The Evolution of a Language Comic Book

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I sometimes reflect on the journey that led to me now having published a comic book in French as an eBook. Like many who studied languages in school, I realised that despite 5 years of French, I couldn’t understand a native speaker, and I struggled to read a book written for native speakers. This didn’t seem right. I had some reading books written for learners of French, but there still seemed to be a lot of vocabulary that I didn’t know.

I started tinkering with the idea of a story that would only use words that English speakers already knew, plus one new word per page. The Taxi story in my comic was the first of these ideas. The Gnomeville story came later.

In the early 2000s, I showed my scribbled draft to a near-native French speaker, who gave me excellent feedback on my French. In addition to picking up a few grammatical nuances, I learnt that I couldn’t trust my textbook or my French-English dictionary. Around this time I also showed the draft to an artist colleague who was an author of children’s books. She suggested inking over the sketches and sending it to a publisher. I started working on the artwork and really enjoyed it. While I did send to a couple of publishers, they were not interested, so I decided to self-publish.

Feedback from other colleagues and friends led to the language summary section at the back of the comic, as well as page numbers. All the while I was learning more about language acquisition via reading, through my research in the field of computer-assisted language learning and computational linguistics. I learnt that 95% coverage is needed for comprehension (guessing of unknown words), and that glosses help with vocabulary acquisition, as do images. A subtlety I learnt more recently is that the best strategy for vocabulary retention is to first guess the word, and then look at the meaning.

I attended the Alliance Française to improve my French language skills. I continued to work on the comic, and brought the latest draft along to one of my lessons and was please to hear chuckles from my classmates at some of the humour. A few more language issues were sorted out thanks to feedback from the teachers.

Initially I was producing an A4 draft. This switched to A5 at some point. Then later I had the peculiar idea to make the comic fit into a DVD case, so the comic and CD could be sold together in a protective case. This became the default format for the comic that was released in 2014, at my choir’s La Musique de France concert. Feedback from someone at le forum led me to create a large format, which is roughly the size of a typical American comic book. So I ended up with many formats: small, small +CD in DVD case, large, large + CD. Finally, I now have it as an eBook as well. For my next issue I will be sticking with large format (and eBook), and make the audio a separate product. This reduces the number of ISBN numbers required, and the paperwork side of things.

Tonight I received feedback on my draft of the second issue, and the language side of things is in pretty good shape, so I’m hoping to have the full issue finalised by the end of May. I’m keen to have some progress after all these years. Also, the more episodes I do, the more useful it is for learners. I can see future learners reading one issue per day to get maximum benefit, or at least one issue per week.

Comprehensible Input

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I came across this article recently while looking at on-line language learning groups and resources. Apparently there is a friction between those who understand the research on language acquisition and those who believe in language lessons. If one tries to learn or memorise language, it uses a different mental process to that used for communication, and doesn’t contribute to communication skill in the language, which explains a lot about people’s frustration with language education.

One point raised in the article is that early stage language acquirers tend to focus on content words, and not absorb the surrounding function words. This agrees with the observation that it is often easier to remember concrete nouns than the words that connect them in sentences.

How does this apply to my comic book? Well, my comic book attempts to make the input as comprehensible as possible for the complete novice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that this works. It also attempts to be as engaging as possible. Having heard chuckles from students of French when reading earlier drafts, I’d say that it does achieve that goal. Also, a recent customer said the following: “BTW, my 11yo read your book and I saw him giggling”. This makes me happy, as I was advised to develop this as a children’s reading resource.

Gnomeville comic book cover containing head of dragon with smoke billowing out of its mouth and the title

Episode 1 Progress

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I’m very happy that people are starting to buy the ebook edition of my comic for learners of French with an English-speaking background. I’ve had purchases from UK, Canada and USA, as well as some kindle unlimited reads. It can be deflating when nobody buys the work you’ve put your heart and soul into, but then when they do, you are inspired to keep going with the vision.

On my Facebook page, I made a special offer for people who have read the comic book to write an Amazon review in order to receive a free copy of the narration by native French speaker Jeremy Marozeau.  This offer expires at the end of the month.

It’s also not too late to receive all audio tracks on mailing magnifica@gnomevillecomics.com the Amazon kindle receipt showing purchase of episode 1.

Meanwhile, the first additional resource for episode 1 is now available. I decided to focus on fashion and celebrity for this one.  It’s mainly pictures and links to articles in French about “le total look”. I hope it’s useful for beginners in French with an interest in fashion.

Where’s the Quality?

