I’ve been musing a lot lately about the first words we learn in a language. Children first communicate in one-word sentences, then tw0-word and then later more complex sentences. There is evidence that the same happens for second language learners. In my experience of picking up a language via TV series, it seems to hold true. The first words learnt are those that occur frequently in one-word sentences. This happens for exclamations, like “Ah!”, and “yes”, and “no”. As time goes on, it becomes possible to identify the words in longer sentences, and eventually to be able to notice patterns in sentences.
While searching for books that are simple enough for me to read in Japanese, I’ve been musing about the attributes that make these suitable for language learners.
If starting from scratch you need repetitious text with obviously illustrated nouns. This describes some of the books I purchased. The downside of the simplest books is that they become an illustrated list of nouns (or adjectives like colours), and therefore have no narrative.
In Japanese you have the added complication of the writing system. Beginner books use hiragana only. Then there are some that have katakana with hiragana transliterations. Then there are a few that use both the alphabets without guides. At the next level kanji are included with hiragana guides. The level of support for kanji varies.
Continuing my articles on easy readers, today’s post is dedicated to Dr Seuss. His first constrained vocabulary book was The Cat in the Hat, which was released in 1957. It had a vocabulary of 236 words (though other sources state slightly different numbers) , and yet was entertaining. Dr Seuss then went on to write other books with a reduced vocabulary, including Green Eggs and Ham, which has only 50 different words. Wikipedia lists the words used as: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
These books are truly brilliant, in that they make children want to keep reading, while being easy for them to read. A 50 word vocabulary is an amazing achievement.
Green Eggs and Ham has been translated into many languages. We have a copy in Italian: “Prosciutto e uova verdi”. However, once translated, the number of distinct words increased to about 127. A translator has to somehow convey the original story as well as the rhyme and rhythm. I’m not sure if the translator considered the goal of using the smallest vocabulary possible, as 127 for a text length of 620 words seems quite high.
I’m reminded of a section in the book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: an eternal golden braid” by Douglas Hofstadter, which looks at German and French translations of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem. The original has many made-up words that hint at meanings due to their phonetic similarity to other words. For example “slithy” hints at “slimy” and “slither”, among other words. It is translated to “lubricilleux” in the French and “schlichten” in the German version. Combining made-up words with rhyme and meter makes it a very difficult translation challenge.
But back to easy readers. While it may be useful to translate an easy reader to another language – particularly when they are as entertaining as those of Dr Seuss – I think the best work can be achieved by exploiting the quirks of the original language. Design your easy reader for your specific target language.
(WordPress seems to have disappeared my post, so here is my attempt to redo my detailed review, *hmph!*)
I’m a big fan of Extensive Reading as a means of improving one’s foreign language skills, due to it providing large quantities of language exposure – particularly useful for when the language you are learning is not spoken where you are living.
I’ve collected and read many books that were written for language learners, and would like to impart my opinions and advice for others wanting to learn by reading.
The two factors to consider when choosing text to read is its difficulty and its interest for you. If you don’t find it interesting then it will be hard to continue reading it. If it is too difficult you also won’t want to keep reading.
Text difficulty has two main factors: vocabulary and grammar. Many publishers state a vocabulary size for the books in their collection. The smallest vocabulary available is about 100 words (for example, ELI primary school age series level A0), and the largest tends to go to about 3500. Grammar difficulty tends to increase with the vocabulary level, with the easiest levels sticking to present tense, and higher levels adding more tenses and grammatical subtleties.
Ideally you should know 95-98% of the words in the text you are reading, i.e., there should only be one word in 20-50 that you don’t already know. This allows you to guess meaning from context and also not be too frustrated while reading. Publishers and writers vary in terms of how well they control the vocabulary in the texts.
My recommendations amongst currently available books at the early levels are:
Absolute beginners: ELI A0 (available in French, German, Italian and Spanish) – though beware – the same stories are in each language, so if learning multiple languages be selective. The stories by Jane Cadwallader cleverly introduce vocabulary as an integral part of the story – unlike some other stories out there that interrupt the narrative with contrived situations for vocabulary introduction.
150 words: La Spiga is cheap and fairly simple, but tends to have very little suspense.
200 words: ELI A1.1
300 words: ELI A1.2, teen readers A0 300 words
- ELI A2 primary school series. The teenage and adult series are much harder and less engaging – at least the two I’ve looked at are.
- Teen readers 400 words
Among series that don’t state a vocabulary size I recommend CLE’s Collection Découverte for French. It has 6 levels and interesting stories. Hachette also do some fairly good stories in their Lire En Français Facile series.
In German, Langenscheidt publish a range of readers. I find the Leo & Co ones a little dull, but I still read them. I like the Inspector Müller series a bit better, but my favourite German reader is Kopftuch published in the Teen Readers series.
Many readers in European languages now state CEFR levels rather than vocabulary/grammar levels. For example A2 CEFR level can have readers with vocabularies of 400-1200 and also abridged native texts (with some vocab support). This is largely due to the way the levels are defined, which is based on practical skills rather than grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. However, as learners we really want a gentle transition between levels, and that is partly achieved by progressing up slowly through different vocabulary levels (and grammar levels) in our reading. Among series that only state a CEFR level, the CIDEB series contains some good stories. I found the vocabulary more difficult than Teen Readers of the same CEFR level, however.
For readers that assume English language knowledge, the Cambridge Serie Rouge is good, as are books pubished by EMC and the National Textbook Company (eg. Aventure in Normandie). Some of these are no longer available. Likewise, my favourite easy French reader, originally published by Mary Glasgow publications: Le Chapeau Rouge: Le Chien Disparu.
Aquila publishes good readers too, but do not sell to individuals.
If you want to see my ratings for specific books, head to: Goodreads user Dr Dabbler. In the end it doesn’t matter too much what level of text you’re reading, as long as you keep reading.
What I have learnt from reading stories intended for language learners is that a good story should have suspense and seamless vocabulary introduction. I apply this to my comic books, which are going for the niche of people with English language at a native/near-native level, and are beginning to read French. I’ve taken the tip from comics like X-Men and series like Dr Who, by having a cliff-hanger at the end of each episode, to encourage the learner to read the next episode. I’ve written 3.5 episodes so far. I hope to have the first episode available next month.
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.
While finding my way around WordPress blogs I came across this competition where you try to read as much as possible in your target languages. Naturally I signed up.
I found this page when looking for things on vocabulary density – something of relevance for reading books designed for language learners. The guy who wrote it is also interesting, in that he has a non-traditional career path into academia.
He shows his analysis is of ~2000 Gutenberg texts based on vocabulary – the kind of thing I like to muck around with. It is “unpublished” work, so lacks a few things, like references and axis labels, making it less useful than it otherwise might be.
I decided to split my creative blog, as the language geekery probably doesn’t belong in my Sandra Bogerd blog. So in here I’ll muse about language stuff and report on the progress of my life-long Gnomeville comic book project.