Tag Archives: stories

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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Si Nous Lisions review

I finally finished Si Nous Lisions the other day, so here is my review.

This classic graded reader was published in 1930. It gradually adds vocabulary as the story progresses.
The first 5 chapters are a bit dull, being the usual themes of the classroom, families and French tourism. From chapter 6, once you have encountered about 130 words of vocabulary, there are stories, starting with the three bears, then proceeding to various interesting stories, including “la pièce de cinq francs”, which I quite enjoyed, since it matches my personal quirks.
By the end of the book you have a vocabulary of about 500 words.
If you already have at least the top 100 frequent words in French under your belt, I suggest skipping or skimming the first few chapters and starting with Chapter 6.

In terms of the amount of text, there are 15 chapters, each containing a story, plus exercises. The first page of the first chapter has ~56 words on it, Chapter 2’s first page has 88 words, and from Chapter 3 onwards there are 5-13 mostly full  pages of text with one or two illustrations per chapter. Full pages have about 300 words, so quite a bit more reading than a typical CIDEB or Easy Reader offering, which at the A1 level, can often be read within a half hour. The large amount of text doesn’t need to be daunting though, as each chapter is self-contained as a story.

Overall I rate it as “enjoyable”. Some of the later chapters I wouldn’t mind reading again in the future, if short of reading material, but I wouldn’t call any of the stories favourites.

Next up I’ll finish reading Contes Dramatiques by Hills-Dondo.

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.

Extensive Reading Musings

I’ve been reading some more research on extensive reading and readability lately. One paper showed gains in reading rate, vocabulary and comprehension with students reading about 150K words over 15 weeks at an intermediate level. This was contrasted with another study where learners read ~65K words over 28 weeks and failed to show improvement. I think there is probably a threshold of some kind where you need to read a certain amount per week to improve language skill. The amount probably varies with the level of skill you already have. Someone still improving their knowledge of the most frequent 400 words of the language will not need to read as much to achieve vocabulary gain (assuming appropriate graded readers) as someone reading at the 2000 word level. The study that showed gains had students reading with vocabularies of 800+.

Given the 10K words per week guide, and the typical reading rate in foreign languages often being around 150 words per minute, that equates to about an hour of reading per week, or 10 minutes a day. That’s not a bad aim for maintaining and hopefully improving your language skills.

Review of Easy French Reader by Roussy de Sales

Here’s my Goodreads review of the book…

Three distinct sections in this reader, at different levels of difficulty.
1. Beginner French, with very simple grammar, but school vocabulary assumed. Progresses through the chapters. Not overly interesting.
2. History. Written in present tense. I enjoyed reading about the ancient history more than the modern. I had read some of these before in Roussy de Sales’s earlier publications, where these were separate books. Again, there is quite a bit of vocabulary here.
3. Famous short stories. These include perfect and imperfect tense, so grammatically suitable for the intermediate student. For some reason I don’t really enjoy these stories, though I think I understood more of them in my most recent reading than when I read them over 10 years ago in other editions.
There is still quite a vocabulary burden when reading these, so their suitability will depend on how comfortable people are with unknown words, and the size of their current vocabulary.

Further info on an extract of the text.

Chapter 1 is 87 words (tokens) and  43 distinct words (types), which makes a type-token ratio of 0.49, which is suitably low for beginners. This compares favourably with other beginner stories, like Bonjour Berthe, and Gnomeville Episodes 1 and 2, but is aimed at an older audience.

Chapter 1 gives a reasonable amount of repetition for de, est and il. Other words would need to be encountered more frequently to be acquired via reading.

In summary, it is good that these stories are still available, as they certainly have their place for French extensive reading.

 

Challenges of Representation in a Language Comic Book for Beginners

I often reflect on the content of my comic book, and how I have unconsciously absorbed the default story of a white male character (in my case a group of white male characters) on a quest. In addition I have a wise (white) female character (Chantal), who is an oracle that intends to change the likely outcome if the quest continues as it normally would.

I’ve been made aware that people of colour want to see more people like themselves in stories and movies. I must admit that I have yearned for more female perspectives in literature and movies at times, which is as close as I can come to imagining how people of colour feel about being left out of mainstream media. Similarly for people who are queer, obese or disabled.

