A painting worth a thousand lessons

CarlosPaezVilaroI begin every class and workshop I lead with an image. It’s a painting, really–one I stumbled upon at the Four Seasons Hotel Miami, where I stayed once for work. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, in passing, on my way to the elevator, but paused to study it, drawn in by the painting’s bright colors and depiction of a bustling port.

The painting, by Uruguayan artist Carlos Páez Vilaró, has served me well since I first saw and covertly snapped a picture of it, given that, in an image, it communicates the concepts I most hope to impart on my students, and demonstrates what I believe are three important steps towards cultural preparedness.

Step One: Language acquisition

Knowing another language, even at a rudimentary level, challenges the mind to understand, hear, engage with, and even see the world differently, and can help endear those who attempt to speak the language to those who speak it natively.

Plus, in a language class setting, especially one like the business Spanish class I teach at Emory, mastering new and, at times, specialized vocabulary represents a core aspect of the classroom experience.

I begin by asking my students how they think the painting represents the concept of language acquisition, to which they respond with the word aduana, or customs. Fitting for a business Spanish class focusing heavily on global commerce, right?

Step Two: Current events and business landscape

It’s difficult to understand a country or region–or the world, for that matter–without a grasp of its current events, and in the case of my business Spanish course and workshops on Latin America, its business landscape.

How the painting represents this important concept is less apparent but no less powerful.

After a few awkward moments of searching someone will eventually raise a hand to ask what ANCAP, the text on the ship at the back and center of the painting, means. My response, that it is Uruguay’s state-owned petroleum company, initiates a longer conversation about the country’s economic trends, resources, and free trade agreements and alliances around the world.

Step Three: Culture

Steps One and Two would be of little use, however, if it were not for culture and its acknowledgement, exploration, and eventually, understanding. Cultural knowledge contextualizes how language is spoken, when, and why, and similarly, serves as a legend by which to map out how a country operates, when, and why.

As a final stroke towards bringing Páez Vilaró’s painting to life, the students identify its cultural elements as the colors of the buildings and their close proximity to one another. They always mention the cat in the foreground and the cranes in the back, and the more observant among them will point out that not a single person appears in this otherwise active urban landscape.

Despite having only traveled the distance it took them to arrive to class, the students already know that Uruguay–and more specifically its capital, Montevideo–is modern and urban, has an import-export driven economy, and is home to a large, state-run oil and gas industry.

The painting may contain the three fundamental steps outlined above but is worth more than a thousand lessons.

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