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Using Comics to Teach Foreign Languages

posted: 4.29.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Although composition instructors don’t always think about teaching for foreign language literacy, lessons learned from teachers of other languages can offer insights into how to foster academic literacies in–particularly insights into how cultural knowledge can foster greater understanding.

At the recent New England Modern Language Convention in Boston, a number of panels were devoted to teaching and learning with graphic novels.  Although most of the panelists focused on works published in the United States, comics that students must translate from their original languages also provided opportunities for discussing sequential art forms that combine visual and verbal messages. 

Of course, many instructors talked about the error of assuming that comics make reading “easier” for students.  Even for readers of English, Jonathan and I often talk about how students find that they actually have to slow down to interpret pictures, so reading time per page is still a significant factor.  Furthermore, images don’t just illustrate the words any more than our use of language generates meaning directly from the correspondence between signs and referents.  Although the picture book way that toddlers may acquire language with the word “tree” under an image of a tree with spreading branches might seem a good way to facilitate vocabulary acquisition, in reality we often make meaning largely out of the differences between words in a sequence and with knowledge of the context in which particular speech acts take place.

Sarah Harris of Bennington College teaches Spanish with comics in a course called Cartoon Culture.  She focuses on “little stories” or historietas that have gone from being “relegated to the realm of the juvenile and the lowbrow” to achieving “academic and critical legitimacy.”  As a way to teach about popular culture or historical events, Harris argues that comics are popular with students, but she cautioned that genres of Spanish comics might differ significantly from those in the U.S. and that more often had to be explained than the content of speech balloons, captions, and thought bubbles.

Understanding the value of comics without assuming they will be transparent to students is essential for classroom success.  For example, many of the works by Miguelanxo Prado are extremely surreal.  In Trazo de Tiza, which translates into “streak of chalk” in English, a man on an island is unable to tell dream from reality or past from present.  Works by Spanish graphic novelists might also actually go on for pages without any written vocabulary, as this YouTube video about the work of Alberto Vázquez shows , so the use of universal pictorial language may actually defeat foreign language learning.  (For more about graphic novels from Spain, see this article .)

Also at NEMLA was Lynn Kutch, who gave a talk on “Dangers and Rewards of Teaching Graphic Novel Adaptations”.  Kutch argued that the much celebrated release of Eric Corbeyran’s graphic novel adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis in the original German often took liberties with Kafka’s language and narrative, much as a film adaptation might do.  For those who would want to teach German with graphic novels, Kutch’s website devoted to The German Graphic Novel provides a treasure trove of pedagogical ideas.

Of course, my own French language learning included a good share of comic book reading of Tintin or Astérix and Obélix, which might have taught me more about reading comics than reading French.  If visiting a typical comic book store in France in search of classroom materials, however, be warned that adult content with depictions of gender, sexuality, and violence might require a lot of unpacking for students.


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