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FROM THE ARTIST TO THE LANGUAGE LEARNER: The Mutual Dependence of Language and Literature.

(BY Joshua AKEMECHA)                               


             From the cradle of mankind, great artists have emerged from various civilizations to express their imaginations, thoughts, feelings and perception about the cosmos in various art forms which include: Fine art (paintings, drawings, sculpture and architecture); liberal art (thought and expression through music and literature); and plastic art and ceramics that have to do with melting things and changing forms to have such things as clay pots and artificial flowers.

Fifty years after independence, have we found or discovered the correlation among these art forms? When teachers teach English language and literature, do they make them interdependent or see them as two distinct classroom subjects that run like parallel lines? Can pictures, photographs, paintings, Sculptures etc. inspire us to produce literary pieces like classic essays, the lyric, the epic, the short story, the novel etc.? Can language skills be taught and learnt from these literary pieces?

This paper aims at highlighting the mutuality of art forms and to demonstrate that literature can be used as a spring board to teach language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing) and language sub skills as grammar and vocabulary.

            What is art?

The term “Art” refers to a global activity that involves a wide range of disciplines that can be grouped or categorized under Fine Art, Liberal Art, Visual Art, Applied Art, Plastic Art and Ceramics, Decorative Art, Design, Performing Art and others.

These categories are not distinct and there is much overlapping. We will concentrate here on traditional art forms sometimes referred to as crafts or skilled crafts; try to bring out their common artistic features, and then show how they are related to language and literature.

The Irish Art Encyclopedia states that “Art is created when an artist creates a beautiful object, or produces a stimulating experience that is considered by his audience to have artistic merit”.

Encarta Encyclopedia defines art as the product of creative human activity in which materials are shaped or selected to convey an idea, emotion or visually interesting form. Art in this case is visual and therefore includes painting, sculpture architecture, photography, decorative arts, crafts and other visual forms that combine material or forms. In a general sense, it encompasses other creative activities as dance and music.

Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary defines “Art” as the making of objects, images, music and so on, that are beautiful or that express feelings.

The Irish writer James Joyce (1916) in his novel: A Portrait of the Artist as a young man says “Art is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an aesthetic end”



All artistic works are consciously produced by humans and share some common features. Artists have the ability to create and they expect others to appreciate the beauty of their creation. Hence, artistic works have certain points in Common.

1) AESTHETIC VALUE: The preoccupation of the artist is the creation of beauty. All arts are an expression of some sort of beauty and a full appreciation may in some cases require all human senses. James Joyce says beauty is the apprehension of what pleases, and this reminds us of what Aquinas says that beauty lies in the eyes of the perceiver.

2) DELIGHT: Art must be delightful, that is, the viewer must derive pleasure from the artistic object.  The perspective from which the object is viewed is very important. Take a look at this drawing, and then turn the   page or rotate the image up-side-down and take another look. Do you find any difference? Is it beautiful?

3) IMITATION: In the days of Aristotle, art was said to be an imitation of some ideal form or reality. The artist ‘’imitates’’ the ‘’external form’’ of the object in front of him and the beholder in his turn recognizes the ‘’subject’’ of the work of art by the ‘’form’’.

However, the argument was already rife since the days of LEONARDO da Vinci (1452-1519), an Italian painter, Sculptor Musician and Engineer that art is not imitation but creation; so the artist does not imitate but creates.

4) CREATIVITY: The artist is a creative genius who does not only reproduce or copy forms but imagines and can transform abstractions into marvelous concrete objects. The created object should be attractive, compelling and appealing. The artist can display his craftsmanship in concrete objects or in words; by words here we mean language and literature (oral or written literature). All literary works are creative but the appreciation of their beauty depends on the individual reader.

5) INDIVIDUAL EXPRESSION: Artistic works may look alike but no two works of art can be the same. Each work of art is the expression of the artist’s individual opinion, idea, thought or perception.

6) COMMUNICATION: Although some critics may see Fine Art as art for art’s sake, the artist usually has a message to communicate. He then uses the art form he prefers or that which he is endowed with to communicate his massage.


