English for Art and Design: Suggestions for an independent study (1996)

The following is the text of a guest lecture to the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University on 4 April 1996.

R.J. Preece (EFL)
English for Art & Design | 29 June 2012. The following lecture, entitled "The International Language of Art and Design: Suggestions for a Specialized Independent Study in English" was presented in English and translated into Korean for the audience. Click to see the English for Art and Design overview page.

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I’m here to talk to you about my work in the Language of Art and Design [English]. In this lecture, first, I will explain the definition of the Language of Art and Design. Second, I will describe its current state. Third, I will talk about the kind of work that I do with students. Fourth, I will demonstrate some activities that I do in my classes, and I will ask for some audience participation. And, lastly, in part drawing from these demonstrations, I will outline my suggestions for pursuing an independent study in the Language of Art and Design. At the end of the lecture, I will address any questions that you may have.

First, you are probably wondering, what, exactly, is the Language of Art and Design?

The Language of Art and Design is specialized language instruction for learners who are:
1. Interested in the visual arts
2. Majoring in the visual arts
3. Have professional jobs in the visual arts

For all groups who are studying or want to study the Language of Art and Design in English, they usually see English as a way to gain greater access to the international visual arts community. Sometimes, they pursue this study in their home country, or while studying in an English-speaking country. As studying at an English-speaking school requires a much higher competency of English, most of the work in the Language of Art and Design is done at English-speaking schools.

My work in the Language of Art and Design relies upon the objectives and theory of English for Specific Purposes. From English for Specific Purposes’ theory, I make the following claims about the Language of Art and Design for the 3 target groups I mentioned before:

Compared to general English, the Language of Art and Design is:
> Designed to meet the specific needs of the visual arts student / professional
> Related to the content of the visual arts
> Centers on the language appropriate for visual arts spoken and written communication

The claims for the Language of Art and Design are:
> It is relevant to the learner
> It is more cost-effective than general English
> It focuses on the learner’s needs for spoken and written communication

The Language of Art and Design (for English) is some combination of English language teaching with art and design content. With this theory, content is embedded into English language teaching, and the objective is to motivate students by addressing their specific concerns— here to learn English for visual arts purposes.

Other sub-fields in the English for Specific Purposes family:
> Business English
> English for Science and Technology
> Medical English
> Legal English
> Tourism English

Why not the Language of Art and Design?

Now, while the Language of Art and Design might be a new idea for you, English for Specific Purposes, otherwise known as ESP, probably isn’t. Other ESP sub-fields include Business English, English for Science and Technology, Medical English, Legal English, and Tourism English. In these other sub-fields, the subject content is combined with English language teaching. With existing textbooks on the market and an abundance of research, these sub-fields have become relatively common throughout the world. If you visit a large language institute, Business English is often listed as a course option. However, unfortunately, because of the much smaller market, the Language of Art and Design is not offered in great abundance.

Now, I will talk about the current scope and state of the Language of Art and Design.

In my research, I have identified several programs at art and design schools in the United States, Britain, Australia, and Hong Kong. Further, I’ve identified classes in Thailand, Malaysia, and Korea, and there are probably a lot of other places too. Basically, as English is the language of international communication, for better or worse, every art program in English-speaking countries, and every art program outside of English-speaking countries with ESL classes, may offer something.

However, on a practical note, I have found that programs and classes have developed more quickly at art and design schools, which are separate from universities. Within this context, decisions about specialization of classes seems easier as all of the students are involved in the visual arts.

Identifying programs and sharing information is one of the objectives in my work. One of the problems with the Language of Art and Design is the problem of obtaining information about programs and teaching situations. For example, I found out that my university, Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, was doing some of this work on a trip to Hong Kong and after speaking to a couple of professors. Up until about 3 months ago, there was nothing published that mentioned that my school did this kind of work. The same goes for most of the other programs that I have located. However, for ESP, this is nothing unusual, as one of the challenges in ESP is developing a more comprehensive and international network to identify courses and programs.

Now, within the context of providing ESP instruction, my work consists of language training that you would not see in a general English classroom.

As a means of training art students, in my classroom, I have provided preparation for the following:
> Descriptions of elements and principles with applications to student work
> Concepts
> Presentations
> Combine tours of local art and architecture with English language learning objectives
> Critiques
> Artist’s statements
> Histories and criticism

For the most part, my work concentrates on using communicative methodology, something I think most of you have experienced. For speaking, this is when you, the students, are doing most of the talking in class. For writing, this is when you take the English that you know and write simplified paragraphs and essays. And from these simplified constructions, more sophisticated language is added on in degrees. If you have taken an English conversation class, then you have experienced communicative methodology. This is fairly common at language institutes throughout Korea.

