It’s never as authentic as a native speaker

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I have my moments of doubt with my French comic book project. It is virtually impossible to write something that is absolutely correct French in terms of the expressions used if one is not a native speaker. Grammar is relatively easy to get right, apart from minor slip-ups, but having something sound like natural French, especially while intentionally writing in a constrained vocabulary is almost impossible.

I’ve been attempting to get Episode 3 of my comic book ready this month, spurred on by a potential launch date at the language-themed concert I’m involved with, happening tomorrow, as well as #inktober. However, before finalising my comic it was important to get it checked by a native speaker of French. This happened today, and as usual there are errors that need to be fixed, and unlike text that is free to vary without consequences, this means making decisions about whether to leave out phrases or whole sentences, find an alternative French-English cognate, or an alternative way of saying the same thing. As I also try to ensure there are a certain number of repetitions of key words, phrases, or grammatical points, further changes also need to be made. Then there’s the crossword… As a result, I will need to delay the release of Episode 3 for a bit longer.

Unfortunately, despite multiple checks by francophone proofreaders, some things do get missed. I appear to have an error in Episode 2, which has already been published. I may need to set up an errata page here, and perhaps release a second edition at some point. It’s all a little discouraging, but I’m not giving up yet.

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Are some graded readers not worth reading?

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Something I have been pondering lately is the enormous vocabulary load that occurs in some graded readers that are intended for beginners. The grammar is simple but the vocabulary load is huge. Sure, things are often glossed, which speeds up the process of finding out the meaning of words, but it still prevents fluent reading.

When I first found booklets from the Bibliobus series published by Mary Glasgow, I thought they were wonderful. I only had 3 of them, at levels 6 and 8. I also loved Le Chapeau Rouge released by the same publisher. I’ve since collected more Bibliobus stories, and also acquired a collection of Lire Davantage booklets. What is clear to me, and I have been reminded of it by a friend who has been reading them lately, is that there is not much text but a lot of vocabulary load. The stories do vary a little in terms of quality and difficulty within the published levels, so some are probably of greater value than others.

In theory, these high vocabulary load stories provide language exposure that will increase a learner’s skill, since there are things that are unknown. Provided the learner can read them quickly they have some value for extensive reading. However, if there is a choice between another story with lower vocabulary load, more text and a smoother gain in vocabulary, then that would be better. It’s all down to availability. However, ultimately what matters is whether the story appeals to you enough that you are keen to read it. If not, it is best to find something else to read. As long as you are reading at least 10 minutes per day at a level that allows you to fluently read, follow the story, but not already know all the language that you encounter then you will improve your language knowledge.

Here are a couple more books/stories I’ve analysed for general vocabulary size at the ~95% cut-off, based on the first 100 words. Note that just using this figure in isolation is a bit misleading, because books like the one by Ford and Hicks use a lot of repetition and a relatively small vocabulary overall, making it possible to learn relatively easily. It just isn’t necessarily all highly frequent vocabulary. This is where vocabulary density is also a useful guide, so I’ve included this figure as well.
If the 95% general vocabulary size is high and the vocabulary density is high, it means that you may be able to read comfortably, learning the vocabulary of the given text, but its relative usefulness will depend on whether it matches the vocabulary that you need for your language goals.

Title Author Publisher/Series Gen Vocab Size at 95% Vocab Density at (n) words
Reading approach to French Ford and Hicks J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. 12,059 2.77 (122)
Le Visiteur Sue Finnie Mary Glasgow/Bibliobus 11,260 2.05 (123)

This follows on from my previous table of figures. When using general vocabulary rank frequency lists it certainly seems normal for graded readers to effectively use a very wide vocabulary, leading to an expected general (raw) vocabulary size of 4,000 to 12,000. To do something considerably less requires careful vocabulary control, such as occurs in my Gnomeville series, which achieves this through exclusively using French-English cognates and the most frequently occurring words. Initially it may seem a little artificial, but becomes more natural and flowing as the stories progress. A similar approach is used in Si Nous Lisions, in that a very small vocabulary is used initially, and then a new word is added every 90 or so words. While I came up with the idea independently, the concept of vocabulary control is attributed to Michael West.

At some point I’ll publish a comprehensive list of graded readers with these statistics, but I’ll first need to automate the process a bit more and get rid of a few bugs. Meanwhile, let’s keep reading at least 10 minutes a day of easy but not too easy text in the languages we want to learn.

A Lesson in Suspense

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Reading graded readers can be quite educational on how to write good stories. Previously I wrote an article about a graded reader “Hall of Shame“, in which I highlighted various problems I had observed within the genre, and then provided a summary of recommendations on how to write better graded readers. Elsewhere I wrote another summary of advice on writing graded readers (I called them Easy Readers in my earlier posts.)

