Top French Movies

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One of the ways that I pick up foreign language listening skills is watching movies and TV series in the language.  For Italian I took it one step further in that I made bingo sheets of common expressions to encourage listening instead of just reading subtitles.

I will probably do the same for French at some point.  Here is a list from 2011 that I found, of the top 10 French films.

  1. Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis
  2. La Grande vadrouille
  3. Astérix et Obélix : Mission Cléopâtre
  4. Les Visiteurs
  5. Le Petit monde de Don Camillo
  6. Corniaud
  7. Taxi 2
  8. 3 hommes et un couffin
  9. Les Bronzés 3 amis pour la vie

Oops, one missing from the top 10.  Maybe I misunderstood the last paragraph of the article.

Green Eggs and Ham

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Continuing my articles on easy readers, today’s post is dedicated to Dr Seuss.  His first constrained vocabulary book was The Cat in the Hat, which was released in 1957.  It had a vocabulary of 236 words (though other sources state slightly different numbers) , and yet was entertaining.  Dr Seuss then went on to write other books with a reduced vocabulary, including Green Eggs and Ham, which has only 50 different words.  Wikipedia lists the words used as: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

These books are truly brilliant, in that they make children want to keep reading, while being easy for them to read.  A 50 word vocabulary is an amazing achievement.

Green Eggs and Ham has been translated into many languages.  We have a copy in Italian: “Prosciutto e uova verdi”.  However, once translated, the number of distinct words increased to about 127.  A translator has to somehow convey the original story as well as the rhyme and rhythm.  I’m not sure if the translator considered the goal of using the smallest vocabulary possible, as 127 for a text length of 620 words seems quite high.

I’m reminded of a section in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid” by Douglas Hofstadter, which looks at German and French translations of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem.  The original has many made-up words that hint at meanings due to their phonetic similarity to other words.  For example “slithy” hints at “slimy” and “slither”, among other words.  It is translated to “lubricilleux” in the French and “schlichten” in the German version.  Combining made-up words with rhyme and meter makes it a very difficult translation challenge.

But back to easy readers.  While it may be useful to translate an easy reader to another language – particularly when they are as entertaining as those of Dr Seuss –  I think the best work can be achieved by exploiting the quirks of the original language.  Design your easy reader for your specific target language.

 

Writing Easy Readers

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There has been a lot of research over the past few decades on the use of extensive reading for language learning, with Paul Nation being a prominent name in the research community.  Out of all this research has come some general guidelines on how to use extensive reading to improve your language learning skills, but also how to write or adapt stories to suit language learners.  Here’s my version of the basic requirements.

  1. Decide what your core vocabulary will be, for example 1,000 word families.  You may also want to decide what grammatical repertoire you are going to include – at least for lower levels of language skill.
  2. Decide whether you want to teach a particular set of vocabulary in the story (eg. colours).
  3. Ensure that at least 95% of the text consists of words from your core vocabulary or proper nouns.
  4. For words in your original draft that are outside of the core vocabulary, consider changing them to ones that are within the core vocabulary.
  5. For the remaining out of vocabulary words that occur less than 5 times (say) in your story, provide a gloss.  (Also for any idiomatic expressions.)
  6. For words that you want to teach, ensure they occur at least 5 times in the story, but in a way that doesn’t ruin the story.  It would be better to have fewer occurrences than to make the story less entertaining.
  7. Use illustrations, as they help the learner retain meaning.

Here’s a vocabulary checker for stories in English.

Easy Reader Hall of Shame

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Having finished reading yet another boring German easy reader, I thought I’d dedicate today’s post to easy readers that should never have existed.

Authors of easy readers are trying to trick language learners into learning target language while being entertained with a story.  However, some authors don’t do enough entertaining, and it is transparently obvious that the story (or part of it) is just a vehicle for exposure to vocabulary or, in the case of CEFR-based books, practising common scenarios required for surviving in the target language.

