All posts by Sandra Bogerd

About Sandra Bogerd

Music: composer , singer-songwriter, recording artist, conductor Language: author (A. L. Uitdenbogerd) of the Gnomeville comic book series for absolute beginners in French Job: computer science academic with interests in music, language, and HCI Business: co-director of Ad Hoc Software Pty Ltd and Agile Electronics.

Personal Experiments in Extensive Reading

As mentioned in my previous post about learning Japanese, I’ve been applying extensive reading principles to improving my Japanese language skills. At best, in Japanese, I can be described as a “false beginner”, as I don’t have the skills yet to pass the lowest level Japanese Language Proficiency Test. I have dabbled in learning the language whenever I have found a fun resource (Let’s Learn Japanese TV series, Kimono text books); completed a half-semester beginner course, which taught Hiragana and some introductory phrases; and visited Japan briefly three times, each trip providing immersive language learning experiences.

I don’t recall exactly when I started, but it was either from December or early January, I attempted to read something in Japanese for ten minutes per day. I keep a database of my language books, and used data in that to produce an approximate order of difficulty for attempting the books, and probably read through about 80 booklets, plus the chapters of Kimono level 1, and the starting chapters of Kimono level 2. I stopped about a week ago, as it was frustratingly difficult, and I had other things occupying my mind. For the moment I am filling the gap by playing Kana Quest, which is keeping my kana recognition alive.

So in a way, this has been an experiment in seeing how well extensive reading goes in a language where you are still at the beginning stages. In a couple of readability studies I’ve led, I’ve used a 5-point scale to indicate how easy something is to read:

  1. Very easy, understood everything
  2. Easy, a few words were not known, but it didn’t impact reading comprehension
  3. Not easy, but it was possible to follow the story
  4. Difficult, a dictionary is needed to make sense of it
  5. Very difficult, a dictionary won’t help

Number 5 is rarely chosen by anyone, and it has been argued that maybe it doesn’t happen. However, if I were to attempt to read something in Chinese, a dictionary won’t help me, as I don’t know how to look up hanzu characters based on stroke count. Sure I might get there if I persist, but life is too short for that. So I guess Number 5 is more about lacking willpower when encountering very difficult text.

In terms of optimal language learning, ratings of 2-3 are ideal, since new language is being encountered, but the reading is not at the frustration level.

I “extensively read” in a few languages. In Dutch, my mother tongue (but not my best language, which is English), I can comfortably read novels written for children.  I would need a dictionary for anything technical if it was important for me to understand the nuances of meaning, but I would still be able to “follow the story” for most texts I come across.

In French, a language I have studied both in courses and on my own, I am also at the stage where most texts would not be classed as difficult. For German, I read graded readers up to B1 level, giving me texts in the target zone. Thanks to my Dutch background and some study of the language, it would not take too much for me to be able to read texts for native German speakers and be able to “follow the story”.

Now we come to Japanese. The booklets I read went from rating 1 to rating 4. Naturally, the rating 4 ones led to frustration and reduced willpower to continue. My approach to reading them was to read straight through, and then afterward, allow myself to look up a word or two that seemed to be important for understanding, or that had occurred a few times in my reading. I will make the following observations of my experience.

  • My vocabulary definitely improved, but I think that stopping will lead to much of it being forgotten again
  • My ability to recognize kanji improved, and I think that this may actually last a bit longer in my memory than the pronunciation, particularly where there is some obvious logical connection between the ideogram and the meaning, eg. the words for “above” and “below”.
  • Illustrated books that are basically an illustrated vocabulary are very easy to read, even if you don’t know any of the words beforehand and forget most of them afterwards. However, it can be challenging to make them interesting.
  • Booklets with illustrations and repeated sentences can be easy. For example, where the concrete noun, such as a type of animal, is substituted into a template sentence, and the sentence has an illustration of the concrete noun on the page. Even if the sentence isn’t fully understood, the substituted noun will be.
  • Where it is clear from the illustrations what is being said, the meaning of the text can be deduced.
  • In languages that I can read reasonably well I don’t like to read stories that I already know, but I was grateful for the known stories presented in Japanese, to allow me to deduce what the text meant. While the text may have been just as difficult as other stories, the fact that the story was already known meant that the text was better understood and learnt from.
  • What also fascinated me was how focused and absorbed I was in the reading and sense-making task – much as I have observed young children when they are following a story in a book that is being read to them. It was as though my entire brain was switched on – until I got to that frustration point recently.
  • Attractive illustrations make the experience much more enjoyable.