While my work to date has focused on producing language, reading and listening are more challenging because, quite simply, you can’t control it. However, readings in the arts can be organized from the low-advanced level on up.

Now, I’d like to demonstrate some of the things I do.

Please take a look at the first page of your handout, and I’ll also show this to you on the projector.

The handout page had a cloze exercise with the lyrics of Laurie Anderson’s abstract song Sweaters.

The musician Laurie Anderson is actually a performance artist who has been working well over twenty years. In her work, she tells stories and sings, uses electronic devices to alter sound. Also, in her performances, she uses a variety of projected images on screens in the background. Also, early in her career, when she took a lot of odd jobs to support herself, she briefly taught storytelling and writing to non-native learners of English.

Now, please listen to the following song, and fill in the blanks:


Afterwards, I ask students to create their own abstract songs to express a breakup in a relationship. With their words, I then ask them to explain their choice of abstract language.

I have incorporated the work of Laurie Anderson from time to time in my classroom as inspirations for developing concepts and descriptions, and as an inspiration for creative writing. I like her use of clear speech and conceptual language.

Next, I will outline something called the "Artwork sheet". The Artwork sheet is on page 2 of your handout.

The artwork sheet is a graph, and in this graph, an artwork is divided into several categories. While this process is good practice for flushing out all sorts of art language, it can be time-consuming process. However, if you approach smaller parts of the sheet at one time, it’s much easier. Now, this paper you have is not the actual size of the sheet I’d ask for. Instead, I’d suggest a large piece of drawing paper.

So, in my work, I approach each section individually in order to flush out certain language, for example, the language for subject matter, the language of line, etc.

However, before I begin to show a couple of sections to you, I’d like to talk about "parts". "Parts" are the parts of a work. It may be the foreground and the background, or it may be the focal point and everything else. For organized speaking and writing, I ask my students to create parts, and I suggest that they divide most works into 3-5 [compositional] parts.

(Slide #1)
For example, in The Scream, we could say there are three parts (SHOW)

(Slides #2, 3, and 4)
and in Dali’s Persistence of Memory... (SHOW)

(Slides #5 and 6)
and in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, .... (SHOW)

I ask students to do this so that the entire work is discussed. Sometimes, for newer students, they’ll talk about the focal point, but not other areas.

Now, I’d like to show you how I approach basic subject matter. As a demonstration, please look at the slide The Scream and your handout on page 3 of your handout.

Describing Subject Matter

Exercise: Speaking
1. What do you see? Describe the part: things, colors, shapes, etc.
2. Where is the part? Example: foreground, to the left, etc.
3. For people (and animals), what are they doing?
4. For people (and animals), do they look happy, sad, angry? Why do you think this?

Example: For The Scream (man in foreground):
1. I see a strange man. He has no hair, a green face and yellow eyes.
2. The man is in the foreground, in the middle, at the bottom.
3. The man is covering his ears with his hands. He is screaming. The title is The Scream.
4. He looks shocked or scared. I think this because his mouth is open in an exaggerated way, his hands are over his ears, he looks in pain, and the title is The Scream.

Exercise: Writing
1. Write the answers to questions 1-4. Do the most important part first.
2. Combine sentences for the most important part.
3. Write about the other parts.

Then after, I would ask you to write your answers on the Artwork graph sheet on a large piece of drawing paper. And afterwards, I would ask you to organize this information into a paragraph.


As another example of the artwork sheet, and a bit more difficult, I will show you how I approach the language of depth. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to review The Depth Checklist on page 4. Now, for this, please look at The Last Supper and check off the technique that Leonardo used.

(SLIDE #8 and Transparency)

The Depth Checklist

Which techniques were used in The Last Supper? Put a check next to the ones mentioned in the reading.

___ depicted objects are clearly defined in the foreground / blurry in the background
___ uses isometric perspective
___ uses atmospheric perspective
___ uses linear perspective
___ parallel lines are far apart in the foreground / closer together in the background
___ overlaps things
___ things are in greater detail in the foreground / are in less detail in the background
___ things are large in the foreground / small in the background
___ things have a rough texture in the foreground / have a smooth texture in the background
___ things have intense colors in the foreground / greyed, or dulled, colors in the background

This information is used as a basis for essay writing. After each technique, I ask students to give a clear example of where Leonardo used depth.

For example, Leonardo overlaps the figures in the foreground.

