The Evolution of a Language Comic Book


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.

An extract of my French comic book is now available


I have finally produced an extract of the comic book for people to look at.  It contains 12 of the 28 pages, with images reduced to readable low resolution.

The extract contains all the text that explains the rationale for the approach, as well as showing a summary of the language covered in the first episode.  There are 3 pages of the Gnomeville story in the extract.  The first two show how the story begins with no prior French knowledge, and how the language is introduced.  The third page shows how the text increases in complexity and length later in the story, with a very short word definition on the page, so that the person reading is not slowed down too much in their reading in French.

Note that the extract doesn’t show the true page format, as it is an ordinary A4 pdf file, whereas normally the pages are processed into book form, re-numbered appropriately and trimmed to size.  The story pages are colour right to the edge of the paper in the physical copies.

Constrained Writing


In 1996 I first heard about a book written without the letter E (Gadsby, by Wright, published 1939). Then a couple of years later I met a French colleague and was telling him about my comic book in French that exclusively uses French-English cognates and one new French word per page. It reminded him of constrained writing, particularly “lipograms”, and he introduced me to the work of Georges Perec, who wrote various works with or without certain vowels. We exchanged DNA poetry. More recently I dabbled in pilish, adding the constraint of writing in haiku verses.

A recent blog post about OULIPO reminded me about my fascination with such things.

The experience of writing my comic in French is quite different to my dabblings in German and Dutch, due to the differences in cognates (similar looking words with similar meaning) in the different languages.  In French it is hard to generate much text initially, but there is soon an abundance of identically spelt nouns, adjectives and verbs (albeit with slightly different endings).  In Dutch and to a lesser extent in German it is possible to write 20-odd words of meaningful text entirely using exact cognates.  But eventually you hit a wall where there are not many verbs to work with.  I’m still figuring out how to get past that wall before I commit to drawing the (publishable) artwork for and publishing a first episode in those languages.


All the Drama


I’ve been reading a lot of easy readers in French and German of late, and some of the recent ones are of the Lectures CLE en français facile series.  I’m now at a point where reading the 500-600 word vocab ones are easy enough for the story to be enjoyed.

In the past I’ve not looked forward to reading abridged and adapted versions of classics, either because I wanted to read the original at some point, or just because I found them uninteresting.  However, I’ve changed my mind.  The CLE 500-word vocabulary adaptations of En Famille (by Hector Malot) and La Guerre des Boutons (by Louis Pergaud) were both thoroughly engaging.  I’m now reading Jacquou le croquant by Eugene le Roy, which is a 600-word vocab adaptation.  There seems to be a lot of 19th century French literature about people living in poverty and hard times, and CLE has made it accessible to learners of French.  I find the lengths of the books to be about right too, at about 50 pages of story – probably about 12,000 words all up.

I hope that I can find a similar resource for German.