A take home lesson for me is: once an alphabet is known, it is possible to read something, such as illustrated vocabulary books. My Japanese collection includes colour+object combinations, transport, trains, illustrated loanwords in katakana, cities and countries. The difficulty is perhaps learning the alphabet in an absence of known vocabulary. In our first languages we have clues from words we know, such as B for banana. For languages we haven’t learnt yet, authors would need to resort to other tricks such as loanwords, cognates, international words and names and place names.This is one of the tricks I use in my comic book series for French.

The Kimono series simplifies the reading a little by rendering all words that would be in katakana in romaji (our regular western latin alphabet), but spelt as it would be when rendered in katakana. I like this idea for slowly ramping up the difficulty. Books for Japanese native speakers also slowly ramp things up. Children’s books might be in hiragana, hiragana plus katakana with hiragana support, or kana and kanji with support, depending on the target age group.

One study I read about extensive reading and vocabulary acquisition examined what happened if you re-read stories. Each time you re-read you pick up more of the vocabulary. I think I will explore this next, and see how many re-readings of the easier books will make it easier for me to advance to the more difficult ones. Stay tuned for the answer!

 

 

Japanese language resources

I thought I’d share Theo’s post on Japanese language study. It has a great list of resources and tips for learning Japanese based on his experience. He is producing a game for learning hiragana and katakana, which should be released this year. I’m looking forward to it, since I could do with improving my katakana recognition. Apparently the game is sufficiently entertaining that even native Japanese speakers enjoy it. This is similar to my goal with my Gnomeville comics for French.

Theo’s point about the limitations of using anime is a good one. Language is huge, and it is used in different ways in different situations. He has some great suggestions for alternative, more useful resources.

I agree with Theo’s comment about flash cards and Anki. There is a difference between knowing a word (learning) and using it (acquisition).  This is why focusing on the four skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking are important, with extensive reading being the way to get maximum comprehensible input, if done properly.

One additional resource I would mention for reading in Japanese at the early stages is the Tadoku extensive reading books. I use extensive reading principles in all the languages I learn. Japanese is the most challenging of these for me, since it has a different writing system to European languages. At my current beginner level I read level 0 and 1 of the Tadoku.org books (assumed vocabulary of 350 characters) with some difficulty, so really the books are just a little more difficult than the ideal for extensive reading, but I read them anyway. Fortunately the level 0 ones are designed so that you can follow most of the stories via the pictures, so can deduce what some of the words mean from context, especially where it is a retelling of a well-known fable or folk tale. I have a range of other books from Australian and New Zealand publishers that are easier, but less entertaining. To supplement this I have some Japanese children’s books (ehon). The Kimono Japanese textbook series for adolescents also has entertaining comics in each chapter, which can be used to supplement reading.

I certainly pick up vocabulary through the repetition of reading, despite not trying to translate everything. For example, the Tadoku books frequently use 言いました (iimashita = said), which I picked up through reading them, and the Level 0 books have several that are about daily life in Japan, providing essential phrases and cultural knowledge. The children’s picture books taught me animal names and noises, as well as some colours and expressions. Maybe they’re not as important for adults as other vocabulary, but they’re part of language nevertheless.

The best approach to extensive reading for vocabulary acquisition still isn’t clear, but it does improve language, and surprisingly, not just reading skill. One study found that it even improved speaking, more than some traditional methods of language teaching. Also, just 10 minutes per day pretty much guarantees at least some improvement, with more likely to be better. So keep reading, but don’t stress about unknown words or grammar. Look up meanings if you want to, as you will retain vocabulary better that way – especially if you try to guess the meaning first, but don’t let it slow down your reading too much.

Function word frustrations

I recently re-watched Dilili in Paris, which is a fabulous animation movie for children, with French dialogue that is slow enough for French language learners to follow. I originally watched the movie during the Melbourne French Film Festival and considered buying the movie later so I could try watching it without English subtitles.

Frustration 1: Memory

There is a frequently repeated phrase when Dilili meets new people: “Je suis heureuse de vous rencontrer”. It was semi-humorous, and certainly designed to be remembered, to teach how to be polite when meeting someone new. However, what I actually remembered after a week or two was: “Je suis heureuse __ vous rencontrer.” Despite being exposed to many occurrences, the function word was lost. Function words don’t provide semantic content and therefore appear to be harder to retain. There is certainly research evidence that concrete nouns are easier to remember than various other types of words. This movie brought that home to me in a big way.