In ancient Greece, Art was associated with ‘’mimesis’’ which is the imitation of reality. Greek artists were the first to establish mimesis (imitation of nature) as the guiding principle for art. This was mainly in painting, sculpture, architecture and literature. In The Middle Ages, Visual Art was used to teach people, many of whom could not read the scriptures. Art taught by means of delight, using fascinating forms. During the Renaissance, painting, sculpture and poetry were distinguished as ‘’high art’’. Artist during this period argued that they were not imitating but creating original forms. Narrative painting told stories that could teach morals just as literature could.

The Academic des Beaux-Arts, founded in 1648 in Paris, France gave the arts of painting, sculpture and architecture the name ‘’beaux-arts’’, meaning ‘’fine arts’’ and tried to differentiate between ‘higher art’ and ‘lower art’ or crafts. However, artists in modern times ignore the demarcation between fine art and craft as established by the academies.

Not until the 20th century, all views of art were based on western tradition. Then one man, an Italian artist, Pablo Picasso found fascination in African sculpture. Since then, African masks have been admired by western collectors. These are often hung on walls to be admired for their powerful abstract qualities. In Africa, masks form part of elaborate costumes for various ceremonies and go along with rituals, dance, and music.


1) FINE ART: This distinction from the French Academie des Beaux Arts includes drawings, paintings and sculpture. These are products that are admired for their beauty and have no practical use to man. They can be displayed in galleries and museums and they often cost a lot of money.

2) PLASTIC ART: It has to do with the production of plastic objects from substances that can be shaped when soft into many different forms for various uses e.g. plastic flowers, bags, cups, boxes etc.

3) CERAMIC ART: The production of objects by shaping pieces of clay which are then made hard by baking. It includes all objects produced by heating and shaping clay (pottery).

4) LIBERAL ARTS: These can be seen as college or university subjects, which include Literature, History, Music, languages and Philosophy. They generally have to do with thought and expression.

5) GRAPHIC ART: It has to do with drawing and printmaking. These are often done on paper or a pièce of white cloth.

6) ARCHITECTURE: The art of creating beautiful structures in which people can live, work, worship or play. Architects are different from sculptors and painters in that their buildings are useful to man while paintings and sculpture only delight.

7) PHOTOGRAPHY AND NEW MEDIA: This domain includes photographs, video art, films and digital art which all use sophisticated technology to create images.           8) DECORATIVE ART: The objects in this category are used to adorn the body or to decorate homes. They include textile, furniture, pottery and ceramics.


Because of the common features in art forms, there is mutual dependence. Using one form of art is like communicating in a particular language and using another form of art to communicate the same information is like translating from one language to another.

William Blake and Odia Ofeimun use poetry to paint ‘’The Tiger’’ and ‘’Benin Woman’’ respectively. The portraits are so vivid that we perceive the objects in the Mind. But ‘the tiger’ and the statue of a Benin woman could also have been painted, drawn or carved to communicate the same messages.

Literature is one of these art languages and even the most popular. Good literature can only be created by one who masters the language being used; hence, no one can take language away from literature or literature away from language.


Literature plays a vital role in language studies. Many students do not see the relationship between language and literature. Rathindranath (1983) quotes Dr. Helen W. power who observed that ‘’the fault lies with the teachers who do not take the trouble to explain that language is not opposed to literature (in the way that science is) and that the study of language can never be complete without a proper appreciation of the literary works in that language. The same is true of literature. It is impossible to understand the literature of a country without having control over the language of that country.’’

Language is not an end in itself but a means to an end, a means which should enable the learner to read and appreciate the literature written in that language. Literary appreciation on its part cannot be effective without a thorough knowledge of the language.

Literature enables us to understand life better, broadens the mind and enables us to formulate the ability to investigate systematically. It is the bounden duty of language teachers to teach both the language students and the formulators of the curricula that English literature is extremely varied and that there are wonderful literary works suitable for students of all ages and levels. For example, while the original version of Dickens David Copperfield is studied at honors level, the abridged version can be studied at lower secondary. While Shakespeare’s Macbeth is studied at upper secondary and high school, younger learners could read Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.


Literature can enable us teach all language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and their sub skills; grammar and vocabulary. Rinvolucri (1983), says storytelling enhances speaking and listening skills very well. The best use of this is made when learning is divided into three stages: pre-telling, during-telling, and after telling. The teacher thinks of various activities at each stage that will enable students learn the skills. These may range from brainstorming through discussions in groups to retelling the story. Follow up exercises should lead learners to practice all language skills.

