Why Clicking Pictures Won’t Help You Learn A Foreign Language

I recently wrote a little intro to Livemocha, an online community which I think is great for learning a new language.

Not all aspects of the site are great, though. This is especially true when it comes the courses.

Basically, here’s how the courses work…. You hear and read a bunch of words and phrases that are in some way connected to a picture you see. You have to click the right pictures or arrange the words in some way to provide the correct response for the exercises.

In this day of modern technology, I am wondering why some of the leading language technology companies seem to believe so much in the ‘clicking pictures’ methodology.

I for one feel like I spent hours and hours on those exercises with very little real progress to show for it.

  • It did not help me become more conversational.
  • It did not help me learn the actual grammar and patterns of the language.
  • It did not help me listen better.
  • It did not help me read better.

So, I am writing this post so that I can save you a good amount of time if you decide to learn a new language.

Why doesn’t clicking pictures work?

Basically, my analysis is that the whole idea with clicking pictures is that it is a phenomenon of selection and not one of production.

When you engage in the passive process of hearing or reading, and then are confined to the response modality of selection, you are engaging in very limited ways of learning. Your biggest mental muscles, those of creative production, are left dormant why you go on clicking and clicking.

You are probably very familiar with this learning modality. For example, you remember taking multiple choice tests in school? Well, the reason why the test formats you saw so often were multiple choice is not because it’s a deep, innovative pedagogical methodology…

Rather, it’s likely that a decision of administrative efficiency was made, and this required maximizing the ability of those in power of large authoritative institutions to rate, standardize, compare, and separate the ‘measures’ of ability of as many human beings as possible.

In my opinion, authentic works of production can’t be so easily codified.

But I digress…


Multiple choice… is… SELECTION not PRODUCTION.

Your mental powers of selection are not the same as your mental powers of production. They relate and work together, like different muscles in your body, but your powers of production are like your heart. It pumps life and blood to all the other muscles of the body. Without it, you won’t have energy to do anything.

But your productive capacities can also be the hardest to move. When you engage in creative, authentically original production, you are fighting against the impetus to be passive and to take the easy road. You are fighting the resistance that Steven Pressfield talks about. It is something you must do, if you want to be maximally alive and to really do the things you have in your heart to do. Yet it is the hardest.

Entertainment is the same way…

As a parallel of this distinction between selection and production, do you remember from the movie “Social Network” when a young Mark Zuckerberg created a website called “Facemash”, in which the website vistor had to rate which picture of two girls they found more attractive?

It was an immediate hit, and the website went viral. Why?

Well, partially because it was a form of entertainment that required a little interaction (but no real work) on something that was moderatetly interesting. All that was required was clicking the picture on the left or the right, and moving on to the next one.

This was a phenomenon of SELECTION.

Again, if you want to appeal to the masses, don’t require them to engage in creative, productive, original WORK, because the majority of the masses are happy if their bread and circuses are simply handed to them, as the imperial governments of ancient times figured out. The masses want to consume. They want everything at the lowest cost, minimum effort, and maximum entertainment.

Incidentally, this is why you find the claims of Rosetta Stone on the radio are, “Start speaking a foreign language in just 10 minutes.”

The masses hear this marketing ploy and order the system, thinking that their tongues will miraculously be loosed, and they will bust out in 18th century French poetry with their lover later that night.

It’s the same marketing strategy behind the “6-second abs” system of a few years ago. The truth is that no one can get abs in 6 seconds, but plenty of people will believe they can because they have never actually achieved appreciable abs.

Similarly, people will believe loads of marketing rhetoric about learning a language mainly because they have never actually learned a language themselves, and so they will engage in whatever minimal methods are marketed to them.

But, I digress, again…

Back to the Facemash example. Consider, which is harder… to select which woman is more attractive out of a choice of two or to draw a picture of an attractive woman?

One requires a click, the other requires skill.

Or which is harder: to select which of two women is the more attractive, or to actually build a relationship with that woman?

The same can be said here. Clicking pictures with words under them is just like selecting which woman is more attractive. You aren’t building a relationship with the language, which requires you to do actual work, to build it in to your life and mind.

I mean, which results in more direct engagement with your actual life, staying at home with your laptop, spend hours clicking on pictures of apples and clocks, all the while not speaking a word of your target language, or striking up a conversation with a native speaker?

What I’m getting at is that, no matter how much picture clicking you do, it has an enormously limited benefit. The payoff is incredibly small, if there is any… You are not actually engaging yourself in the difficult process of expressing your own thoughts, of putting together what you want to say, or of engaging in synthesis of all of the linguistic information you are learning.

That’s why clicking pictures won’t work.

The reality is you only get good at what you actually do. So if you want to become a virtuoso in picture clicking, then by all means, click away. But personally, picture-clicking is not high on my list of valuable skills I’m inclined to learn.

A much better method to learn vocabulary anyway, is to practice by organic acquisition, i.e., vocabulary that you actually use in your real life as you walk through your day… You know which words you will need if you simply make a note of them. In this way, you are engaging in creative work, but work that is relevant and coincident with your life. Thus you will find greater success.

But the full discussion of that methodology is for another day, when someone invites me to Harvard to give a talk about learning modalities.

For now, I am just going to ignore picture clicking.

Published April 3, 2012

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