Frustration 2: Resources

(Not really about function words…)

I bought the DVD of the movie, and then when viewing it, discovered that the subtitles could not be switch off, and that the only subtitles were in English. I don’t know who makes these decisions when preparing DVDs for sale, but perhaps they don’t really consider their audience carefully enough. A French movie sold in Australia would have various audience segments: French ex-pats – possibly including some French people who are hard of hearing, Australian francophiles, Australians learning French. To me, movies and TV episodes are highly useful for practising comprehension of the spoken language. Ideally it can be done at three levels of difficulty (with the example given for L2 referring to the language being learnt and L1 referring to the native language):

  1. L2 audio with L1 subtitles,
  2. L2 audio with L2 subtitles,
  3. L2 audio without subtitles

I even do this with DVDs that were originally in English. I’ve watched two entire series of Perry Mason with French audio, which was quite illuminating. If you are short of practice material, check your DVD collection for audio in your target language. You may be pleasantly surprised to find a good selection amongst your favourite shows.

Frustration 3: Vocabulary Size

(Function words are frequent words…)

One of the excellent things about some graded readers was that they were designed for a specific vocabulary size. For me, vocabulary makes all the difference between a readable text and an unreadable one.  CLE International used to publish books targeting a specific vocabulary size. For example, Niveau 1 had vocabularies of 400-700 words. Through extensive reading, I have successfully moved from 300-word vocabulary books to 700-1000 word ones, and I hope to continue to progress through further reading. However, as with other publishers, the publications have now been converted to CEFR levels: A1, A2 etc. and as far as I can tell, the subtleties of vocabulary size have been removed from the book information.

I have completed a CEFR B1 in French, yet I’m most comfortable reading A1 texts (and texts with less than 1000 word vocabularies) and with few exceptions they are not easy apart from the grammar, which is too easy for me, but the books are still sometimes challenging vocabulary-wise. What frustrates me is that A2 covers such a wide range of vocabularies, depending on the source material, from readable to incomprehensible. Published vocabulary sizes for A2, where they occur at all, vary from 400 to >1200 words. The level of frustration with some of these graded readers is the same as for texts written for native speakers. I oscillate between A1, A2, native texts and back again. The original memoirs of Céleste de Chabrillan are as easy and more exciting than many A2 texts.

CEFR is designed, as far as I can tell, to describe a person’s practical skill in a language, and for that it is useful. However, the jumps between levels are quite large, so that the defined levels are not very useful for the learner themselves. Some publishers solve this by dividing up levels. ELI uses A0, A1, A1.1. The Danish Teen Readers/Easy Readers also divide up the levels, and still appear to quote target vocabulary sizes. Indie publishers tend to ignore vocabulary size in their writing. However, writers and publishers should remember that:

  1. Extensive reading is at its best if learners are reading at a comfortable level while not being familiar with all vocabulary. Ideally learners should know 98% of the words in text they are reading.
  2. Readability of text largely consists of grammar and vocabulary components.
  3. The more readable AND interesting reading material is, the more learners will read, the better their vocabularies will become, and the better their skill in a language will be.
  4. Publishing vocabulary levels required for 95-98% coverage of the text will assist learners in finding materials of the right level for them at any point. Vocabulary levels should be (loosely) based on general word frequency.

This is why I write my comic books for language learners. This is why I research extensive reading, readability and language acquisition.

German reading resources

On my long to-do list is to not only write the Gnomeville beginner French comics, but to also write a series in German and another in Dutch, both for which I have some preliminary drafts. Meanwhile, I have found an excellent beginner comic in German by Janine Wolf-Schindler. The illustrations are crude but effective, the language simple, and there are translations discreetly placed at the bottom of the page. This is now my recommended first read in German. That may change when I find (or write) other resources, but it is a good start.

Learn German with a Comic. John in Berlin by Janine Wolf-Schindler.

I’ve yet to think about where this comic fits in the sequence of reading difficulty of available texts in German. There are ELI and La Spiga texts that are easy. After that there are teen readers, and various krimis. I’ll leave that analysis and discussion for another day.

 

 

African stories in simple French

I came across this series a few years ago and found them a refreshing change from the usual fare of adolescent adventures, Western children’s stories, dated family stories, this-is-France stories etc. However, it seems to be difficult to get the information needed to decide which stories to buy. So here is a short guide to the series with amazon.com (affiliate) links. There seem to be a few different sellers of the stories, mostly in Europe, but most stories are available via amazon, if only you know their names and levels.

The stories come from a variety of places in Africa, giving a broader view of the continent. Another feature of the series is it is possible to purchase some titles in Swahili or Rwandan, so you can use them as a parallel text for these languages if desired.

Starter Level

Starter Level 1

These are short, 100-200 words in total and simple vocabulary and grammar. The series description says that sentences are no more than 10 words long, and no more than 20 words per page. These are designed for beginner readers, rather than just beginners in reading French. It is the only level that is entirely in present tense, as far as I can tell.