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As a conscientious writer with an academic background I tend to try very hard to write correctly in all my publications and communications. Obviously sometimes one is rushed or typing on a small smartphone, so a few typos get by the self-editing phase. Occasionally I’m surprised at myself that I have typed the wrong spelling for a word, such as “their” for “they’re”, when I know very well the correct word to use, but in my haste the wrong word came out of my fingers. This seems to happen even for parts of words, where I always mistype some words the first time because they contain a sequence of characters that occurs frequently that leads me to follow with an incorrect one. An example for me is words that end in “in”, which will often automatically get a “g” after them, which I then need to backspace.

Some people don’t care about editing, and so be it. However there are some situations when I think it is our responsibility to be as correct in our writing as we can be. One of those situations is in resources for language learners. I have learnt through my attempts to write in another language that it is nearly impossible to write like a native speaker of the language. Languages are just too large to know all the phrases and collocations, let alone the vocabulary and grammar that most people manage to master. So, if you care about quality then the thing to do is to have a native-speaking proof-reader for your work. Some of the books in my collection have clearly made use of colleagues to do language checking, and that gives me a bit more faith in the authenticity of the language that I’m being exposed to. But in my recent scan of language books on Smashwords I was horrified at the poor quality writing, even just in the introductory blurb. There were some very poorly written English stories aimed at the Chinese ESL market. On the plus side, Chinese students of English would find them easier to read than stories with more English-like English, but it doesn’t give them the chance to absorb correct English grammar as they read. Likewise I found a Canadian book in French that, even with my B1-level French I could tell had incorrect grammar in the blurb.

So, advice to those writing stories for language learners (and anyone wanting to write as well as possible in a foreign language):

  1. Write stories in your own native (or best) language. It’s more likely to be correct.
  2. If you write in a foreign language (as I do), then it is imperative that you have a native speaker check it for you. You can’t trust (old) dictionaries, or sometimes even textbooks, to help you write correctly.
  3. Some techniques that can help you write correctly (before you get it checked) is to use a corpus-based dictionary, a concordancer, and a search engine. Check that words you want to use are actually used in the way you intend. Check the preposition that is normally used.
  4. Software is being developed that helps users improve or check their writing. MS Word has a grammar checker, so it can be useful for checking (but you can’t rely on it completely). Other prototype systems are being developed, some of which I saw at CoLing 2016 in Osaka recently, and another at the English Australia 2016 Conference in Hobart. Use the tools available to you.

The first time I had a near-native speaker check my comic book draft it was an eye-opener. I learnt that I couldn’t trust my old Cassells French-English dictionary, and that I couldn’t trust my high school textbook. The second (or was it third) time I had a native speaker read through the story she picked up an error that the first proof-reader didn’t. The final proof-reader was my narrator, who only remarked upon one phrase which remains in the comic “Le total?”, which occurs when a native speaker is more likely to use the expression “l’addition”. It is grammatically and semantically correct but unusual. I’ve allowed that expression to remain.

The sad thing for those who aim for quality writing is that there is possibly not much reward in it. There are many stories on Amazon and Smashwords that are full of grammatical errors, but they probably still earn dollars. Producing quality work takes more time and effort. Hopefully my comic book will find its audience that recognises the quality of the work and that it is worth the cover price.

 

 

 

Gnomeville eBook is Finally Here!

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After many years in development, and release in physical form in 2014, my comic is finally available as an eBook.

Gnomeville comic book cover containing head of dragon with smoke billowing out of its mouth and the title "DRAGON!" in large red letters

Cover of Gnomeville Dragon! Episode 1.

This is the first episode in what is arguably the easiest book in French for native English speakers. Designed to introduce one or two new words or concepts per page, and to exploit the over 1,000 words that are the same in French and English, you learn the most frequently occurring words in French, while being entertained with a story about gnomes, mages and dragons. While the series is optimised for language learning, by using sight gags and visual humour it still manages to be entertaining from the first few pages. Follow the story of Jacques, Magnifica the mage, the gnomes Didi and Dada, and the griffon as they commence a quest to capture a rogue dragon.

The book includes further stories to reinforce the vocabulary learnt so far, as well as a crossword and songs. The mp3 file of the narration by a native French speaker of the Gnomeville Episode 1 story is available from the author on email of the receipt as proof of purchase (first 500 buyers). The first 10 customers will receive all audio tracks of Episode 1 (3 stories, 2 songs), while the first 100 customers will receive the narration and one song.

