Skip to navigationSkip to content

The best way to learn a language is with your hands

Images courtesy of Carly Rounds
To the park!
  • Anne Quito
By Anne Quito

Design and architecture reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

With her 2-year-old tucked in and her husband watching Sons of Anarchy on the TV, the Washington, DC-based graphic designer Carly Rounds is dead-focused on her evening ritual of sketching out a Spanish phrase on her drawing pad: “Dame la manito,” or “Give me the little hand.”

Give me the little hand!

This year, she had two resolutions, says Rounds, who works as a part-time art director: Do something creative, and learn Spanish. “This is my way of trying to do both, I guess,” she says.

There’s another motivation, too—one that monolingual parents trying to raise bilingual children will recognize. “I am really doing this so I can commune with my toddler, who already knows much more Spanish than I do,” Rounds says, explaining that she employs a Nicaraguan nanny during the two days in the week that she goes to the office. “I think we’re so lucky to have found a caregiver to teach her Spanish. But we do have a bit of a language barrier.”

Every evening, Rounds selects just one short phrase or a few words to hand-letter and sometimes illustrate, usually simple commands or affirmative words: ¡Espérame! (Wait for me!); ¡Puedes hacerlo! (You can do it!); Que descanses (Sleep well). She chooses phrases she can use to converse with her daughter, Mallory, the next day.

The link between art and language is well established in academic circles. In her evening ritual Rounds is essentially touching on several learning domains, which may be helping her absorb the Spanish phrases. “Drawing it out helps cement the words in my mind,” says Rounds.

Design legend Milton Glaser (video) speaks of drawing as a form of active thinking. “The act of drawing makes me conscious of what I’m looking at,” explained the prolific designer perhaps best know for creating the “I ❤ NY” logo. “If I was not drawing, I would not be seeing.”

Rounds’ tools are simple: a pad of newsprint, a no. 2 pencil, and a Bic ballpoint pen. She takes about an hour to draw out each phrase, the finishing flourish being a quick photo for Instagram. “I only have very few followers on Instagram (55 as of this writing) but my friends’ comments somehow help me feel motivated. They keep me accountable.”

The results of Rounds’ daily practice combine maternal pragmatism with a designer’s whimsy. Many finished pieces hint at the influence of master letterer Ken Barber, whose workshop she took three years ago, while some drawings recall children’s book illustrator Chris Van Allsburg‘s patient hand.

But Rounds is not too precious about each labor-intensive piece, describing them simply as exercise sheets. ”What do I plan to do with these papers?” she muses, smiling widely. “I plan to give them to my daughter so she can draw all over them!”

Carly Rounds
Mallory, aka “el doodler”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.