When I arrived in France in 2014, after studying French in Canada for about ten years, I naturally thought I spoke French. I turned out to be quite mistaken: spoken French has a lot of subtleties that can only be learned through immersion. In the meantime, I needed a way to quickly get my French up to a conversational level so I could at least buy my baguettes and toilet paper. Novels and movies were too difficult at first, and I would quickly get frustrated and come back to my favorite American TV shows. When I discovered the French bande dessinée, I discovered my ticket to learning French quickly. There are a few serious advantages to using comics for language learning.

First of all, comics are fun.

You may think that comics are just for kids (not true), or that the stories are all about super-heroes (also not true), but nobody can deny the simple joy you get from sitting down in a quiet room and reading a comic. They’re visually entertaining and transport you like no other medium can.

Comics are visual.

I still remember how I learned the word “to sneeze” in French. As wise old Mikhail tells Abélard, a naive and newly love-struck young bird, in his self-titled graphic novel by Rénaud Dillies and Regis Hautière,

“Ouais, c’est ca. Les femmes c’est comme des fleurs. C’est joli, ca sent bon, mais moi, ca me fait éternuer.” “Yes, that’s it. Women are like flowers. They’re pretty, they smell good, but they make me sneeze.”

Visual cues enhance memory and understanding. You may not understand the Portuguese phrase “vai se foder,” but if I told you “vai” means “go”, and if you took a look at the panel below, you’d have a pretty good guess.

It’s not Shakespeare.

Alright, so it’s true you usually won’t find much literary prowess within the pages of a graphic novel. But for learning languages, this is a great benefit. You’ll be able to focus on common, colloquial language that you can use in real conversation.

Getting Started

Find Something You Like

It’s hard enough learning a new language, don’t make it worse by choosing something you don’t like just because it’s popular in your target language. If the only French book I was allowed to read was Tintin I’d probably throw myself off a tin roof. Make sure that it’s fun, and if it isn’t then change it up. Here are some resources you can use to find

  • Comixology (English, French, Spanish, & Portuguese)
  • Social Comics (Brazilian Portuguese)
  • Izneo (French)

If you have suggestions to add to this list, please let us know in the comments below.

Keep a small journal.

You won’t absorb everything the first time around, so you need a plan to record new words you come across. A couple quick tips:

  1. Use a pocket journal: this will allow you to easily carry it around and note words while you’re reading. You can also study your new vocabulary while you’re taking the subway. I use Moleskine ruled pocket-journals.
  2. Don’t record words that you know you won’t use, or that are too far above your current level. I didn’t record the Portuguese expression “estancar o sangramento” (stop the bleeding) because I faint at the sight of blood — so, problem solved.

Practice

The not so fun part is studying your new vocabulary, but even a few minutes per day can be a big help. I like to build a list of keywords for each new book I read. Stories build associations that can help commit the new word to memory, and keeping separate lists for each story can also help put your new words in context.

I recommend using one of the following apps to build a deck of flash cards:

  • Tinycards by Duolingo. What I like about this app is it’s very easy to build card decks, and the app is really nice to look at. What I don’t like is studying can be painfully slow, with words repeated many times.
  • GFlash+. This one takes a little setup, and it’s really bare bones, but I like it best. You can upload a Google Sheet of vocabulary and build custom flash cards in a few clicks. No needless repetition.
  • Quizlet. I haven’t personally used this one, but from what I understand it’s a good option with more customizability than GFlash+ but with the added benefit of other users’ flashcard libraries.

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