The comic book has been checked by three native/near-native speakers of French to ensure authenticity. It exploits several principles of language acquisition:

  • language can be acquired by reading extensively at a comfortable level of difficulty;
  • images increase retention of language;
  • glosses increase vocabulary retention;
  • repeated occurrences of new vocabulary increase vocabulary retention;
  • comprehension-based activities (eg. crossword) related to the reading improves retention of language;
  • once ~95% vocabulary coverage is achieved (episode 2), then it is possible to guess the meaning of new words, and confirm by checking the gloss after guessing, which further increases vocabulary retention.

In summary, this is a well-researched, well-edited, entertaining introduction to reading French via an extremely easy to read comic book. Read it before you read anything else in French. Read it now!

Children’s Books

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In my French reading, partly to continue using extensive reading, and also partly research for my writing of comic books in French, I’ve started reading more children’s books.  The J’Aime Lire series from Bayard was an excellent place to start.  They publish for specific ages: 6, 7, 8, 9, etc.  While the difficulty for a foreign language learner varies sometimes, the books for 6-8 year-olds mostly work for me, and seem to match a ~1000 word vocabulary or A2/B1 level.

One thing I found with reading children’s fantasy novels is that they are very vivid, and it is easy to become engrossed in this fantasy world, with a feeling of wonder.  I had the same experience when reading the first volume of Harry Potter (and as a child when reading Enid Blyton).  My comic book also has this vividness about it – partly because it is a brightly-coloured comic book.  I’m not sure if it is the fantasy element, the illustrations or a property of the writing that makes it so.  In the case of Harry Potter it can only have been created via the text, as I read it before seeing any movies of it.

Thoughts on Up Goer Five and Constrained Vocabulary Writing

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When I first saw the Up Goer Five comic by xkcd, I loved it.  It epitomised what I do with my comic book and my research, and is a convenient example to show people, when explaining the idea of constrained vocabulary writing.

Fans figured out that the 1,000 words used by xkcd for it were the contemporary fiction list, shown in Wiktionary.  This frequency list is based on over 9 million words of on-line contemporary fiction.  It combines plurals and simple verb forms into one listed word (lemmas), which is a good choice, since if the root word is known, then the plurals with s, and simple verb forms are usually also understood.

As someone who writes using lists generated based on frequency, I’ve noticed that several problems arise.  One is that, typically, male pronouns and nouns occur at higher frequencies than female ones.  The Wiktionary list is not overly biased in this way, possibly because it is based on contemporary fiction.  “he” is ranked at 8, “her” and “she” at 12 and 13 respectively, and “his” at 16.  However, we find “man” at 163 and “woman” at 452, but “girl” is at 133 and “boy” at 217.  This hints at what has been termed the systemic “infantilization” of women in society.  The figures are probably quite different due to the common pairing of “guy” (at 178) with “girl” in colloquial speech.  Google’s auto-suggest, which is also based on frequency, has occasionally come up with phrases that are considered racist, sexist or otherwise problematic – and it is purely a reflection of what we as a society tend to write.  When writing in a principled manner for language learners, it may be important to balance what word frequency lists tell us, with what is a more equitable representation.  I didn’t really think very much about this when I started writing Gnomeville years ago, but have become more aware of these issues thanks to some of my friends who are more knowledgeable in them.

Another issue that needs to be considered is what is culturally appropriate to write for the target audience.  For example, I have recently been made aware that it is inappropriate to use words referring to alcoholic beverages when the audience is Islamic.  Obviously for work intended for children (or for experimental subjects) it is customary to exclude expletives.  For this reason, several words on the list would need to be excluded.  There seems to be an expressive set of expletives in the list.

For the method of writing I employ in the Gnomeville story, I  introduce one new high frequency word per page of story, and somewhat less frequently I introduce a grammatical pattern.  Sometimes I’ve changed the order in which I add words due to the story.  This happened in episode one, in which I introduced “se” very early instead of after about a dozen other words.  Also, I recall that “le” was added before “de”, even though their ranks are reversed.  Having said that, my first 20 words were based on a corpus of newspaper articles.  Every corpus gives a different ranking of words.  There are some similarities across corpora however.  For example, if the corpus is large enough, the frequency of the word “the” is likely to be about 7% for English text.

Anyway, back to Up Goer Five.  The upcoming book “Thing Explainer”, as well as the text uploaded to the up goer five text editor provide some good practice at reading for people still consolidating their first 1000 words of the English language.  If going beyond that, the writing should have less than 5% of words outside the vocabulary set to be suitable for improving language skill while fluently reading for comprehension.  A text editor with more flexibility is the OGTE Editor, designed for writing English text for different language learner levels.