The difficulty with comic books is that the illustrations are often caricatures that exaggerate features. It would be tricky to create a PoC character without it seeming racist. There is no opportunity in a comic book for beginners in French, which has an extremely constrained vocabulary, to make things nuanced. I think the best I can do is have a variety of skin colours across the cast of characters, and not make the bad characters the dark-skinned ones. Having a queer character _might_ be possible (more likely a queer couple, as that’s easy to do visually without resorting to stereotype appearances). Given it’s a fantasy world, I could potentially do a genderqueer character that magically goes back and forth between genders all the time. After all I have a python that can make itself look like a dragon and a large gnome. Theoretically, the same could happen with skin colour.

I received only one star from one reader on Goodreads for Episode 1, without explanation. I can only guess why, but my guess is it’s to do with it being an entirely white male cast in the first episode – apart from the griffon, which is a mixture of white, blue and brown. This is partly due to unconsciously absorbing this default – even though my various influences (mainly fairly tales, Astérix, Smurfs, and Uncle Scrooge) do have more female characters than I do in Episode 1, partly as an artifact of being a slave to word frequency lists and my rules about what to include in each episode. In Episode 1 I only use French-English cognates that look identical in both languages. As such I only use adjectives that are either identical for both genders, such as “visible”, an exact spelling for masculine nouns only, such as “certain”, or exact for feminine nouns, such as “complète” (first occurs in Episode 2). I also chose to use a very limited palette in the drawings, roughly equivalent to a typical 12-colour set of coloured pencils, crayons or felt pens.

I think my comic books will evolve to have more diversity through the series. Episode 1 is already published, so it is what it is. Episode 2 at least introduces a main female character, who, like me, tends to work on her own to solve problems – at least at this stage in the plot. Episode 3 includes new characters, but since they’re not “good” characters, I won’t make them PoC. I haven’t written the Taxi and La Question du Moment for Episode 3 yet, so there is a bit of scope there to increase diversity. At least now I’m more aware of this, and can consider it in my writing/drawing process. Stay tuned for Episode 3… Meanwhile, here is a first attempt at a PoC for my comics – a recolouring of a panel from Episode 2. Is it OK?

g2croppedp17excerptrecoloured
Recoloured panel from Episode 2’s La Question du Moment. I think this is ok. Let me know if it isn’t.

Gnomeville Episode 2 Now Out on Amazon!

Only four months after its launch, Gnomeville: Dragon! Episode 2: Les Potions et les Pythons is available on Amazon as an ebook. Now you can read both Episode 1 and 2 and learn the 20 most frequently occurring words in French newspapers, as well as many English-French cognates.

In this episode, you meet Le Prince des Pythons, who lives in La Jungle des Pythons. Enjoy!pythons

Using Martine by Marlier for French Extensive Reading Practice

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.

 

 

What is the target age range of your writing?

In writing my Gnomeville comic book series, I was mainly focused on making an entertaining story that used French-English cognates and highly frequent words like “le”. As it was a comic book format I seem to have automatically written and drawn in a style that is similar to the main comics of my childhood: Donald Duck, Asterix and the Smurfs. Perhaps that is why people believe it to be targeted at children.

When my fellow French students at the Alliance Française read a draft of Episode 1 of my comic book I heard the occasional chuckle. These were all adults. A recent customer said “BTW, my 11yo read your book and I saw him giggling.” so I guess it works for at least some 11-year olds. It certainly is a general audience work at the very least. It does, however,  include a few challenging words for the very young. such as “matérialise”, which led one native French speaker to rate the book as more difficult to read than other French children’s books. Though in my experience, children have fewer hang-ups about unfamiliar vocabulary than adults do.

In the world of readability measurement, a reading age is often calculated. This is usually based on vocabulary and grammar measures, often approximated by average word length and sentence length. Some vocabulary difficulty measures are based on a set of words that are generally known by children. These measures don’t directly capture conceptual difficulty or age-appropriate content. I may know quite a bit about readability research, but my knowledge of age-appropriate content is purely based on personal experience.

Generally speaking, stories for children tend to be full of fun, adventure, magic, mystery and silliness. Stories for adolescents start to include relationships as part of the plot, and then stories for adults have more of the complexity of the adult world, such as politics, law, medicine, finance, ethics and bureaucracy. Having stated that, it makes it clear that my stories are written for children without me realising it. While that isn’t a bad thing, I guess it makes sense. It is difficult to express complex and subtle ideas with a small vocabulary.

In other news, my Episode 2 comic book launch was a success. Episode 1 is still available as a countdown deal if you are in one of the few lucky countries that can enjoy those deals on Amazon. The next phase for me will be converting Episode 2 into an ebook.

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!