So here is my list of the worst easy readers I’ve read:

  1. “Sur les Routes de France” by G. Colquhoun and E. Guergady, published by John Murray, (French).
    Not only was this boring but it was long: 137 pages of tedium.  It is basically a story of a family going on holiday in France, following their trek through different locations.  I read this over a number of weeks as it took enormous willpower to finish it.  Happily this is out of print.  I thought that I must have the last copy in the world, but a quick Google search reveals that there are second-hand copies on the market.  What amazes me is that this work, that was first published in 1959, got reprinted several times.  I have a second edition copy from 1964, but I see on-line that there was a 1973 3rd edition .  That means that at least 14 years of students had to suffer this text!  Steer clear of this one.  There are many better stories to read.
  2. “Lustige Dialoge” by Harry A. Walbruck, published by National Textbook Company in 1985 (German).
    This contains 30 short dialogues that are “humorous”.  My Goodreads review states it succinctly: “Full of annoying anecdotes involving dated stereotypes passed off as humour. I really struggled to finish the book.
    To be fair, some of the dialogues were somewhat humorous, but for the purpose of providing extensive reading material it fails, as the individual dialogues are too short, and there is no motivating reason to read the next one.
  3. “Deuxième Acte” by O.M. Fordham and V.L.R.Lewis, published by Harrap in 1965 (French).
    This book is a sequence of letters written between members of two families.  The content of the letters, as well as the dialogues in the back of the book are very mundane.  It was another book that was difficult to finish, but was mercifully short (compared to no. 1) at 76 pages, including exercises that I tend to skip over.  One thing that I have found too many of is stories of typical traditional nuclear families doing ordinary things, such as the mother in the kitchen or doing the shopping, the father coming home from work, blah blah.  Admittedly some of these books are old, the authors of the various books probably didn’t know of each others work, and the average student wouldn’t have been exposed to more than one of these, but I’m rather sick of the genre.
  4. “Glück gehabt” by Theo Scherling and Elke Burger, published by Langenscheidt in 2010 (German).
    There are many other books I could list that are like no. 3 in their irksomeness, but I’ve decided to go for variety rather than comprehensiveness.  Langenscheidt do a good job at making their text and their audio easy.  They also do well in avoiding stereotypes for their characters.  For example, in Leo & Co, one of the regular characters is a single mother who is a car mechanic, working with her dad, while Leo himself is an artist who runs a pub/eatery.  On the down side, the stories are a bit on the mundane side, with this particular one being the worst I’ve read so far.  The story mostly follows the lead character in the act of getting a new apartment.  While listening to it I kept waiting for the plot to start, but nothing really happens other than finding out about an apartment, getting it, then moving into it, with a small side story of a colleague hurting their back.  Skip this one unless you’re desperate for the practice.
  5. “Technik und Natur” by Mike Lynch, published by Heinemann 1996.
    I’ve chosen this reading booklet as an example of another problem that often occurs with supposedly easy readers.  Some authors control the grammar but use far too much difficult vocabulary.  This particular booklet has interesting subject matter for those interested in science and technology, but the percentage of difficult words is too high.  There is vocabulary support, but text should really be written in a way that less than 5% of the words require it, since it interrupts the flow of reading.

I think that will do for now.  So the moral of the story is, when writing for language language learners:

  • Don’t be boring,
  • Optimise the length of the text to allow a good reading session,
  • Don’t inundate with vocabulary.

It is possible to do the above.  There are many examples.  I love some of the stories in the Découverte series, such as “Dans la Maison Bleue”, which are full of imagination, and have illustrations that complement the stories.  Here’s hoping there are more interesting books in the future.  I hope mine will also be enjoyed.  I’ve had good feedback so far.