In this article I’d like to talk about suspense. I think I was in my twenties when I first really thought about suspense at all when reading. A fine simple example that crystallised it for me was Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Two memorable simple bits of suspense occurred in it. The first is the sofa stuck in the staircase, which is explained toward the end of the story. The second, which amazed me in its simplicity was explaining two of three things, and not answering the third one until late in the book. I was reading on, wondering what the third thing was. This illustrated that it didn’t really matter what the suspense is, as long as it’s suspense. It doesn’t need to be figuring out who committed a crime, or whether the romance concludes happily. It can be pretty much anything.

The next observation, which inspired the way I’ve organised my Gnomeville comics, was the use of cliff-hangers. I was reading a collection of X-Men comics, and noticed that they always ended with a cliffhanger and unanswered questions. By never fully ending the story, people get hooked and need to read the next issue. Soap operas seem to work the same way. It struck me that this is a very good strategy for graded readers, since we want to motivate people to keep reading to improve their language skill.

I buy and read graded readers by other authors, and I was struck by the contrast suspense made between two otherwise very similar stories by the same author, Sylvie Lainé.

Voyage en France tells of an English couple who go to France, because Louis is reminded of a creative project he commenced with his best friend decades earlier, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about an old man trying to find an old friend, echoing the current situation. Louis wants to see how the story will end, by finding his old friend. We read the story of Louis and Melba as they follow a series of clues to find Louis’s old friend. This suspense worked for me, as I wanted to know how the story would end. I also wanted to know whether they tried to finish the movie, but that question wasn’t answered. I read the story quickly, despite many chapters of fairly mundane travel activities, all because of the suspense.

Contrast the above story with Voyage à Marseille. This contains the same two main characters, doing the same things, that is, travelling through France to get to a destination. However, it lacks the suspense of wondering whether they will find the person they are looking for. The first bit of excitement happens quite late, the disappearance of the car, and is resolved quite quickly. There is another unanswered question that had potential as a simple bit of suspense, the title of the biography of Louis’s friend that they were visiting. Unfortunately that wasn’t answered in the final chapter. It took me a lot longer to finish this story, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to know the answer to.

So, when writing graded readers, please provide suspense. It makes a lot of difference to the reading experience.

 

 

Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve – my kind of book

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I recently noticed an article in an issue of Reader’s Digest while in a waiting room. It was discussing the vocabulary of Green Eggs and Ham, and other statistical aspects of writing. It was an extract of Ben Blatt’s book “Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve”. Since the article was about a lot of the things that I work on, I felt compelled to get the book, and immediately read it.

The book compares a set of literary classics, best sellers and fan fiction via quantitative statistics. The author used my old friend Natural Language ToolKit (NLTK) for Part of Speech tagging etc. for the text analysis.

The first chapter looks at adverbs, which are frowned upon in writing. The next looks at statistical differences in writing by each gender. Chapter 3 discusses the history of authorship attribution, as played out with the Federalist Papers. The relative frequency of different function words tends to be like a fingerprint for an author’s writing. He uses this on co-authored works to figure out who wrote what. Next up is seeing if authors follow their own advice on writing. Then comes the chapter I saw in Reader’s Digest, that discusses Dr Seuss and readability measures. In the same chapter he notes that the average reading age of bestsellers is decreasing, from grade 8 in the 1960’s to grade 6.

Next up is a comparison of UK and US writing, including an interesting comparison on the loudness of Americans compared to English people. Chapter 7 looks at clichés – another area I have researched, albeit in lyrics instead of novels. The remaining chapters look at book covers, first sentences, and text generation.

This book did a lot of things that are closely related to my own tinkerings, as well as some of my published research. The author is a journalist and statistician, and several of the chapters, if written in an academic rather than journalistic manner, would have made good quantitative linguistics papers, with the amount of research within the book possibly being enough for a PhD in the field.

I only had one gripe about the book, and that is one sentence in which he assumes his reader knows nothing about statistics and says so. It’s one thing to explain something clearly starting from scratch or to state that something is left to an appendix for those interested. It’s quite another to tell the reader that they don’t know enough statistics. While some readers may not be insulted (eg. the “for dummies” series was popular), I usually am. I may not be the world’s expert on statistics, but I have a working knowledge, and I am capable of learning. I had a similar experience when I wanted to learn about the premise behind the Zone diet, and read a book on it, only to be constantly told by the authors that I’m fat (I’m not). The moral is: explain things clearly, but don’t insult the audience.

All in all, this was a book that’s exactly the kind of thing that I enjoy.