Also, Leonardo uses linear perspective. We can see this on the walls on the left and right side.

Now, another technique for reviewing the language of depth, is to use an image like this:

(Slide #9)

This is a design by Alan Chan, a Hong Kong designer. As it’s a relatively flat image, it is a good image to practice this language with negatives.

For example, Alan Chan did not use linear perspective, he did not use atmospheric perspective, etc.

Now, while this sheet as you see it, concentrates on the elements and principles, it can be expanded to include other information as well: materials and technique, sociological, economic, and philosophical information, and content.

In summary, by organizing information on a sheet, you will see that similar kinds of language will emerge in the particular sections.

(Slides 10 and 11)

For presentation practice, for students at the intermediate level on up, I focus on two things, speaking projects which ask students to develop a concept with a sketch, and then present it to small groups or the class, and also presentation practice of their work done in studio.

For speaking projects, one of the more popular ones is Surrealistic Theme Park Ride. Please refer to your handout on page 5.

(Time for student review- 1-2 minutes)

Here, my students need to develop an idea in English in groups and present their theme park ride idea to other groups or the entire class. In this process, students follow the same language route as when they have developed a studio project.

(Slides 10 and 11)

For students’ own work, we address general presentation skills. Meanwhile, at the same time, we approach specific questions from the studio (Click to see the questions). These questions cover information about the project task, the concept, subject matter, elements and principles, materials and technique, the context of the work as it relates to the artist, and reflections about the work. My students use and change these questions as they relate to their work. These questions form the basis for speaking, note-taking, and writing, and I have included these questions with a Korean translation.

Lastly, I am a strong believer of taking the Language of Art and Design out of the classroom and into the visual arts community. In Philadelphia and Hong Kong, this meant taking students to museums, galleries, and on architectural tours. For example, I’ll show you a trip to an exhibition on Scottish art overlooking the harbor in Hong Kong. On this trip, my students were asked to respond to the exhibition, an individual work, or the interior design of the exhibition space.

(Slides 13, 14, and 15)

In a different tour in Hong Kong, I sent my students to ArtAsia, an international art fair, to do language-based research. For this trip, students were asked to develop a project that would require reading, speaking and/or listening in English, and then they’d have to write a two page report.

Student groups produced the following projects:

> Interviewing an artist or art dealer.
> Interviewing non-Chinese visitors for opinions of the fair
> Reporting about a particular work that they felt strongly about
> Lastly, one that is a bit bizarre and became quite popular, something called LAD Spies. For LAD Spies, the students would briefly listen to other people who were speaking English and try to figure out what they were talking about.

In student reports, the one thing that pleased me, was that the students experienced something new about English and art. In addition to showing both European and American art, ArtAsia shows a lot of Asian art. Students experienced that they could speak to an Indonesian and Korean artist about their work, speak to Japanese tourists about the work at the fair, and understand the general idea of an authentic conversation in English at an art fair. Perhaps more importantly, they experienced that English is not only a language that provides access to people in English-speaking countries, but also gains access to the Asian art community as well.

- - -

In this lecture, I have demonstrated some of the activities I do to encourage students to talk about art and design in their second language, English. Next, I will make the following suggestions for an Independent Study in the Language of Art and Design.

The following suggestions are from my activities and I will identify resources that you can utilize, which are included in your handout. This independent scheme is recommended for students with at least a high basic knowledge of English. Intermediate to an advanced level is preferable.

Within an independent scheme, writing will be the most important activity as it relies less on interaction with other people.

For writing, I suggest two things:

First, I suggest starting an English journal. Everyday, write for about 10 minutes about your work, other people’s work, your ideas, experiences, etc. It doesn’t need to be organized, simply write about your ideas as they come along. 10 minutes isn’t a lot, and after a couple of weeks, you should see that you are writing more. Use simple and clear language, and only allow five new vocabulary words for each writing time.

Second, I suggest using the concept of the Artwork sheet. Create art vocabulary lists that you develop and as the specialist vocabulary comes up. Words for lines, shapes, and colors will become necessary as you need to use them. Practice writing about individual parts of the work, and particular sections on the sheet, and then practice writing about an entire work. You can add different sections like style, interpretations, materials, and other extrinsic information. Again, use simple and clear language.

For reading, I suggest a combination of things:

First, I suggest reading authentic material if you are at the high-intermediate and advanced English level.

For authentic material, art sections in English language newspapers are a good source. These articles are usually written in simpler English, and while they are written for a more general audience, they approach art topics and are usually easier to read.