Easy Readers

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(WordPress seems to have disappeared my post, so here is my attempt to redo my detailed review, *hmph!*)

I’m a big fan of Extensive Reading as a means of improving one’s foreign language skills, due to it providing large quantities of language exposure – particularly useful for when the language you are learning is not spoken where you are living.
I’ve collected and read many books that were written for language learners, and would like to impart my opinions and advice for others wanting to learn by reading.
The two factors to consider when choosing text to read is its difficulty and its interest for you. If you don’t find it interesting then it will be hard to continue reading it. If it is too difficult you also won’t want to keep reading.
Text difficulty has two main factors: vocabulary and grammar. Many publishers state a vocabulary size for the books in their collection. The smallest vocabulary available is about 100 words (for example, ELI primary school age series level A0), and the largest tends to go to about 3500. Grammar difficulty tends to increase with the vocabulary level, with the easiest levels sticking to present tense, and higher levels adding more tenses and grammatical subtleties.
Ideally you should know 95-98% of the words in the text you are reading, i.e., there should only be one word in 20-50 that you don’t already know. This allows you to guess meaning from context and also not be too frustrated while reading. Publishers and writers vary in terms of how well they control the vocabulary in the texts.

My recommendations amongst currently available books at the early levels are:

Absolute beginners: ELI A0 (available in French, German, Italian and Spanish) – though beware – the same stories are in each language, so if learning multiple languages be selective. The stories by Jane Cadwallader cleverly introduce vocabulary as an integral part of the story – unlike some other stories out there that interrupt the narrative with contrived situations for vocabulary introduction.
150 words: La Spiga is cheap and fairly simple, but tends to have very little suspense.
200 words: ELI A1.1
300 words: ELI A1.2, teen readers A0 300 words
400 words:

  • ELI A2 primary school series. The teenage and adult series are much harder and less engaging – at least the two I’ve looked at are.
  • Teen readers 400 words

Among series that don’t state a vocabulary size I recommend CLE’s Collection Découverte for French. It has 6 levels and interesting stories. Hachette also do some fairly good stories in their Lire En Français Facile series.
In German, Langenscheidt publish a range of readers. I find the Leo & Co ones a little dull, but I still read them. I like the Inspector Müller series a bit better, but my favourite German reader is Kopftuch published in the Teen Readers series.

Many readers in European languages now state CEFR levels rather than vocabulary/grammar levels. For example A2 CEFR level can have readers with vocabularies of 400-1200 and also abridged native texts (with some vocab support). This is largely due to the way the levels are defined, which is based on practical skills rather than grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. However, as learners we really want a gentle transition between levels, and that is partly achieved by progressing up slowly through different vocabulary levels (and grammar levels) in our reading. Among series that only state a CEFR level, the CIDEB series contains some good stories. I found the vocabulary more difficult than Teen Readers of the same CEFR level, however.

For readers that assume English language knowledge, the Cambridge Serie Rouge is good, as are books pubished by EMC and the National Textbook Company (eg. Aventure in Normandie). Some of these are no longer available. Likewise, my favourite easy French reader, originally published by Mary Glasgow publications: Le Chapeau Rouge: Le Chien Disparu.
Aquila publishes good readers too, but do not sell to individuals.

If you want to see my ratings for specific books, head to: Goodreads user Dr Dabbler. In the end it doesn’t matter too much what level of text you’re reading, as long as you keep reading.

What I have learnt from reading stories intended for language learners is that a good story should have suspense and seamless vocabulary introduction. I apply this to my comic books, which are going for the niche of people with English language at a native/near-native level, and are beginning to read French. I’ve taken the tip from comics like X-Men and series like Dr Who, by having a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, to encourage the learner to read the next episode. I’ve written 3.5 episodes so far. I hope to have the first episode available next month.
Stay tuned!

Pronunciation songs

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While preparing my choir for a concert of French music I have been inspired to write some rounds and short songs in French to help choristers to produce the correct vowel sounds, and to have a bit of an idea about how to pronounce French.  I’ve written one round for each vowel so far, and am now writing songs for various consonants.  Today I finished a song for the letter G.  I’ll probably publish these as a booklet for choirs and classes.