Category Archives: Personal

About my personal language learning and writing goals.

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.

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Extensive Reading in Japanese

I’ve been reading my collection of very easy Japanese graded readers in recent weeks, and was very pleased to successfully order all the level 0 books from ask-books.com.  This gives me a collection of 18 books in addition to the 3 level 0 books I had from NPO.  I’m currently making my way through them.

My knowledge of Japanese is quite limited really: I learnt a bit from the Let’s Learn Japanese TV series, then from the first book of the Kimono Japanese language school text book, a short course based on the Japanese for Busy People textbook prior to a one-week visit to Japan, and then pretty much just doing extensive reading and occasionally revising my hiragana and katakana (and another short trip to Japan).  So some of the level 0 books (and some level 1 which is the same vocabulary base) are roughly the right level for me.  The others are perhaps a little difficult, however, the design of the books is such that you can follow the story via the pictures and pick up vocabulary by deduction a lot of the time.

While I try to avoid looking up words (well, actually I’m pretty lazy anyway), I allow myself to look up one or two words after I’ve read through a book to either confirm my guess at its meaning, or to make the meaning clearer where there were too many words I didn’t know to follow the story.  I will sometimes reread the story after having done so – I’m only reading very short stories so this doesn’t take long.

Via the Japanese Level Up site I discovered another blog with information about extensive reading, together with reviews of Japanese graded readers, and also how to access an on-line library of Japanese picture books.  Given that the tadoku competition favours new books over rereading, I’ll probably hit the picture books once I run out of my readers.

 

 

Children’s Books

In my French reading, partly to continue using extensive reading, and also partly research for my writing of comic books in French, I’ve started reading more children’s books.  The J’Aime Lire series from Bayard was an excellent place to start.  They publish for specific ages: 6, 7, 8, 9, etc.  While the difficulty for a foreign language learner varies sometimes, the books for 6-8 year-olds mostly work for me, and seem to match a ~1000 word vocabulary or A2/B1 level.

One thing I found with reading children’s fantasy novels is that they are very vivid, and it is easy to become engrossed in this fantasy world, with a feeling of wonder.  I had the same experience when reading the first volume of Harry Potter (and as a child when reading Enid Blyton).  My comic book also has this vividness about it – partly because it is a brightly-coloured comic book.  I’m not sure if it is the fantasy element, the illustrations or a property of the writing that makes it so.  In the case of Harry Potter it can only have been created via the text, as I read it before seeing any movies of it.

Easy Reader Genres

I’ve been taking part in the Tadoku competition again this month, in French, Japanese and German.

My Japanese is pretty basic, so I’m reading beginner readers that have only a couple of sentences on each page at most, with the majority of them being repetitious in order to give practice at certain phrases.  Only a few of these are particularly enjoyable in terms of text content: The Shinkansen series previously published by Heinemann are good.  The DEE Publications readers are good practice and have nice illustrations, but can’t be classed as particularly entertaining.  The interesting part of those books are actually the cultural notes at the end in English.  Some Japanese little books for very young children that I acquired in Japan are amusing, partly for their innovative layout (Inai inai baa!).

In French I’ve been reading books at the 700-1000 word vocabulary level, plus a few other books of a similar level of difficulty.  After reading quite a few books for adolescents about adventures and mysteries etc, I seem to have hit saturation point with the genre.  I’m still enjoying crime mysteries and some classic stories (though not all), but my new interest is stories from Africa.  There is a series of African stories published by Heinemann in 5 levels of difficulty.  I stumbled across these when visiting a Dutch shopping site, and ordered a couple at Niveau 3 to try.  They are a refreshing change from the fodder I’ve been reading recently.  They don’t pull any punches though.  I’ve read La Valise Ensorcelée, which has an element of magic to it, as well as a moral.  I’ve also read “L’usine de la Mort”. This book shocked me a little, but I’m glad I read it.  I don’t think it’s great literature by any stretch, but certainly interesting, moving, and sufficiently different for the jaded easy reader reader.  As a result I’ve bought more books from the series.

Recent language learning experiences.

Recently I sat my French B1 exam. In preparation I had conversations with colleagues and friends in French over a few drinks, switched my various gadgets and accounts to French, read books in French, did a few exercises from textbooks, revised a few points of grammar, tried duolingo, and did some practice exams. Looking at my results, my main weakness is speaking. My French colleague says that my main problem is being hesitant. Add a few drinks and I’m more fluent.
Currently my obsession is Japanese, while I’m in Japan for a conference. I’m getting a bit better at katakana and kanji thanks to repeated efforts at reading signs.

Pronunciation songs

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.

Language Qualifications

As I write a comic book in French for language learners I thought it would be a good idea to update my qualifications.  A long time ago I did senior high school French and the corresponding Alliance Française exams.  A few years ago I did a few courses at the Alliance Française.  This year I sat the (CEFR) A2 exam – a fairly low level exam just so I could see how it all works, and because I haven’t done an exam for a few years. 

Europe has a set of standards for language skill, known in English as the “Common European Framework of Reference” (CEFR).  The 6 levels go from A1 to C2, and reflect practical skills in listening, speaking, reading and writing, rather than just grammatical skills.  I hope to do the B1 exam soon, which is still a lower level than expected by international students entering TAFE in Australia, so I have a bit of a way to go.  B2/C1 is needed for tertiary study.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages