A Lesson in Suspense

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Reading graded readers can be quite educational on how to write good stories. Previously I wrote an article about a graded reader “Hall of Shame“, in which I highlighted various problems I had observed within the genre, and then provided a summary of recommendations on how to write better graded readers. Elsewhere I wrote another summary of advice on writing graded readers (I called the Easy Readers in my earlier posts.)

In this article I’d like to talk about suspense. I think I was in my twenties when I first really thought about suspense at all when reading. A fine simple example that crystalised it for me was Dirk Gently’s Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Two memorable simple bits of suspense occurred in it. The first is the sofa stuck in the staircase, which is explained toward the end of the story. The second, which amazed me in its simplicity was explaining two of three things, and not answering the third one until late in the book. I was reading on, wondering what the third thing was. This illustrated that it didn’t really matter what the suspense is, as long as it’s suspense. It doesn’t need to be figuring out who committed a crime, or whether the romance concludes happily. It can be pretty much anything.

The next observation, which inspired the way I’ve organised my Gnomeville comics, was the use of cliff-hangers. I was reading a collection of X-Men comics, and noticed that they always ended with a cliffhanger, and unanswered questions. By never fully ending the story, people get hooked and need to read the next issue. Soap operas seem to work the same way. It struck me that this is a very good strategy for graded readers, since we want to motivate people to keep reading to improve their language skill.

I buy and read graded readers by other authors, and I was struck by the contrast suspense made between two otherwise very similar stories by the same author, Sylvie Lainé.

Voyage en France tells of an English couple who go to France, because Louis is reminded of a creative project he commenced with his best friend, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about a man trying to find an old friend, echoing the current situation. Louis wants to see how the story will end, by finding his old friend. We read the story of Louis and Melba as they follow a series of clues to find Louis’s old friend. This suspense worked for me, as I wanted to know how the story would end. I also wanted to know whether they tried to finish the movie, but that question wasn’t answered. I read the story quickly, despite many chapters of fairly mundane travel activities, all because of the suspense.

Contrast the above story with Voyage à Marseille. This contains the same two main characters, doing the same things, that is, travelling through France to get to a destination. However, it lacks the suspense of wondering whether they will find the person they are looking for. The first bit of excitement happens quite late, the disappearance of the car, and is resolved quite quickly. There is another unanswered question that had potential as a simple bit of suspense, the title of the biography of Louis’s friend that they were visiting. Unfortunately that wasn’t answered in the final chapter. It took me a lot longer to finish this story, because there wasn’t anything I wanted to know the answer to.

So, when writing graded readers, please provide suspense. It makes a lot of difference to the reading experience.

 

 

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Mots fréquents français

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I recently came across a new word frequency list for French words, which I’m placing here partly for my own benefit. This one is like some others that combine all conjugations of a verb together, which is not helpful for all applications. Typically present tense is much easier than other less frequently used tenses, particularly for irregular verbs.

Anyway, the list is still useful. It was created by Étienne Brunet, a statistical linguist, based on a corpus of written French.

Here are the top 20 words. Interestingly, compared to the newspaper corpus list I used for designing Episodes 1 and 2 of my comic, this corpus has first person singular (je) occurring much more frequently, as well as “have” (avoir). “ce”, “son” and “elle” also occur in this list higher than “au”, and were not in the newspaper list. “avoir” may be higher because of all conjugations of it being grouped together.

1050561 le (dét.)
862100 de (prép.)
419564 un (dét.)
351960 être (verbe)
362093 et (conj.)
293083 à (prép.)
270395 il (pron.)
248488 avoir (verbe)
186755 ne (adv.)
184186 je (pron.)
181161 son (dét.)
176161 que (conj.)
168684 se (pron.)
148392 qui (pron.)
141389 ce (dét.)
139185 dans (prép.)
143565 en (prép.)
127384 du (dét.)
126397 elle (pron.)
123502 au (dét.)

List of frequent words in French.

Wordle

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I’ve been playing with Wordle recently. It creates word clouds, showing the most frequently occurring words in a given block of text after a set of stop words, such as “the”, are removed, with font size indicating the relative frequency of words. It’s a fancier version of the tag cloud. Here is a wordle for my blog.

gnomevilleblog5

They’re pretty good at giving an idea of what something is about. Perhaps they can also help the language learner.

Here is a wordle word cloud for Les Trois Mousquetaires.

troismousq

This shows who are the main characters, and a few common words that don’t appear to have been excluded via the stop list. When no words are filtered, we get something like this.

troismousq_common

Really it’s just a pretty word frequency list, and frequency is one consideration for deciding whether a word is worth learning. If you want to get some idea of what are the important words to know for a particular text and you have the text handy, Wordle is an aesthetically pleasing way to find out.

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.

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.