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English Language Institute

How to Improve your Vocabulary and Cultural Knowledge: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Have you heard the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” before? This means that one picture can provide more meaning and more information than many, many words. Leonardo da Vinci knew it, as well as Napoleon Bonaparte. I, too, have discovered the truth of this proverb during many class discussions in the ELI classes I teach here at Pace University. In this blog post, I’m going to provide you with some ways to use Google Image Search to better comprehend new vocabulary and cultural content.


I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve tried to explain a word only to have the students struggle with understanding the deeper meaning of its connotation.

interestedI remember in one of my Intermediate level Intensive English courses here at the ELI, I was trying to get a student to understand the difference between “nosy” and “interested”. She couldn’t understand the negative connotation of “nosy”. Her dictionary simply said it meant “showing too much interest”. (She was also having difficulty with the meaning of “too much” but that’s another blog post.) She was sure she could use them interchangeably.

I asked her to use Google’s Image Search to look up “interested”  The results enlightened her. In her search for “interested,” she saw people leaning into conversations with their hands on their chins or poring over books as they adjusted their eyeglasses. She saw a lot of smiling faces.

nosy neighbor peering out of a windowIn her search for “nosy,” she saw a lot of people peeking over fences and office cubicles or peeking through window blinds. Nobody smiled. She immediately understood what I had been trying to explain for several minutes.

Sometimes, our understanding of a word is due to the special differences between two languages. When I was traveling in Mexico, I had a very hard time getting lemons. Instead, whenever I asked for a limon”, I was handed a lime. This is because a number of Spanish dialects don’t have a common term to distinguish the difference between a lemon and lime.  (I am sure it was also because my Spanish isn’t very good.) Therefore, during my trip to Mexico, I got accustomed to showing a Google Image Search result after asking “Tienes limones?” and receiving the green variety.

Cultural Content

Recently, while teaching an ELI Weekend Intensive Course for Au Pairs called “Blend In; Understanding American Humor”, we tweaked the usual Google Image Search to meet the needs of this more advanced class. This course has students with high English skills who struggle more with adjusting to the slight cultural details they come across in the United States. These students might understand the language being spoken very clearly, but they just can’t figure out the cultural references. This especially happens in humor and jokes.

Alexandria Ocasio-CortezFor example, we were watching a stand-up comedian do political jokes. Everyone in the class knew who Donald Trump was, of course, but nobody had any idea who Kellyanne Conway and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were. The jokes with references to these two women were met with silence. Everyone understood the jokes, but they didn’t have the cultural knowledge to find them funny. To help us quickly understand who these women are, we used the Google Image Search and search for just their names. I asked the class to provide descriptions about these women. For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,  the students said things like “older,” “confident,” “she definitely works in government,” and “shrewd”. Using just these women’s names in the Image Search, students were able to get a general idea of who they were but they still didn’t totally understand the cultural implications of who these women were.  

Kellyanne ConwaySo next we added the word “meme” after each name. The student’s cultural understanding became much more detailed. They provided phrases for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez  like “crazy,” “naïve,” “angry,” “powerful,” and “people are afraid of her!” Our search for “Kellyanne Conway meme”  got responses like “evil,” “mean,” “horror,” and “she looks like people hate her!” The descriptions became a little more derogative, but also much more comprehensive.

Memes hold so much cultural detail that now students could have a much better, deeper understanding of what Americans really think, say and feel about these two women. Instead of spending hours reading news articles or Wikipedia pages (or getting into political arguments with their professor and classmates), students gained this knowledge in a matter of seconds and minutes.

If you would like to learn English using these technuiques and more, come to New York to study English:  visit the ELI website,  contact the ELI  or apply here.

Word List

  • adage (n.) – a short statement regarding a general truth
  • proverb (n.) – a short statement regarding a general truth
  • comprehend (v.) – to understand
  • connotation (n.) – the extra, abstract meaning of a word
  • interchangeably (adv.) – able to exchange one for another
  • enlightened (adj.) – a well-informed outlook
  • poring over books (v.) – to study a book carefully
  • peeking (v.) – a quick, secretive look
  • office cubicles (n. pl.)– spaces in an office divided by a small, 4-foot wall
  • window blinds (n. pl.)– something put in front of a window to block out the sun and maintain privacy
  • dialect  (n.) – language from a specific region
  • get accustomed to (v.) – to get used to something
  • tweaked (v.) - adjusted
  • slight (adj.) – small amount, a little bit
  • cultural references (n. pl.) – things people say that refer to cultural beliefs held by most people
  • stand-up comedian (n.) – a comedian who stands in front of an audience and tells jokes
  • confident (adj.) – to be sure in yourself
  • shrewd (adj.) – showing sharp powers of judgment
  • implications (n. pl.) – the conclusion that can be drawn
  • naïve (adj.) – lack of experience and wisdom
  • derogatory (adj.) – disrespectful attitude
  • comprehensive (adj.) - complete