Tag Archives: language learning

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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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

A few more French graded reader book stats

Since my last graded reader update I’ve looked at a few more books, some of which are “classics”, in the sense they were from the “direct reading” era of the first half of the twentieth century, following the influence of Michael West’s constrained vocabulary for language teaching, the various word and idiom frequency lists created at the time, and the idea of readability. Some of these books I had already acquired earlier; but through reading some papers published at that time, I was able to compile a shopping list of other books written according to the same philosophy.

As a result, I have a new winner in terms of expected vocabulary size at the 95% threshold of reading comfort. A New French Reader by Ford and Hicks received a 95% vocabulary size of 3532, and Otto Bond’s Sept-d’un-Coup was a close second, with 3650. Bond’s book starts with a much smaller initial assumed vocabulary (97 words) than the Ford and Hicks book (523), so Bond’s book may be a better first read despite the slightly higher vocabulary score here. As seen in my first post on expected vocabulary size for 95% coverage, these are much higher scores than my Gnomeville comics, as my comics take readability criteria to the extreme.

So based on the current stats available on vocabulary, I recommend the following first graded readers for English speakers learning French.

For 6-9 year olds: Bonjour Berthe.

For 10+: Gnomeville

For adults who don’t like fantasy comics: Sept-d’un-Coup by Otto Bond – though I think there are some errors in it, and it’s out of print (and it probably counts as fantasy…).

Stay tuned for further updates.

 

Are some graded readers not worth reading?

Something I have been pondering lately is the enormous vocabulary load that occurs in some graded readers that are intended for beginners. The grammar is simple but the vocabulary load is huge. Sure, things are often glossed, which speeds up the process of finding out the meaning of words, but it still prevents fluent reading.

When I first found booklets from the Bibliobus series published by Mary Glasgow, I thought they were wonderful. I only had 3 of them, at levels 6 and 8. I also loved Le Chapeau Rouge released by the same publisher. I’ve since collected more Bibliobus stories, and also acquired a collection of Lire Davantage booklets. What is clear to me, and I have been reminded of it by a friend who has been reading them lately, is that there is not much text but a lot of vocabulary load. The stories do vary a little in terms of quality and difficulty within the published levels, so some are probably of greater value than others.

In theory, these high vocabulary load stories provide language exposure that will increase a learner’s skill, since there are things that are unknown. Provided the learner can read them quickly they have some value for extensive reading. However, if there is a choice between another story with lower vocabulary load, more text and a smoother gain in vocabulary, then that would be better. It’s all down to availability. However, ultimately what matters is whether the story appeals to you enough that you are keen to read it. If not, it is best to find something else to read. As long as you are reading at least 10 minutes per day at a level that allows you to fluently read, follow the story, but not already know all the language that you encounter then you will improve your language knowledge.

Here are a couple more books/stories I’ve analysed for general vocabulary size at the ~95% cut-off, based on the first 100 words. Note that just using this figure in isolation is a bit misleading, because books like the one by Ford and Hicks use a lot of repetition and a relatively small vocabulary overall, making it possible to learn relatively easily. It just isn’t necessarily all highly frequent vocabulary. This is where vocabulary density is also a useful guide, so I’ve included this figure as well.
If the 95% general vocabulary size is high and the vocabulary density is high, it means that you may be able to read comfortably, learning the vocabulary of the given text, but its relative usefulness will depend on whether it matches the vocabulary that you need for your language goals.

Title Author Publisher/Series Gen Vocab Size at 95% Vocab Density at (n) words
Reading approach to French Ford and Hicks J.M. Dent and Sons (Canada) Ltd. 12,059 2.77 (122)
Le Visiteur Sue Finnie Mary Glasgow/Bibliobus 11,260 2.05 (123)

This follows on from my previous table of figures. When using general vocabulary rank frequency lists it certainly seems normal for graded readers to effectively use a very wide vocabulary, leading to an expected general (raw) vocabulary size of 4,000 to 12,000. To do something considerably less requires careful vocabulary control, such as occurs in my Gnomeville series, which achieves this through exclusively using French-English cognates and the most frequently occurring words. Initially it may seem a little artificial, but becomes more natural and flowing as the stories progress. A similar approach is used in Si Nous Lisions, in that a very small vocabulary is used initially, and then a new word is added every 90 or so words. While I came up with the idea independently, the concept of vocabulary control is attributed to Michael West.

At some point I’ll publish a comprehensive list of graded readers with these statistics, but I’ll first need to automate the process a bit more and get rid of a few bugs. Meanwhile, let’s keep reading at least 10 minutes a day of easy but not too easy text in the languages we want to learn.

A Lesson in Suspense

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 them 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 crystallised 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 decades earlier, who later moved to France, and with whom he had lost contact. The project was a movie about an old 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.

