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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Images and gestures are still the closest things we have to a universal language.

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A spread from Point It, photo courtesy of

What is a word? It may seem like a simple question with an easy, dictionary definition answer: “an element of speech or writing.” However, some world travelers and communication experts believe words extend beyond the literal and into the realm of pictures. Last year, for the first time, Oxford American Dictionary chose an emoji as the “word” of the year . While the anointed “tears of joy” emoji may not be a “word” in the traditional sense, there’s no doubt as to the universal meaning encapsulated in the little smiley face.

According to German architect Dieter Graf, image based communication works. Graf often used a sketchbook to communicate while vacationing abroad, but his depictions of food left much to be desired. Then, he had an epiphany: What if there was a book filled with pictures of any thing one might want to speak about that could be used by travelers in any country! And so the Point-It guide book was born.

Point-It is a modern communication cult classic; it has sold around 2.2 million copies since its first printing in 1993. Graf took all 1,300 pictures featured in this most recent 19th edition of the book while traveling to 100 countries over the years. The image-based book includes photos of various foods and everyday objects, ranging from snails to air-conditioners.

Graf is not a trained photographer, but he described snapping a picture of a clean toilet “in the wild” with the same excitement one might expect from a professional who spotted a rare bird. “In India, I saw a squat toilet and usually they are very dirty, but this one was clean! So after I used the toilet, I went to the toilet again with my camera and no one knew what I was doing,” Graf said laughing, “nobody makes [sic] photos of toilets!”

Point-It users pull out Graf’s book to bridge language gaps and ask about anything they are unable to describe. Those users vary from everyday travelers to Syrian refugees for whom Graf created a special edition of the book. In the refugee book, Graf included images and German words in order to help them learn to speak and read the local language. In Spain, Graf licensed his book to help disabled patients, whose hands may tremble as they point at the large pictures to communicate with family members and medical providers.

The book doesn’t just help communicate, eventually it turns into a learning tool. Graf recounted that when he was in Indonesia, he loved to eat peanuts in the evening and would point to the picture of the peanuts every night. Eventually, through seeing the image and repeating the word, he was able to learn how to say peanuts in Indonesian.

However, not all things can be communicated by pointing at pictures: Graf has left space in the book for native speakers to write down the foreign words for things that cannot easily be pictured such as “sour,” “hot,” or “cold.”

Graf decides what words and images to include in Point-It, and in a strange way, he has become master of an international visual lexicon as a result. He didn’t intend to create an art book, but he said Point-It is often sold in museums, which are prime sites for visual language exploration. Museums often showcase pictographic languages such as hieroglyphics or exhibits exploring cave paintings, humanity’s initial inscriptions.

While hieroglyphics themselves may be ancient, image-based communication is far from extinct. Internet denizens love to express emotions through GIFs and the popularity of photo and video-based apps, such as Instagram and Snap Chat, reflect our love for visual communication. Images capture attention and may be increasingly valuable as we scroll through endless blocks of text.

Literacy expert Beth Olshansky values images immensely. She has always been a visual communicator and said she experienced “the tyranny of the written word” as a child, as reading and writing ability are often the measure of childhood intelligence. Matters were only made worse when she had to use a typewriter, requiring her to have a clear vision of what she might like to say from start to end. She couldn’t cut and paste and move text around the way writers can in computer programs today. Olshansky said the cut and paste process was revolutionary for her, and she likened it to the collage process she now uses to help students understand and create stories. “You create all these things when you cut out shapes, you can move them anyway you want, until you decide where you want to glue them down which is similar to creating a word document---you have the freedom to manipulate.”

Olshansky believes some people are innately more visual and she uses image-based cues to help them unlock the world of literature. She said image-based teaching can be particularly helpful for English language learners, special education students, and boys, who are often behind their female classmates when it comes to reading and writing.

She created a program called Picturing Writing, in which participants create stories in pictures before writing. She said the program is successful and has even helped unlock long-forgotten words in the native languages of the Yupik and Inuit tribes. Tribal teachers in a training “who might have been 60 years old-- found themselves remembering words they hadn’t heard since they were children through creating images,” Olshansky said. “This happened twice. In both cases, the process was used as an archeological dig to unearth lost language. In the case of the Inuit, they took the process to their elders to access lost language before their elders died off.”

It is interesting to think that forgotten words may lie dormant in some deep part of the human memory, that language lives inside of us, perhaps only to be unlocked or rediscovered through images. Margret McKeown studies vocabulary acquisition at the University of Pittsburgh and said reading is a fairly recent development, while verbal language is a more natural form of human communication.

“We don’t naturally read, our brains are wired for language and communication,” she said, “there are some cultures that don’t even have a written form. Reading is really a cultural practice whereas language is really a much more innate ability for humans.” According to McKeown, language tied to images may be easier to access. “The more things you have connected to that word, the quicker you can get to that word’s meaning,” she said.

This is why Marianne Savastano, a speech pathologist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, uses every approach possible to help her stroke patients recover lost language. “For example if you want to tell someone to sit in a chair, you might want to say it, then you would point to the chair and maybe make a walking gesture with your fingers, and you also could write it down,” she said, “At its most basic form, language is a bunch of symbols, whether it’s pointing at a Coke can or reading a word or hearing it.”

Savastano said that as part of the recovery process, speech pathologists make individualized books, similar to Point-It, in order to help patients recover from language and memory loss caused by the stroke. The books contain pictures of friends, family members, and favorite items, along with written names so that patients can begin remaking connections. She said the individualized nature of the books allows patients to connect personally and emotionally, which helps stimulate recovery.

Plus, even though patients have suffered strokes, Savastano said they are still aware of who they are. “You are never wanting to take a man who has a law degree and show him a children’s book because he will know it is a children’s book. Those are very childish looking items and some adults wouldn’t respond to them and they might be offensive,” she said.

Savastano ran a summer boot camp for stroke survivors, where she focused on teaching patients who had trouble reading and writing to use their phones to communicate. She would encourage them to snap photos and use emojis to give their family updates on their daily activities.

“There is one guy who does his family’s shopping,” she said, talking about a stroke survivor who lost the ability to speak. She explained that the man takes pictures of what he needs "and shows someone at the store a picture of the thing he wants. That’s how he uses technology to help himself get by.”

Savastano explained that this man is able to communicate so well without words that at times, he transcends spoken language. For example, “if I was in Japan I could easily understand him,” she said.

In an alternate cultural reality, the least verbal among us may be the most adept communicators. Images and gestures are still the closest thing we have to a universal language and visual representations have become “texts” in their own right. This couldn’t be clearer to Graf, who has quit architecture entirely and is now supported primarily by proceeds from Point-It.

As the success of his book proves, sometimes, a picture is worth 1,000 words.

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