A French Comic Draft and a Realisation

For #inktober a draft of a comic idea that I had 5 years ago when obsessing about French pronunciation. I might correct it and clean it up another day. Meanwhile enjoy this unedited version.

comic about an exchange where "nom" and "non" are confused
On realising “Non” and “Nom” are pronounced the same in French
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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.

Ford & Hicks’s Elementary New French Reader – a review

Ford & Hicks published this reader back in 1939, with the intention of making an easier graded reader than their other book, “A New French Reader”, by using present tense to start with, and introducing the other verb tenses in later stories.

The stories are mostly interesting, with a couple sourced from books I have not encountered before (“Deux jeunes aviateurs” and “Le secret du château”). It also includes Cosette, which had me sighing “not again”, since every publisher does stories from Les Misérables. However, Ford & Hicks may have been one of the first to make a simplified reader from it, so I shouldn’t grumble. What I will grumble about is the extract from Comte de Monte Cristo. You may recall in my review of Otto Bond’s series, that the escape episode of this was a highlight, and made me want to read more.

In the Ford & Hicks version, we get the initial backstory in English before reading the scene that led to the unjust incarceration of Dantès. The story then includes more English breaks between sections of French, and given the Otto Bond version, I don’t see the purpose of these interruptions to immersive reading. The Ford & Hicks version covers more of the story, and at the end summarises the remaining plot. Then they end the summary with the statement “The interest of the story weakens after the discovery of the treasure”. Unlike Bond’s version, which had me wanting to read on, this version annoyed me with the English interruptions and further annoyed me by taking away my interest in reading more of the story.

Recent trends in language acquisition research have focused on “translanguaging”, which seems to be what I’ve done most of my life, which is mixing languages together in order to keep communicating fluently with my level of knowledge (of Dutch). There seem to be benefits to doing so, but I’m starting to think it might not be so good for reading. This is the opposite of my previous thoughts on the topic, where I supervised the building of prototype bilingual ereaders that present foreign language stories, having the most difficult parts presented in the native language of the person reading it.

What may be more beneficial is reading foreign language text that resembles the native language of the speaker. That is, using cognates, simple non-idiomatic forms of expression and sentence structures that are not too unusual. This is what happens with stories in French written for native English speakers such as my Gnomeville series (Episode 1 and Episode 2 currently available), and the books by Otto Bond, and Ford & Hicks. It also happens to a large extent in stories by non-native writers. For example, I’ve seen some English graded readers written by a Chinese author, where the English is very Chinese in style, so would not be classed as “good English”. However, as long as it is known to not be “English” English, it is probably helpful to start with for people with a Chinese-speaking background. Then there should be a transition to more English-like English at a later stage. I’m somewhat more forgiving of this idea currently than I was previously.

Recent French Reader Reads plus Errata

I succeeded in acquiring more classic French readers recently. One of my new favourites is Dantès from Otto Bond’s Basic French Readings alternate series. It is a simplified extract from Dumas’s Comte de Monte Cristo. The story starts with an assumed knowledge of 97 frequent words, much like Sept-d’un-coup by the same publisher, but succeeds in having a higher proportion of cognates, leading to an impressive expected vocabulary for 95% coverage of 316 (based on my word list).  This makes it the lowest I’ve seen so far, apart from my own series.

However, the important thing is also whether it was an enjoyable read. I definitely got hooked on the story, and then all of a sudden the extract ends, and I’m left wanting to read the rest of the story. That can only be a good thing.

I was less captured by the remaining stories in the five-story volume, but still enjoyed most of them.

Regarding the match between publicised vocabulary sizes of graded readers and the reality of reading them, I can say from my cursory investigations that there is not always a good match between the two. Perhaps it averages out across the books, as I only take the first chunk of text for my comparisons, but if the first few paragraphs are too challenging, then a language learner may lose interest.

I’ve developed a new estimate of readability now, which is more complex than ones I’ve previously used and seems to match the foreign language learner’s experience reasonably well. Based on this, and my more recent acquisitions, I now recommend the following as first reads for French beginners with English-speaking background.

Young children: Luc et Sophie series, or Bonjour Berthe, which I find more entertaining. Le Petit Napoléon series is also quite good, and suitable for all ages, for those who like cats.

Older children: Gnomeville, Le Chapeau Rouge, select stories from Mary Glasgow’s Bibliobus, or Sue Finnie’s Lire Davantage.

Teenagers: I quite like the Teen Readers series. Catastrophe au Camping des Roses is rated as a vocabulary of 300 words, and my estimate has the 95% coverage vocabulary at 2421, which isn’t too bad. But Dantès mentioned above is easier vocabulary-wise.

Adults: Dantès is my current favourite as a first read. Becky Tucker’s Histoires pour les grandes appears to be easy, but I haven’t read enough to know whether it is interesting. I have yet to rate other ebooks.

However, the only stories that you can read immediately in French without having studied it is the Gnomeville series. There are some minor issues with it though, as have been brought to my attention recently. There are places where I have used “de la Fantasia” that should be “de Fantasia”. I was uncertain of the rule for this, but now I have discovered it. Mostly “de” is used with a country, but “de la” is used in expressions that have a temporal sense to them, such as “le gouvernement de la France” (since governments are not permanent), or if there is an adjective applied: l’Histoire de France but l’Histoire économique de la France. Very subtle indeed and I hope I can be forgiven for getting that subtlety wrong in my comic. I intend to make a second edition of Episode 2 at some point to rectify this. Another error in Episode 2 is the use of the verb “voyage” combined with “à” (“voyage à la Place des Roses”). Voyage doesn’t get used this way and “à” should probably be “vers” to communicate this idea. The sentence will be removed from the second edition.

In other news I attended the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia 2018 conference a couple of weeks ago. It was very inspiring, and also emphasised that the important thing with language acquisition is communication, not perfection. Perfection is unlikely to be achieved, but improvement is always possible. So let’s keep improving our language skills. Read, listen, write and speak. With practice comes improvement. Until next time.