 

Vocabulary Needed for 95% Coverage

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I’ve been tinkering with ways of comparing different easy readers for language learners. Previous posts I’ve used a type-token ratio or vocabulary density, which gives some idea of how likely it is you might learn new words through repetition from a text. But for something to be readable, the general consensus is that you need to know at least 95% of the words that you read. This is a level that allows people to guess the meaning of the words they don’t know.

So something I’ve been messing with recently is predicting the general vocabulary size needed for different beginner stories in French, assuming people know all cognates and all proper nouns. I’ve only been working with short samples of text so far, and there are many other assumptions and issues that make it not a perfect comparison – including bugs in my code…

Given a small set of extracts, and assuming you don’t learn the words via their introduction one at a time, as in my comic books, we have the following:

Title Vocab Size
Gnomeville Episode 1 25
Gnomeville Episode 2 25
Gnomeville Episode 3 40
Bonjour Berthe 4179
Easy French Reader 5008
Martine a la Ferme 11854
Bonjour Luc 6163

Note that this vocabulary size assumes that each conjugation of verbs is a separate vocabulary item, as are plurals etc. so will be much larger than word family figures normally used.

You can see that the one text written for native French speaking children (Martine) has a much richer vocabulary than the texts written for language learners. The figures for these look worse than they seem, because there are many words that are typically taught early to allow conversation, but which feature much lower on word frequency lists. For example, “maman” was at rank 6163 in my list. In contrast, my Gnomeville comics are designed to prioritise frequent words and cognates to optimally improve reading, at the expense of conversation. Hence the very small vocabulary sizes required.

Recently I’ve been reading a 1939 paper by Tharp that looked at measuring vocabulary difficulty. He appears to have had similar ideas about measuring vocabulary load based on the general frequency of the words, as well as a measure of density of difficulty words. I also recently acquired yet another very early graded reader, “Si nous lisions”, from 1930, which attempted to introduce new words every ~60 running words, in the style of Michael West, who seems to have been the first to use the approach. However, I have a graded reader published in 1909 in my collection, which was intended for “rapid reading”, and was part of a series that  commenced with short easy texts. I’m not sure if they methodically introduced words at specific intervals as was done by West and others following his example.

In searches on-line, I found a French adapted reader from 1790, so we’ve been at it for quite a while. I’d like to say we know more about how to write graded readers these days, but I think West had it fairly right. The only thing we can do now is make them more interesting and relevant.

Here’s one from 1800 published for those with a German background. There seem to be quite a few published in the 1800s.

Anyway, I’ll finish off here with the usual things: we need 95% coverage to read comfortably (on average). To do that with native texts requires quite a large vocabulary. But vocabulary increases as you read more. So we should read as much as possible at the level that is right for us and of reading material that interests and motivates us. My Gnomeville comics are ideal first readers in French for those with an English language background and a good vocabulary in English. The Berthe and Luc et Sophie series are reasonable alternatives for children that are possibly too young for Gnomeville, as are the ELI A0 series. Until next time…

 

Mots fréquents français

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I recently came across a new word frequency list for French words, which I’m placing here partly for my own benefit. This one is like some others that combine all conjugations of a verb together, which is not helpful for all applications. Typically present tense is much easier than other less frequently used tenses, particularly for irregular verbs.

Anyway, the list is still useful. It was created by Étienne Brunet, a statistical linguist, based on a corpus of written French.

Here are the top 20 words. Interestingly, compared to the newspaper corpus list I used for designing Episodes 1 and 2 of my comic, this corpus has first person singular (je) occurring much more frequently, as well as “have” (avoir). “ce”, “son” and “elle” also occur in this list higher than “au”, and were not in the newspaper list. “avoir” may be higher because of all conjugations of it being grouped together.

1050561 le (dét.)
862100 de (prép.)
419564 un (dét.)
351960 être (verbe)
362093 et (conj.)
293083 à (prép.)
270395 il (pron.)
248488 avoir (verbe)
186755 ne (adv.)
184186 je (pron.)
181161 son (dét.)
176161 que (conj.)
168684 se (pron.)
148392 qui (pron.)
141389 ce (dét.)
139185 dans (prép.)
143565 en (prép.)
127384 du (dét.)
126397 elle (pron.)
123502 au (dét.)

List of frequent words in French.

