Bonjour Berthe! Charming Beginner French Stories

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I recently bought a copy of Bonjour Berthe by Gwen Brookes, which is a beginner French reader aimed at young children. I found the book charming, and I believe it would appeal to children in early primary school.

The book is a soft cover pamphlet with glossy pages. There are 13 pages of story, with each page having a large illustration and 1-2 sentences. The font is large and the quantity of text is minimal, at approximately 80 words in total. The sentences are in present tense with simple structures. The vocabulary density is around 50%, which indicates enough repetition to allow some learning of vocabulary. However, the text is so short that the only words to get at least 5 appearances are “est” and “elle”, so many books would need to be read to provide learning purely from reading. Instead, the book includes activities (a wordsearch and a game) to improve vocabulary retention. All words are translated in a glossary at the end of the story.

If you are looking for books for early primary school aged children learning French, this series is a good choice.

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Using Martine by Marlier for French Extensive Reading Practice

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The Martine series was recently recommended to me for children learning French. I managed to purchase a couple of books from the series from FNAC. My review is of course biased by my own preferences in reading (and writing), and clearly I am not in the 5-12 age range for whom they were recommended, but hopefully it will be useful nevertheless.

I read Martine à la ferme, which is one of about 60 books in the series, which tell the adventures of Martine, a young girl. This particular book is about Martine visiting a farm with her friend Lucie.

From a story perspective, there is no driving narrative. It’s just a bunch of twee pastoral scenes with text. It is beautifully presented, and for children who love animals and dream of interacting with them, it may be an enjoyable experience. I found it dull, however.

From a language perspective, the series can be quite useful. It is authentic French in present tense, so great for learners to get reading practice without getting bogged down in passé simple. Plus, with 60 volumes to go through, that’s a good amount of practice at the level of the books – if you enjoy the genre.

There are 18 pages of illustrated text to read in the book, with about 60 words per page, making approximately 1000 words per book. The vocabulary and language appear to be sufficiently generic to be useful, and easier than other French children’s books I have seen in that regard. Sentences are fairly straightforward, and rarely longer than 15 words in length.

Vocabulary will be the main difficulty for foreign language learners. A sample of the first ~130 words had a vocabulary of 94 (including names and apostrophe’d words as separate words), making a vocabulary density of ~72% (unique words divided by total words). To put this into context, here are some vocabulary densities on the first ~100 words of other texts.

Consuelo 76%
Le Petit Prince 74%
Minnesota spoken corpus 68%
Gnomeville Episode 3 (not yet released) 58%
The French Bible 52%
Gnomeville Episode 2 46%
Gnomeville episode 1 43%

Basically, any normal native French text is likely to have a vocabulary density of about 75% in a sample of ~100. (The density typically drops a little as the length of the text sample increases.) Conversation (eg. Minnesota corpus) seems to be lower, and translations may also be lower. To get lower than that requires stories that are intentionally written with a small vocabulary, such as the Gnomeville comics listed above, and some Dr Seuss stories (in English) – especially Green Eggs and Ham.

So, in summary, if you are after authentic French text that has easy grammar, then the Martine series will be very useful for those who enjoy the genre. The books are also fairly short, allowing children to feel a sense of achievement in finishing them sooner than for a longer work like Le Petit Prince. Personally I would prefer to read more books that are specifically written for language learners until my vocabulary was large enough to read books that are more entertaining. The J’Aime Lire series of books for French children is much more entertaining and written for the 7-11 age group. The difficulty of the text does vary quite a lot though, depending on the author, so expect to occasionally struggle or skip stories. My current recommended sequence for primary-aged children is:

  1. Gnomeville series (for English-speaking background only)
  2. Mary Glasgow series (English-speaking background)
  3. EMC’s À l’aventure! Readers (English-speaking background)
  4. Aquila’s readers (English-speaking)
  5. CLE International’s Collection Découverte
  6. La Spiga Grand Débutant series (150 word vocabulary)
  7. ELI for children
  8. Martine or J’Aime Lire books

These are not a strict reading sequence, since the various series overlap in levels of difficulty (except Gnomeville). There are other series out there, such as CIDEB, Edition Maison des Langues. There are more books for adolescents, such as Teen Readers, and the adolescent FLE series by Hachette.

I will publish more detailed up to date lists as I become aware of more books and series. Stay tuned.

 

 

Episode 1 Progress

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I’m very happy that people are starting to buy the ebook edition of my comic for learners of French with an English-speaking background. I’ve had purchases from UK, Canada and USA, as well as some kindle unlimited reads. It can be deflating when nobody buys the work you’ve put your heart and soul into, but then when they do, you are inspired to keep going with the vision.

On my Facebook page, I made a special offer for people who have read the comic book to write an Amazon review in order to receive a free copy of the narration by native French speaker Jeremy Marozeau.  This offer expires at the end of the month.

It’s also not too late to receive all audio tracks on mailing magnifica@gnomevillecomics.com the Amazon kindle receipt showing purchase of episode 1.

Meanwhile, the first additional resource for episode 1 is now available. I decided to focus on fashion and celebrity for this one.  It’s mainly pictures and links to articles in French about “le total look”. I hope it’s useful for beginners in French with an interest in fashion.

Where’s the Quality?

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As a conscientious writer with an academic background I tend to try very hard to write correctly in all my publications and communications. Obviously sometimes one is rushed or typing on a small smartphone, so a few typos get by the self-editing phase. Occasionally I’m surprised at myself that I have typed the wrong spelling for a word, such as “their” for “they’re”, when I know very well the correct word to use, but in my haste the wrong word came out of my fingers. This seems to happen even for parts of words, where I always mistype some words the first time because they contain a sequence of characters that occurs frequently that leads me to follow with an incorrect one. An example for me is words that end in “in”, which will often automatically get a “g” after them, which I then need to backspace.

