Comic Scene

Learning German through comics

In the past comics were considered as substandard and even dangerous. Photo: Stephen Giordano © iStockphotoIn the past comics were considered as substandard and even dangerous. Photo: Stephen Giordano © iStockphotoWhen Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck rose to stardom in the 1950s, they were boycotted by teachers in Germany for their unpolished and base vernacular. Today comics are being used in foreign-language classes precisely for their distinctive linguistic qualities.

Since May 2010 the Goethe-Institut has hosted a traveling exhibition called Comics, Manga & Co., a collection dedicated to new German comics culture where visitors can peruse the works of the comic avant-garde as well as drawings by a younger generation of German cartoon artists. The exhibition is Goethe-Institut’s response to the distinct changes in Germany’s comics scene since the fall of the Berlin Wall, a transformation that owes much of its success to artist groups from the former East Germany. And not just the comics themselves have changed in recent decades in Germany; their image in society has also undergone a revival.

I’m so unhappily in love…sigh!

When the first translations of comics took the German market by storm in the 1950s, they inspired a wave of outrage among teachers and the educated classes. They were substandard and even dangerous; they dealt with topics that were superficial or obscene; and they used language that was not just alarming but vulgar. Indeed, the language of comics differs significantly from the classic language of literature. In order to tell a story in such a limited space, image sequences are combined with text; and because the text is predominantly dialog, the speech bubbles are filled with laconic colloquialisms or even shortened words.

It is also quite common to find newly created words in comics, in the form of onomatopoeias, for example. Translator Erika Fuchs was so well known for her lyrical style that the words she created were referred to as “Erika-isms”. Additional information from the storyline is then communicated through pictograms and formatting: A heart means someone is in love, a light bulb indicates a sudden idea, a question mark expresses a lack of understanding, and a jagged-edged speech bubble may articulate anger.

Sequential arts in German classrooms

Onomatopoeias are typical for comics.  Photo: © Barbara PolzerThese days comics have gained renewed recognition as a result of all these peculiarities. They are now referred to as “sequential art” and are inspired by painting, photography and video. They cover everything from politics and autobiographies to documentaries of all kinds. Comics are even used for educational purposes, in particular in foreign-language instruction.

“The language of comics is not always easier or more suitable for beginners in language classes,” says Manuela Beck from the language department at Goethe-Institut, “but because images and onomatopoeias play such an important role, comics can be used relatively readily as entire works for people who are learning German.” Overall, however, the fact that they cover everyday topics and offer loads of creative potential often make them ideally suited for language studies. “Artists like Sascha Homer or Arne Bellstorf enjoy addressing daily themes that students can relate to, something which in turn makes it easier for younger people to engage with them.”

Helter-skelter, whoosh, ping

These days comics have gained renewed recognition as an independent art form.  Photo: © Goethe Institut e. V.For language instruction, employees at Goethe-Institut have now adapted materials that can be used in classes for beginners. The Sweden branch, for example, offers downloadable comics for grammar lessons, and in Germany Ms. Beck and her colleagues have developed materials related to the traveling exhibition. Students are asked to make associations with the onomatopoeias or to test their own skills in creative translations.

Working with the language of comics is not the only classroom application either. Comics are also good for describing images or for storytelling because it is easy to create increasingly complex narratives from an original idea. Other options include creating your own comics, delving into research projects with the comic as an art genre or exploring the German comics scene further. Anyone who misses the traveling exhibition at the Goethe-Institut can visit the web site in 10 different languages and find a wealth of information on the new German comics scene.

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
December 2010

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