Tag Archives: vocabulary

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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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.

Recent French Reader Reads plus Errata

I succeeded in acquiring more classic French readers recently. One of my new favourites is Dantès from Otto Bond’s Basic French Readings alternate series. It is a simplified extract from Dumas’s Comte de Monte Cristo. The story starts with an assumed knowledge of 97 frequent words, much like Sept-d’un-coup by the same publisher, but succeeds in having a higher proportion of cognates, leading to an impressive expected vocabulary for 95% coverage of 316 (based on my word list).  This makes it the lowest I’ve seen so far, apart from my own series.

However, the important thing is also whether it was an enjoyable read. I definitely got hooked on the story, and then all of a sudden the extract ends, and I’m left wanting to read the rest of the story. That can only be a good thing.

I was less captured by the remaining stories in the five-story volume, but still enjoyed most of them.

Regarding the match between publicised vocabulary sizes of graded readers and the reality of reading them, I can say from my cursory investigations that there is not always a good match between the two. Perhaps it averages out across the books, as I only take the first chunk of text for my comparisons, but if the first few paragraphs are too challenging, then a language learner may lose interest.

I’ve developed a new estimate of readability now, which is more complex than ones I’ve previously used and seems to match the foreign language learner’s experience reasonably well. Based on this, and my more recent acquisitions, I now recommend the following as first reads for French beginners with English-speaking background.

Young children: Luc et Sophie series, or Bonjour Berthe, which I find more entertaining. Le Petit Napoléon series is also quite good, and suitable for all ages, for those who like cats.

Older children: Gnomeville, Le Chapeau Rouge, select stories from Mary Glasgow’s Bibliobus, or Sue Finnie’s Lire Davantage.

Teenagers: I quite like the Teen Readers series. Catastrophe au Camping des Roses is rated as a vocabulary of 300 words, and my estimate has the 95% coverage vocabulary at 2421, which isn’t too bad. But Dantès mentioned above is easier vocabulary-wise.

Adults: Dantès is my current favourite as a first read. Becky Tucker’s Histoires pour les grandes appears to be easy, but I haven’t read enough to know whether it is interesting. I have yet to rate other ebooks.

However, the only stories that you can read immediately in French without having studied it is the Gnomeville series. There are some minor issues with it though, as have been brought to my attention recently. There are places where I have used “de la Fantasia” that should be “de Fantasia”. I was uncertain of the rule for this, but now I have discovered it. Mostly “de” is used with a country, but “de la” is used in expressions that have a temporal sense to them, such as “le gouvernement de la France” (since governments are not permanent), or if there is an adjective applied: l’Histoire de France but l’Histoire économique de la France. Very subtle indeed and I hope I can be forgiven for getting that subtlety wrong in my comic. I intend to make a second edition of Episode 2 at some point to rectify this. Another error in Episode 2 is the use of the verb “voyage” combined with “à” (“voyage à la Place des Roses”). Voyage doesn’t get used this way and “à” should probably be “vers” to communicate this idea. The sentence will be removed from the second edition.

In other news I attended the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia 2018 conference a couple of weeks ago. It was very inspiring, and also emphasised that the important thing with language acquisition is communication, not perfection. Perfection is unlikely to be achieved, but improvement is always possible. So let’s keep improving our language skills. Read, listen, write and speak. With practice comes improvement. Until next time.

 

 

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.

 

Mots fréquents français

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.

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.

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 Comics Now on eBay

I sold the first “I can’t believe I’m reading French” Gnomeville comic that I listed on ebay last week, and I’ve decided it’s worth putting my comics up there to provide somewhere for people to buy them easily until I move toward having my on-line shop. Currently sales are a little too low to warrant having a shop front, but it will come. So far I’ve sold about 20 comics, and given away 14 ebook issues, but things are on the increase.

Here are a couple of photos of a comic book page spread in Episodes 1 and 2.

This link should help you find Gnomeville comics on ebay at any time, though it may be the Australian ebay. I have, however, set up international sales for the comics. My Gnomeville Comics products page also lists the links, if you should need them late.

The ebooks of Gnomeville comics, including previews are available on Amazon.

Wordle

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

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.