Some people don’t care about editing, and so be it. However there are some situations when I think it is our responsibility to be as correct in our writing as we can be. One of those situations is in resources for language learners. I have learnt through my attempts to write in another language that it is nearly impossible to write like a native speaker of the language. Languages are just too large to know all the phrases and collocations, let alone the vocabulary and grammar that most people manage to master. So, if you care about quality then the thing to do is to have a native-speaking proof-reader for your work. Some of the books in my collection have clearly made use of colleagues to do language checking, and that gives me a bit more faith in the authenticity of the language that I’m being exposed to. But in my recent scan of language books on Smashwords I was horrified at the poor quality writing, even just in the introductory blurb. There were some very poorly written English stories aimed at the Chinese ESL market. On the plus side, Chinese students of English would find them easier to read than stories with more English-like English, but it doesn’t give them the chance to absorb correct English grammar as they read. Likewise I found a Canadian book in French that, even with my B1-level French I could tell had incorrect grammar in the blurb.

So, advice to those writing stories for language learners (and anyone wanting to write as well as possible in a foreign language):

  1. Write stories in your own native (or best) language. It’s more likely to be correct.
  2. If you write in a foreign language (as I do), then it is imperative that you have a native speaker check it for you. You can’t trust (old) dictionaries, or sometimes even textbooks, to help you write correctly.
  3. Some techniques that can help you write correctly (before you get it checked) is to use a corpus-based dictionary, a concordancer, and a search engine. Check that words you want to use are actually used in the way you intend. Check the preposition that is normally used.
  4. Software is being developed that helps users improve or check their writing. MS Word has a grammar checker, so it can be useful for checking (but you can’t rely on it completely). Other prototype systems are being developed, some of which I saw at CoLing 2016 in Osaka recently, and another at the English Australia 2016 Conference in Hobart. Use the tools available to you.

The first time I had a near-native speaker check my comic book draft it was an eye-opener. I learnt that I couldn’t trust my old Cassells French-English dictionary, and that I couldn’t trust my high school textbook. The second (or was it third) time I had a native speaker read through the story she picked up an error that the first proof-reader didn’t. The final proof-reader was my narrator, who only remarked upon one phrase which remains in the comic “Le total?”, which occurs when a native speaker is more likely to use the expression “l’addition”. It is grammatically and semantically correct but unusual. I’ve allowed that expression to remain.

The sad thing for those who aim for quality writing is that there is possibly not much reward in it. There are many stories on Amazon and Smashwords that are full of grammatical errors, but they probably still earn dollars. Producing quality work takes more time and effort. Hopefully my comic book will find its audience that recognises the quality of the work and that it is worth the cover price.

 

 

 

Extensive Reading in Japanese

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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

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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.

Thoughts on Up Goer Five and Constrained Vocabulary Writing

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When I first saw the Up Goer Five comic by xkcd, I loved it.  It epitomised what I do with my comic book and my research, and is a convenient example to show people, when explaining the idea of constrained vocabulary writing.

Fans figured out that the 1,000 words used by xkcd for it were the contemporary fiction list, shown in Wiktionary.  This frequency list is based on over 9 million words of on-line contemporary fiction.  It combines plurals and simple verb forms into one listed word (lemmas), which is a good choice, since if the root word is known, then the plurals with s, and simple verb forms are usually also understood.

As someone who writes using lists generated based on frequency, I’ve noticed that several problems arise.  One is that, typically, male pronouns and nouns occur at higher frequencies than female ones.  The Wiktionary list is not overly biased in this way, possibly because it is based on contemporary fiction.  “he” is ranked at 8, “her” and “she” at 12 and 13 respectively, and “his” at 16.  However, we find “man” at 163 and “woman” at 452, but “girl” is at 133 and “boy” at 217.  This hints at what has been termed the systemic “infantilization” of women in society.  The figures are probably quite different due to the common pairing of “guy” (at 178) with “girl” in colloquial speech.  Google’s auto-suggest, which is also based on frequency, has occasionally come up with phrases that are considered racist, sexist or otherwise problematic – and it is purely a reflection of what we as a society tend to write.  When writing in a principled manner for language learners, it may be important to balance what word frequency lists tell us, with what is a more equitable representation.  I didn’t really think very much about this when I started writing Gnomeville years ago, but have become more aware of these issues thanks to some of my friends who are more knowledgeable in them.

Another issue that needs to be considered is what is culturally appropriate to write for the target audience.  For example, I have recently been made aware that it is inappropriate to use words referring to alcoholic beverages when the audience is Islamic.  Obviously for work intended for children (or for experimental subjects) it is customary to exclude expletives.  For this reason, several words on the list would need to be excluded.  There seems to be an expressive set of expletives in the list.

For the method of writing I employ in the Gnomeville story, I  introduce one new high frequency word per page of story, and somewhat less frequently I introduce a grammatical pattern.  Sometimes I’ve changed the order in which I add words due to the story.  This happened in episode one, in which I introduced “se” very early instead of after about a dozen other words.  Also, I recall that “le” was added before “de”, even though their ranks are reversed.  Having said that, my first 20 words were based on a corpus of newspaper articles.  Every corpus gives a different ranking of words.  There are some similarities across corpora however.  For example, if the corpus is large enough, the frequency of the word “the” is likely to be about 7% for English text.

Anyway, back to Up Goer Five.  The upcoming book “Thing Explainer”, as well as the text uploaded to the up goer five text editor provide some good practice at reading for people still consolidating their first 1000 words of the English language.  If going beyond that, the writing should have less than 5% of words outside the vocabulary set to be suitable for improving language skill while fluently reading for comprehension.  A text editor with more flexibility is the OGTE Editor, designed for writing English text for different language learner levels.