Imbu et les Fruits (from South Africa).
I have Imbu et les Fruits. It is nicely illustrated, with a simple short story in present tense that uses fruit vocabulary and the numbers from one to five (without making a big deal about it). It has an unhappy ending, as I’ve noticed happens quite a bit in African stories compared to their Western counterparts.


Le Poisson d’Orama (from Malawi)


La Hyène Affamée (from Tanzania)

Starter Level 2

This series has 240-400 words, maximum 30 words per page, maximum sentence length of 13, more varied grammar, and some difficult words.


La Fête du Lion (from Tanzania)
I have La Fête du Lion. Once again the the book is beautifully illustrated and the story has an unhappy ending. Note that this level uses preterite tense (passé simple).


Onze Maillots Jaunes (from South Africa)

Neka va au Marché (from Nigeria)

La Fille Qui Connaît Les Voitures (from Ghana)

Starter Level 3

This is described as having 450-700 words, with maximum sentence length 15 and a wider vocabulary and grammar. The pictures no longer tell the story but just provide a few illustrations. I don’t have any of this level yet, but have one on order.

Femi et sa Chienne (from Nigeria)


Tout Autour de la Terre (from Kenya)

Fiction

There are three levels available in French in this series, of increasing difficulty.

Level 1

This level is intended for those who have studied French for 3-4 years. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French.

Mzungu (from Kenya)
I have Mzungu, which has 27 pages of illustrated story – about 1000 words all up. This story tells of the arrival of a new teacher, and it’s the first white person that the children have seen. It includes preterite tense (passé simple) and some challenging vocabulary. I can’t help but notice the alliteration that the story is by Kelly Cunnane from Kenya!

Le Grand Combat

Les Ennuis de Jumeaux


En Taxi pour Johannesburg

Level 2

This level is intended for those who have studied French for 4-5 years. Like the previous level, it uses preterite past tense. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French.

Adefe et le Vieux Chef.
I have Adefe et le Vieux Chef, which tells of a girl who goes away from her village so that she can continue studies, since the Chief didn’t believe in educating girls. This one has a happy ending. I found the language a little easier than in Mzungu despite it being a higher level. This one includes subjunctive mood. The story is 27 pages long, has black and white illustrations on every page and seems to be about 2000 words in total.

Le Garcon qui chevaucha un lion (from Kenya).

L’usine de Monsieur Kalogo (from Uganda).

Level 3

This level is for those who have studied French for 5-6 years. The books in this level are longer, consisting of chapters, but still have some black and white illustrations in each chapter. The books have a vocabulary at the back of the more complicated words, which are explained in easier French. The books seem to be 8,000-10,000 words long.

La Valise Ensorcelée (from Uganda).

I have La Valise Ensorcelée. It is a Cinderella-like fable but set in Africa.

L’usine de la Mort (from Tanzania). I also have this one, which really packs a punch when you read it.

Les Jeunes Detectives (from Ghana).

HIV series

There are some books that educate about HIV that are available at different levels. I haven’t read any of these and I’m not 100% certain of their reading level.

Longmans’ Modern French Course Part 1 – review

I recently read through all of Longman’s Modern French Course Part 1 by Bertenshaw. This is another classic language book, published in 1923. The book provides short reading passages coupled with grammatical lessons that have been illustrated by the passages. Each of the 40 lessons also has illustrations relevant to the reading material. In the first two lessons the illustrations illustrate the relative position of the people and items under discussion. Another useful feature is that liaisons are marked to assist pronunciation. I presume that only the obligatory liaisons are shown, since forbidden liaisons are not illustrated or discussed.

The first passage is about 80 words long. Based on my rough readability calculations, the first 100 words are very easy, with a vocab score of 35, making it fit between my Episodes 2 and 3. Likewise, the sentences are quite short, leading to a rough readability score of 4.62, which places it after my first two episodes and slightly before readers such as Bonjour Luc, Histoires pour les grands, and A First French Reader by Whitmarsh.

The useful aspect of this book is its concise illustration of grammatical points. The stories are mostly not interesting, although there are a few tales and non-fiction passages that are a bit more appealing.

I thought I’d find out a bit about the author of this book. His full name was Thomas Handel Bertenshaw, he was born in 1859 and he died in 1929. In addition to publishing books on French, and edited French stories, he published work about music theory, also under Longmans. Once more, music and language appear to go together.

 

 

Contes Dramatiques – Review

I promised to review Contes Dramatiques at some point, which was recommended to me via social media a while ago and I eventually acquired a copy of it. I finished reading it a few weeks ago.

