The Selfie Project: the verbal and visual in language learning and teaching

“A picture is worth a thousand words” is how the saying goes. The power of this statement is relevant when summarising the role of visual elements in the field of language learning and teaching: posters, diagrams, symbols and images cover the walls of language classrooms and are abundant in textbooks. Anything that can help a learner see an immediate meaning has been proven to enhance language learning.

Mabel Victoria, a lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University’s Business School has looked deeper into this connection between language learning and visuals, with her research paper “The verbal and the visual in language learning and teaching: insights from ‘The Selfie Project’”.

The selfie – a photograph of oneself, usually taken with a smartphone – has revolutionised the notions of social interactions. Selfies are everywhere, and arguably the most popular image of the twenty-first century. It is said that when shared online, the selfie can take on a language-like function and characteristics, representing the visual equivalent of reflexive verbs in language use. The rapid exchange of selfies we often see today mimics the exchange of words in conversation, with its own private grammar and vocabulary.

‘The Selfie Project’ involves the selfie being incorporated into a fluency activity at a university in Thailand, with the focus being to encourage learners to communicate the context of the message as opposed to getting hung up on the grammar. Students between the ages of 19-22 with intermediate to upper-intermediate English language skills were asked to take selfies over a period of two weeks. They were then asked to talk about their selfies in class in the format of a slideshow presentation, covering descriptive questions such as; when and where was the selfie taken? What were they doing before and after the selfie was taken? How would they describe themselves and their thoughts in the selfie? And in what way does the selfie represent who they really are?

These questions were asked to generate different verb tenses, ‘feeling’ words and descriptive expressions.

Mabel’s findings suggest that the students used the selfie in multiple complex ways but mainly as a resource for self-expression. Many students unveiled information with lots of detail, which helped the students in the class get to know each other better thus fostering improved social relations in the classroom.

The presentations helped to facilitate the language production, as students provided a selfie which had very limited context to anyone else but themselves. This prompted the selfie takers to linguistically provide that missing context. The reflective element of the selfie helped the students to better articulate their experience and description of the selfie. The student’s expert knowledge of the topic they presented changed the typical asymmetric dynamic in the classroom environment, which boosted the students’ confidence in presenting and telling their stories in a foreign language

Following this research project, Mabel states that further investigation is necessary to explore the complex interplay between language and visuals in a learning environment. Mabel hopes this research will inspire language learners and teachers to recognise the importance of the visual in stimulating 10,000 words.

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