Folktales abound in Africa but little use is made of oral tales in language lessons. The teaching of literature in Cameroon has been based mainly on written literature and the lengthy stories with a lot of details cannot be told orally at a go.

Fluency in Language can be attained through repeated reading. Joshua Cohen (2011) says repeated reading is a method whereby students read and reread a text silently and aloud several times to reach a predetermined level of speed, accuracy and comprehension.

When the appropriate content is selected for the learners, taking into consideration their age and level, they are given the opportunity to integrate sub skills which they have begun to acquire in reading, such as:  flow, fluidity, speed, accuracy and comprehension.


Tatiana Lyutaya (2011), says integrating extensive reading with writing tasks is one of the best ways to make progress in ELL (English Language Learning). Students speak and listen when they do assignments on the text in groups and can practice writing as a before-, during-, or post-reading activity. For these benefits to be achieved, teachers must choose the right approach, select the appropriate text, have guide lines for assignments or assessments and make students know the objectives otherwise reading literature may just turn out to be drudgery for both learner and teacher.

Extensive reading ‘’is generally associated with reading large amounts with the aim of getting an overall understanding of the material ‘’ (Bamford and Day, 1997). In extensive reading, the reader is interested in the main idea of the text. He is not interested in a detailed analysis of grammar, themes, diction etc. which are done in intensive reading. It enables learners to enjoy reading and gain a general understanding of the literary ideas.

Lyutaya writes that extensive reading allows students to find pleasure in reading as they gain a general understanding of literary ideas, learn reading strategies, acquire new vocabulary and increase their English proficiency. In EFL classes, there is little exposure to spoken language; hence, reading becomes very important for the acquisition of the language.

Students can keep reading logs to regularly write down various things related to what they read. They develop comprehension and vocabulary learning strategies and these in turn help them better appreciate the text. They develop sub reading skills as brainstorming, skimming and scanning. In learning vocabulary, they learn to be able to deduce meanings of words from the context , ameliorate their grammar and increase their proficiency in English


The Trans-Cultural Comparative Literature method is an innovative way to use literature to teach advanced English as a Foreign Language (EFL). This method is based on Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and draws profusely from grammar and vocabulary. It enhances vocabulary drill and memorization of grammatical rules. The study of grammar and vocabulary by translation are not done in the traditional manner, but rather use relevant cultural activities to enhance communicative Language learning.


We have been trying to demonstrate that art forms are interrelated and that literature can be used to teach language skills; that literature and language are not   only inter-dependent but inseparable, and that any teacher who says he can teach one without the other is a fake teacher.

Generally, artists can swing from one form of art to another; drawing inspiration from one to create the other; from paintings, photographs, masks and others, a writer can be inspired to produce a poem, short story, novel, epic etc. and these can be used to teach all language skills. Teachers of EFL/ ESL must of necessity be prepared to teach literature and vice versa.


  • Chattopadhyay, Rathindranath. ‘’The Role of Literature in the Study of                           Language’’. English Teaching Forum XXI,2 (April 1983): 36 – 37
  • Rinvolucri, Mario F. ‘’Storytelling in the Foreign Language Classroom’’. English Teaching Forum XXI,2 (April 1983): 36 – 37
  • Lyutaya, Tatiana. ‘’Reading Logs: Integrating Extensive Reading with Writing Tasks’’. English Teaching Forum, 49, 1(2011): 26 – 34
  • Sapargul, Danstan and Sartor, Valerie. ‘’The Trans-cultural Comparative Literature Method: Using Grammar Translation Techniques Effectively’’. English Teaching Forum, 48, 3 (2010): 26 – 33
  • Cohen, Joshua. ‘’Building Fluency through the Repeated Reading Method’’. English Teaching Forum, 49, 3 (2011): 20 – 27
  • Gombrich, E.A. ‘’Meditations on a Hobby Horse’’. Classic Essays. Ed. Josephine Miles. Boston: Little Brown and Company 1961: 408-422.
  • Barnes, Bernadine. Encarta Encyclopaedia, Standard Edition (2004).
  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Third Edition. Cambridge University Press (2008).
  • Wikipedia (Free Encyclopaedia). 2004.
  • Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a young Man. New York: Millennium Project (1916).

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