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Language Learning with Graphic Novels

Comprehensible input is a hot topic right now; everywhere you turn in the language learning community, someone is touting the benefits of learning through content that is slightly more advanced than your current level, and for a good reason. I am currently learning Russian, and I am at the stage I lovingly refer to as the “Wall of Sound.” I can pick out the odd word or familiar phrase here and there, but when I listen to native speakers at full speed, I’m completely lost.

Comprehensible input takes tons of different forms, from graded readers to slowed-down audio, from learner podcasts with transcripts to level-adjusted blog posts. One type of comprehensible input that I love, but don’t often see recommended in the community, is graphic novels.

Now, in the past, I’ve received a fair bit of pushback from this suggestion, usually containing some variation of the phrase “I’m not really into comic books.” It’s totally understandable for people to equate comic books and graphic novels, but I think it’s important to lay out the distinctions.

Comic Book or Graphic Novel: What’s the Difference?

Comic books are very short, often only 22-24 pages, and they tell a story over multiple issues. These issues are published periodically and tell an overarching story when they are read together.

Graphic Novels, on the other hand, are longer, tend to tell a complete story in one volume, and are often more mature in content. Individual comics that make up a complete story can be collected and published as graphic novels. Some of my favorites have rich and complicated stories that are relevant to readers who may not be terribly interested in superheroes or fantasy. These include Das Tagesbuch der Anne Frank ( the graphic novel interpretation of Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank), Historieta de Venezuela: De Macuro a Maduro ( A history of Venezuela: From Macuro to Maduro), and The Best We Could Do ( A beautiful memoir about immigration, family, and identity).

So why are graphic novels such a good source of comprehensible input?

  • Narration Centered

The stories are told largely through dialogue between characters or through an inner monologue. This means that there is a lot of natural conversational language, perfect for language learners to study set phrases and not sound like a robot or a textbook!

  • Visual Cues are Key

This one is kind of obvious, but if you run across a passage that you’re having difficulty understanding, look at the pictures! The visuals will help clue you into what’s going on, meaning you won’t be stuck plugging the whole paragraph into Google Translate and hoping for something that makes sense.

  • Bite-sized Text

While it’s true that graphic novels are often longer and more complex than single issue comic books, they are still shorter than most traditional books, even graded readers. By their very nature, graphic novels have to have lots of illustrations, so don’t be fooled by the novel's thickness!

Cultural Context

Graphic novels are not created to teach a language or give the reader a high-brow literary experience. They are about telling an evocative story through dialogue and beautiful illustrations This dialogue can give foreign readers insight into the author's culture without sifting through the dense text of traditional books.

So now that you know the difference between comic books and graphic novels, as well as why graphic novels are your secret weapon for comprehensible input, give them a try! Let me know what your favorite graphic novels are in the comments.

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