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.

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.

 

 

 

Reader Levels: Thoughts as I do another Tadoku month

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Level 0: Single-word nouns or adjectives – if the book is nicely illustrated in a way that makes the words identifiable, not too long, and maybe has some punchline equivalent at the end, as some do, then these are good for practising an unfamiliar alphabet such as hiragana and katakana.  The words are typically not high priority words, but tend to recur in stories anyway.  I have had enough repetition of certain animal words that I know them, even though they are not very useful for me when communicating to others.

Level 1: Repeated sentence structure – as above, these are excellent reading practice, and can help people learn some basic grammatical structures, while a story of some kind is told via the repeated sentence having different substituted nouns that are identifiably illustrated.  The LOTE series by Nelson Price Milburn are very good in this regard.  If they were longer than they are, then they would be tedious, but there are about 6-7 repetitions with minor variations, followed by a punchline of some sort.  The books by Evrat Jones, published by PCS Publications, are not as good, largely because of the illustrations.  Maybe I’m biased against old-fashioned repetitive images that look like dorky Grade 1 readers from the sixties, but their lack of appeal makes them more of a chore to read through.  They would also benefit from a glossary at the back.

Level 2: Small vocabulary and a small set of grammatical constructions.  Here is where the typical vocabulary-controlled reader fits into the scheme of things.  Within this level are all the stages of most published reading schemes, taking readers from around 300 words of vocabulary to 2,000, and from present tense to all the normal grammatical constructions.

Level 3: Native text.

Reading at levels 0 and 1 for the past week or so has me thinking there is a niche for books at these levels for adults.  Given an adult’s greater world knowledge and sophistication, it should be possible to create a more interesting narrative with these levels than is currently seen.

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.

Writing Easy Readers

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There has been a lot of research over the past few decades on the use of extensive reading for language learning, with Paul Nation being a prominent name in the research community.  Out of all this research has come some general guidelines on how to use extensive reading to improve your language learning skills, but also how to write or adapt stories to suit language learners.  Here’s my version of the basic requirements.

  1. Decide what your core vocabulary will be, for example 1,000 word families.  You may also want to decide what grammatical repertoire you are going to include – at least for lower levels of language skill.
  2. Decide whether you want to teach a particular set of vocabulary in the story (eg. colours).
  3. Ensure that at least 95% of the text consists of words from your core vocabulary or proper nouns.
  4. For words in your original draft that are outside of the core vocabulary, consider changing them to ones that are within the core vocabulary.
  5. For the remaining out of vocabulary words that occur less than 5 times (say) in your story, provide a gloss.  (Also for any idiomatic expressions.)
  6. For words that you want to teach, ensure they occur at least 5 times in the story, but in a way that doesn’t ruin the story.  It would be better to have fewer occurrences than to make the story less entertaining.
  7. Use illustrations, as they help the learner retain meaning.

Here’s a vocabulary checker for stories in English.

Easy Reader Hall of Shame

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Having finished reading yet another boring German easy reader, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to easy readers that should never have existed.

Authors of easy readers are trying to trick language learners into learning target language while being entertained with a story.  However, some authors don’t do enough entertaining, and it is transparently obvious that the story (or part of it) is just a vehicle for exposure to vocabulary or, in the case of CEFR-based books, practising common scenarios required for surviving in the target language.

So here is my list of the worst easy readers I’ve read:

  1. “Sur les Routes de France” by G. Colquhoun and E. Guergady, published by John Murray, (French).
    Not only was this boring but it was long: 137 pages of tedium.  It is basically a story of a family going on holiday in France, following their trek through different locations.  I read this over a number of weeks as it took enormous willpower to finish it.  Happily this is out of print.  I thought that I must have the last copy in the world, but a quick Google search reveals that there are second-hand copies on the market.  What amazes me is that this work, that was first published in 1959, got reprinted several times.  I have a second edition copy from 1964, but I see on-line that there was a 1973 3rd edition .  That means that at least 14 years of students had to suffer this text!  Steer clear of this one.  There are many better stories to read.
  2. “Lustige Dialoge” by Harry A. Walbruck, published by National Textbook Company in 1985 (German).
    This contains 30 short dialogues that are “humorous”.  My Goodreads review states it succinctly: “Full of annoying anecdotes involving dated stereotypes passed off as humour. I really struggled to finish the book.
    To be fair, some of the dialogues were somewhat humorous, but for the purpose of providing extensive reading material it fails, as the individual dialogues are too short, and there is no motivating reason to read the next one.
  3. “Deuxième Acte” by O.M. Fordham and V.L.R.Lewis, published by Harrap in 1965 (French).
    This book is a sequence of letters written between members of two families.  The content of the letters, as well as the dialogues in the back of the book are very mundane.  It was another book that was difficult to finish, but was mercifully short (compared to no. 1) at 76 pages, including exercises that I tend to skip over.  One thing that I have found too many of is stories of typical traditional nuclear families doing ordinary things, such as the mother in the kitchen or doing the shopping, the father coming home from work, blah blah.  Admittedly some of these books are old, the authors of the various books probably didn’t know of each others work, and the average student wouldn’t have been exposed to more than one of these, but I’m rather sick of the genre.
  4. “Glück gehabt” by Theo Scherling and Elke Burger, published by Langenscheidt in 2010 (German).
    There are many other books I could list that are like no. 3 in their irksomeness, but I’ve decided to go for variety rather than comprehensiveness.  Langenscheidt do a good job at making their text and their audio easy.  They also do well in avoiding stereotypes for their characters.  For example, in Leo & Co, one of the regular characters is a single mother who is a car mechanic, working with her dad, while Leo himself is an artist who runs a pub/eatery.  On the down side, the stories are a bit on the mundane side, with this particular one being the worst I’ve read so far.  The story mostly follows the lead character in the act of getting a new apartment.  While listening to it I kept waiting for the plot to start, but nothing really happens other than finding out about an apartment, getting it, then moving into it, with a small side story of a colleague hurting their back.  Skip this one unless you’re desperate for the practice.
  5. “Technik und Natur” by Mike Lynch, published by Heinemann 1996.
    I’ve chosen this reading booklet as an example of another problem that often occurs with supposedly easy readers.  Some authors control the grammar but use far too much difficult vocabulary.  This particular booklet has interesting subject matter for those interested in science and technology, but the percentage of difficult words is too high.  There is vocabulary support, but text should really be written in a way that less than 5% of the words require it, since it interrupts the flow of reading.

I think that will do for now.  So the moral of the story is, when writing for language language learners:

  • Don’t be boring,
  • Optimise the length of the text to allow a good reading session,
  • Don’t inundate with vocabulary.

It is possible to do the above.  There are many examples.  I love some of the stories in the Découverte series, such as “Dans la Maison Bleue”, which are full of imagination, and have illustrations that complement the stories.  Here’s hoping there are more interesting books in the future.  I hope mine will also be enjoyed.  I’ve had good feedback so far.