Book review: Easy French Stories by Sylvie Lainé

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As someone who reads and writes books for language acquisition via extensive reading, I look with curiosity at any that are available. Today I came across books by Sylvie Lainé on Amazon.
The books aim to support language acquisition via extensive reading, and provide extensive glosses to prevent the need for consulting a dictionary. The stories are written by a native French speaker who has studied applied linguistics. Her biography on Amazon seems to indicate that she is unaware of the long history of graded readers for language learners, including those in French, published by both English publishers, such as Oxford University Press, as well as French publishers, such as Hachette. Or perhaps she was only referring to those available as ebooks when saying there were no suitable stories available. Nevertheless, it is great that she has published stories for learners of French. Given the amount of reading a learner should do, the more good stories of low to moderate difficulty available the better.
My assessment in this review is about the suitability of these stories for extensive reading. For this purpose, there should be at least 95% vocabulary coverage for fluent reading. That’s only 1 in 20 words that should be unfamiliar. This is difficult to do well for beginner readers. It took me years to come up with the initial story for Gnomeville, which takes a learner from zero French to a small vocabulary of common words and French-English cognates. Episode 1 of the comic doesn’t achieve the 95% coverage figure consistently until page 12 of the story, but maintains a 1 new word per page until then, with illustrations providing essential parts of the story. So the first few pages could be classed as intensive reading, rather than extensive. After that, and for all future episodes, the story has the 95% coverage level consistently, allowing people to practise guessing the meanings of words, with a reasonable chance of success, and still having a gloss to check guesses, for optimal vocabulary retention.
Let’s see how Sylvie Lainé‘s stories do. For this study I have assumed that the unglossed vocabulary is known, and that glossed vocabulary is unknown. To be generous in the analysis, I assume that a glossed multi-word expression is a single unknown vocabulary item, but still count the individual words of the expression when determining the total number of words read. This is a manual calculation, so I am using the first and last chunk of the free sample, where a “chunk” is a section of text that is followed by a set of glossed words. I do both of these chunks, as it is possible that the known vocabulary would be greater as the story progresses, as is the case with Gnomeville.
First up is Voyage en France. The first chunk has 16 glossed words out of 74, making a coverage of only 78%, which is very low, even when reading stories written for native speakers as a foreign language learner with a vocabulary size of 1000.
The second chunk is much better, having 92% coverage, but still a bit low.
Second story is Le Pendentif, which is actually the first volume in the series. This is truly simple French, and if we make the same assumptions of vocabulary knowledge as above, has only 2 glossed words for 74 words, giving a 97% coverage, which is perfect for extensive reading. The final chunk is a little low at 3 glossed out of 38, making 92% coverage, but overall, this story does seem to be a suitable beginner story.
Voyage à Marseille goes from 93% coverage to 91% at the end. Based on these three stories, I’d say that you can expect an average of 92% vocabulary coverage from the series, assuming your knowledge matches the assumption of the author. Comments from reviewers indicate that people reading these stories still need to consult a dictionary for some words, so these coverage figures are an over-estimate for some people.
So in summary, I believe that Le Pendentif (t. 1) should be a fairly comfortable read for beginners after a few lessons of French, and is good for those who are after stories written in authentic French for adult beginners. The other stories would be slow reads due to the vocabulary load, despite the glosses, so it would be better to come back to the series after reading other stories with a better-matched vocabulary level. Apart from my own comic that assumes zero vocabulary, there are series that go from vocabularies of 150 words onwards. Looking at my database of graded readers for French I can see that most beginner ones are indeed targeting children or adolescents. If you can’t face those (I quite enjoy some of them), there are some excellent simplified classics published by CLE International for vocabularies of 500 or more. Two of my favourites so far are Jacquou le Croquant (vocabulary = 600) and En Famille (vocabulary = 500).
A disclaimer for my review of these stories is that I haven’t read beyond the preview chunks available on Amazon, so I can’t comment on how they progress, or how entertaining they are. If you find them very interesting, then you may have the willpower to read on despite the vocabulary load. The Amazon reviews are mostly favorable.
onlyhavetwo_noteasy
People sometimes say “you can only have two” of the three for things. I think the original was probably the [good:cheap:fast] for projects, and I’ve seen [good grades:social life:enough sleep] for college life. I’ve also seen the somewhat dodgy [pretty:intelligent:sane] for girlfriends. The equivalent for graded readers seems to be: [easy:authentic:interesting]. The more authentic it is, the less easy it will be. The easier it is, the less interesting it’s likely to be. The more interesting, the more difficult, etc. So as authors of graded readers, we try to balance these three things. I also try to include a fourth element, related to “easy”, and that is, perhaps “effective”, in that I try to ensure that the stories are constructed in a way that ensures vocabulary growth, by using all the outcomes from extensive reading research:
  • 95%+ vocabulary coverage,
  • focus on very frequent words (eg. “le”/”the”) to give best coverage sooner,
  • repetition of new vocabulary,
  • glosses,
  • images to enhance recall,
  • high interest story (I hope).
Anyway, that’s all for this review. I recommend Le Pendentif, based on extensive reading criteria. The others may be useful for more advanced learners.