I also suggest a magazine published in the States called Scholastic Art. While it’s a magazine for high school students, art language is approached and it is easier to read.

Also, in your handout, I have listed specific books dealing with elements, principles, and short histories of art. I would suggest using these as a resource for specialized second language development as the content will be rather familiar to you, and these books are linguistically simpler than other art books. Also, some of these books include one page essays on art topics like art conservation, artists ideas about other artists, and artist biographies. These tend to be short and easier to read.

Now, I’d like to mention dictionaries. In your handout, I have included a brief list of art and design dictionaries. I encourage you to purchase one of them because general English dictionaries often don’t include specialized art language.

Also, I would suggest using your own writing as a resource for reading. By reading your own writing, you’ll gain speed and accuracy, and help increase your ability to communicate. You’ll also learn the new words that you included from your dictionary. For art students, you’ll be reading about your art, and the English you need to explain your work.

Moving on to speaking practice, I would suggest locating a visual arts English conversation partner that has a similar English language level as you. You can practice talking about your work, practice talking about different sections on the Artwork Sheet, or use the suggested readings mentioned before as a basis for discussions about art issues and language.

For other suggestions, first, you might consider recording yourself giving a presentation of a work of art. This is good for listening and is good for self-assessment of your speaking skills.

Also, you might consider listening to the work of performance artist / musician Laurie Anderson, in particular her CDs Big Science and The Ugly One with the Jewels. In the process of listening to her storytelling and music that is relatively clear, often with words on the CD jacket, you’re also learning about one of America’s famous performance artists. Her work is available through Warner Brothers Records.

Videos on art and design are another source. While there is a wide variety on the market, they seem to be rather problematic, as the language can be quite sophisticated. However, watching short clips of 5 minutes a couple of times will provide an authentic experience and your comprehension should increase the second time around.

Also, you might consider finding a private English teacher who has an arts background. Chances are that they will be interested in Korean art. Also, if they can allow it, they’d probably be thrilled for you to present your work in an English class. Also, if you gather a few students more or less at your language level, you could create your own class. Even if your teacher doesn’t know a great deal about art, your practice in explaining art terms and concepts to a general English audience will help you explain your work to a larger group.

Lastly, if you have taken a conversation class in English, you will remember that your teacher asked you to keep your language at your English level. For your specialized study, I suggest that you keep your language simple. Don’t add hundreds of vocabulary words.

In conclusion, the Language of Art and Design offers an alternative to general language learning for people involved with the visual arts. At present, we could say that this work is still in an experimental stage. Yet, we can see that by drawing upon ESP theory, the two can be combined very effectively as demonstrated in more mature ESP sub-fields— Business English, English for Science and Technology, and Tourism English.

At present, there aren’t any textbooks on the market. In fact, compared to Business English and English for Science and Technology, the potential number of persons studying the Language of Art and Design is much smaller. So, people who want to study the Language of Art and Design need to either find this kind of learning situation, or create their own learning situation. I hope that the activities and the resources I have outlined will start you on your way.

Suggestions for an Independent Study in the Language of Art and Design (in handout, list for audience)

The following text below is from the handout given to the audience.

I suggest these activities for an independent study.


> Journals
> Graph sheet writing


> Authentic readings

> English language newspaper art sections
> Scholastic Art

> Visual Arts Language Books

Marjorie Elliott Bevlin. 1995. Design Through Discovery (6th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1989.

Otto G. Ocvirk, Robert E. Stinson, Robert O. Bone, and David L. Cayton. 1994. Art Fundamentals: Theory and Practice (7th ed.). Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown.

> Selected Visual Arts Language Books with Short Histories

Rita Gilbert. 1995. Living with Art (4th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Includes one page essays on art topics and artists

> Read your own writing

> Dictionaries

Ian Chilvers, H. Osborne, and D. Farr. 1988. The Oxford Dictionary of Art. New York: Oxford University Press.

Guy Julier. 1993. Encyclopedia of 20th Century Design and Designers. London: Thames and Hudson.

Alan Livingston. 1992. The Thames and Hudson Encyclopedia of Graphic Design and Designers. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Edward Lucie-Smith. 1984. The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1984.


> Locate a visual arts conversation partner.
> Use the suggested readings as a basis for discussion of art issues and language.

Other Suggestions

> Record yourself giving a presentation of a work of art.
> Listen to performance artist / musician Laurie Anderson’s Big Science and Ugly One with the Jewels.
> Watch videos on art and design.
> Investigate the internet.
> Locate an English teacher who has an arts background.