re interested in. Beyond being visually stunning, the book goes into specifics. It specifies, for example, the different types of sitting implements like bar stool, bench, love seat, ottoman and sofa. All in all, the title is an enriching and educational experience for the lucky language learner.
If this post has taught you anything, I hope it’s the realization that learning a language need not be serious and dry.
It can be colorful, playful and, God forbid, fun.
This is the kind of immersive experience offered by visual dictionaries. So don’t hold back, go get one for yourself now.
And One More Thing...
If you dig the idea of learning on your own time from the comfort of your smart device with real-life authentic language content, you'll love using FluentU.
With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn't catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU's "learn mode." Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It gives you extra practice with difficult words—and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. You get a truly personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.