Tag Archives: language

Where’s the Quality?

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.

 

 

 

Gnomeville eBook is Finally Here!

After many years in development, and release in physical form in 2014, my comic is finally available as an eBook.

Gnomeville comic book cover containing head of dragon with smoke billowing out of its mouth and the title "DRAGON!" in large red letters
Cover of Gnomeville Dragon! Episode 1.

This is the first episode in what is arguably the easiest book in French for native English speakers. Designed to introduce one or two new words or concepts per page, and to exploit the over 1,000 words that are the same in French and English, you learn the most frequently occurring words in French, while being entertained with a story about gnomes, mages and dragons. While the series is optimised for language learning, by using sight gags and visual humour it still manages to be entertaining from the first few pages. Follow the story of Jacques, Magnifica the mage, the gnomes Didi and Dada, and the griffon as they commence a quest to capture a rogue dragon.

The book includes further stories to reinforce the vocabulary learnt so far, as well as a crossword and songs. The mp3 file of the narration by a native French speaker of the Gnomeville Episode 1 story is available from the author on email of the receipt as proof of purchase (first 500 buyers). The first 10 customers will receive all audio tracks of Episode 1 (3 stories, 2 songs), while the first 100 customers will receive the narration and one song.

The comic book has been checked by three native/near-native speakers of French to ensure authenticity. It exploits several principles of language acquisition:

  • language can be acquired by reading extensively at a comfortable level of difficulty;
  • images increase retention of language;
  • glosses increase vocabulary retention;
  • repeated occurrences of new vocabulary increase vocabulary retention;
  • comprehension-based activities (eg. crossword) related to the reading improves retention of language;
  • once ~95% vocabulary coverage is achieved (episode 2), then it is possible to guess the meaning of new words, and confirm by checking the gloss after guessing, which further increases vocabulary retention.

In summary, this is a well-researched, well-edited, entertaining introduction to reading French via an extremely easy to read comic book. Read it before you read anything else in French. Read it now!

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.

 

 

First Words

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.

Children’s books

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.

Green Eggs and Ham

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.

 

Easy Readers

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:
For English speakers wanting to learn French: Gnomeville. It assumes zero French knowledge, but good English knowledge.
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
400 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 and published three of them. La saga continue!

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

Vocabulary Analysis of the Gutenberg Collection

Vocabulary Analysis of the Gutenberg Collection

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.