 

 

Vocabulary Needed for 95% Coverage

I’ve been tinkering with ways of comparing different easy readers for language learners. Previous posts I’ve used a type-token ratio or vocabulary density, which gives some idea of how likely it is you might learn new words through repetition from a text. But for something to be readable, the general consensus is that you need to know at least 95% of the words that you read. This is a level that allows people to guess the meaning of the words they don’t know.

So something I’ve been messing with recently is predicting the general vocabulary size needed for different beginner stories in French, assuming people know all cognates and all proper nouns. I’ve only been working with short samples of text so far, and there are many other assumptions and issues that make it not a perfect comparison – including bugs in my code…

Given a small set of extracts, and assuming you don’t learn the words via their introduction one at a time, as in my comic books, we have the following:

Title Vocab Size
Gnomeville Episode 1 25
Gnomeville Episode 2 25
Gnomeville Episode 3 40
Bonjour Berthe 4179
Easy French Reader 5008
Martine a la Ferme 11854
Bonjour Luc 6163

Note that this vocabulary size assumes that each conjugation of verbs is a separate vocabulary item, as are plurals etc. so will be much larger than word family figures normally used.

You can see that the one text written for native French speaking children (Martine) has a much richer vocabulary than the texts written for language learners. The figures for these look worse than they seem, because there are many words that are typically taught early to allow conversation, but which feature much lower on word frequency lists. For example, “maman” was at rank 6163 in my list. In contrast, my Gnomeville comics are designed to prioritise frequent words and cognates to optimally improve reading, at the expense of conversation. Hence the very small vocabulary sizes required.

Recently I’ve been reading a 1939 paper by Tharp that looked at measuring vocabulary difficulty. He appears to have had similar ideas about measuring vocabulary load based on the general frequency of the words, as well as a measure of density of difficulty words. I also recently acquired yet another very early graded reader, “Si nous lisions”, from 1930, which attempted to introduce new words every ~60 running words, in the style of Michael West, who seems to have been the first to use the approach. However, I have a graded reader published in 1909 in my collection, which was intended for “rapid reading”, and was part of a series that  commenced with short easy texts. I’m not sure if they methodically introduced words at specific intervals as was done by West and others following his example.

In searches on-line, I found a French adapted reader from 1790, so we’ve been at it for quite a while. I’d like to say we know more about how to write graded readers these days, but I think West had it fairly right. The only thing we can do now is make them more interesting and relevant.

Here’s one from 1800 published for those with a German background. There seem to be quite a few published in the 1800s.

Anyway, I’ll finish off here with the usual things: we need 95% coverage to read comfortably (on average). To do that with native texts requires quite a large vocabulary. But vocabulary increases as you read more. So we should read as much as possible at the level that is right for us and of reading material that interests and motivates us. My Gnomeville comics are ideal first readers in French for those with an English language background and a good vocabulary in English. The Berthe and Luc et Sophie series are reasonable alternatives for children that are possibly too young for Gnomeville, as are the ELI A0 series. Until next time…

 

Luc et Sophie – a review

In my recent exploration of graded readers intended for children, I found the Luc et Sophie series. I have the première partie, and read through all 14 booklets.

Each booklet has 6 pages of story, a page of vocabulary, and a colouring in page with blank speech bubbles. The text is entirely conversation, shown in speech bubbles. The booklets are neatly presented in full colour, with a consistent style across the series.

The first booklet “Bonjour” has ~33 words (tokens), and ~20 different words (types).  The average sentence length is 2.2 words (according to “style”). The last (14th) booklet “Où est ma trousse?” has 71 tokens and 37 types. The average sentence length is 7.3 words. The low type-token ratio (61% and  52% respectively) provides for sufficient repetition for language acquisition, and with a large set of booklets, they can provide good extensive reading practice in the early stages.

The stories centre around a brother and sister who are 7/8 and 6 years old respectively. The brother is annoying. The punch-line of the stories is usually something to do with the annoying brother.

I find the series generally annoying – perhaps it is reminding me of my own childhood and sibling issues. The artwork bugs me, but I’m not sure why. While it’s a comprehensive series, it is too narrow in style and theme for it to be the only books for children to read. I prefer the Berthe witch series (admittedly based on a sample of one book), but that could just be my preference for a touch of the magical and the unusual in stories. It would be best to have the class library contain a variety of stories to cater to different tastes – Luc et Sophie for the realists and Berthe for the dreamers, and hopefully other stories for yet other children. Gnomeville might fit into such a library, but may be a bit complex for the very young, due to the difficult French-English cognates (eg. se matérialise, utilise, vulnérable) in it. It seems to suit 11-year-olds well enough.