On the plus side, it is a graded reader that starts relatively simply and then progresses as you work through the stories in the book. On the down side, they were the kind of stories that annoy me and until you get near the end of the book they are very short. The result was that it took me a long time to finish this book. However, that is just me. If you are a fan of Maupassant (not actually in the book), leprechaun trickery and other such stories, you may like this a lot more than I do. I will say in its favour though that the first story is a lot more interesting than the first stories of many other graded readers. It’s just that there was a sameness across the set of stories that made it tedious for me.

From a readability perspective I give it a 6.7 (based on the first ~100 words), which sits with various other graded readers including some A1 teen readers on the scale. So it is suitable reading for A1+ learners.

Si Nous Lisions review

I finally finished Si Nous Lisions the other day, so here is my review.

This classic graded reader was published in 1930. It gradually adds vocabulary as the story progresses.
The first 5 chapters are a bit dull, being the usual themes of the classroom, families and French tourism. From chapter 6, once you have encountered about 130 words of vocabulary, there are stories, starting with the three bears, then proceeding to various interesting stories, including “la pièce de cinq francs”, which I quite enjoyed, since it matches my personal quirks.
By the end of the book you have a vocabulary of about 500 words.
If you already have at least the top 100 frequent words in French under your belt, I suggest skipping or skimming the first few chapters and starting with Chapter 6.

In terms of the amount of text, there are 15 chapters, each containing a story, plus exercises. The first page of the first chapter has ~56 words on it, Chapter 2’s first page has 88 words, and from Chapter 3 onwards there are 5-13 mostly full  pages of text with one or two illustrations per chapter. Full pages have about 300 words, so quite a bit more reading than a typical CIDEB or Easy Reader offering, which at the A1 level, can often be read within a half hour. The large amount of text doesn’t need to be daunting though, as each chapter is self-contained as a story.

Overall I rate it as “enjoyable”. Some of the later chapters I wouldn’t mind reading again in the future, if short of reading material, but I wouldn’t call any of the stories favourites.

Next up I’ll finish reading Contes Dramatiques by Hills-Dondo.

Readability Zones

I’ve just been updating my database of French readers and observing the types of books or stories in the different ranges of my current preferred readability measure.

Scores under 4 are ridiculously easy for people with an English speaking background. Currently this consists only of episodes 1 and 2 of my Gnomeville comics. Sentences are short and vocabulary is highly constrained, exploiting French-English cognates.

Scores in the 4-4.99 range are very easy: Bonjour Luc, A First French Reader by Whitmarsh, and Histoires pour les grands. They tend to be conversation-based.

Scores in 5-5.99 tend to be the short illustrated graded readers such as Bibliobus, as well as La Spiga’s Zazar for grands débutants (target vocabulary of 150). Gnomeville Episode 3 sits here due to having longer sentences compared to the first two episodes.

Scores in 6-6.99 tend to have longer sentences, including some classic graded readers such as Si nous lisions and Contes Dramatiques, as well as the 300 word vocabulary Teen Reader Catastrophe au Camping des Roses.

Scores 7-7.99 also have the more text-like graded readers, including Sept-d’un-Coup by Otto Bond, which tends to have long sentences but well-controlled vocabulary.

In the 8-8.99 range I find the first story for native speaking children, as well as more graded readers, including one with a target vocabulary of 1000 words.

The first books for adult native speakers occur with scores between 10 and 12.

Looking at the stories in the list, my own level seems to be from 7 to 10, suggesting I should continue reading more challenging graded readers in addition to stories written for French children. That is pretty much what I have been doing for a while, as well as incidental reading on the web and elsewhere.

A quick look at the relationship between stated vocabulary sizes and the 95 percentile that I have been using indicates that the required vocabulary is  roughly 1.5x  + 2600. However, I am using a token-based vocabulary whereas most would use a word family one. If I assume token vocabulary sizes are 5 times word family sizes, then the equivalence point for this model is when the vocabulary is about 770, meaning that the vocabulary load will be excessive for stated vocabulary sizes less than 770 but be ok for sizes greater than 770. That’s reasonably reassuring. Mind you this is an extremely rough estimate.

This work was based on about 100 words from the start of the text of 40 stories, but it does seem to sort things fairly usefully. The outlier based on my experience of reading the stories is Aventure en Normandie, with a score of 9.49. I don’t recall it being a difficult read.

Meanwhile I am making more progress on Episode 3 of my comic book. I decided to divide one page into three pages, as it had a lot of text and too many new language concepts for a single page. So Episode 3 will probably be 32 pages long, breaking the standard Gnomeville pattern of 28 page episodes. Hopefully it will be ready within a month.