Book review: Easy French Stories by Sylvie Lainé

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As someone who reads and writes books for language acquisition via extensive reading, I look with curiosity at any that are available. Today I came across books by Sylvie Lainé on Amazon.
The books aim to support language acquisition via extensive reading, and provide extensive glosses to prevent the need for consulting a dictionary. The stories are written by a native French speaker who has studied applied linguistics. Her biography on Amazon seems to indicate that she is unaware of the long history of graded readers for language learners, including those in French, published by both English publishers, such as Oxford University Press, as well as French publishers, such as Hachette. Or perhaps she was only referring to those available as ebooks when saying there were no suitable stories available. Nevertheless, it is great that she has published stories for learners of French. Given the amount of reading a learner should do, the more good stories of low to moderate difficulty available the better.
My assessment in this review is about the suitability of these stories for extensive reading. For this purpose, there should be at least 95% vocabulary coverage for fluent reading. That’s only 1 in 20 words that should be unfamiliar. This is difficult to do well for beginner readers. It took me years to come up with the initial story for Gnomeville, which takes a learner from zero French to a small vocabulary of common words and French-English cognates. Episode 1 of the comic doesn’t achieve the 95% coverage figure consistently until page 12 of the story, but maintains a 1 new word per page until then, with illustrations providing essential parts of the story. So the first few pages could be classed as intensive reading, rather than extensive. After that, and for all future episodes, the story has the 95% coverage level consistently, allowing people to practise guessing the meanings of words, with a reasonable chance of success, and still having a gloss to check guesses, for optimal vocabulary retention.
Let’s see how Sylvie Lainé‘s stories do. For this study I have assumed that the unglossed vocabulary is known, and that glossed vocabulary is unknown. To be generous in the analysis, I assume that a glossed multi-word expression is a single unknown vocabulary item, but still count the individual words of the expression when determining the total number of words read. This is a manual calculation, so I am using the first and last chunk of the free sample, where a “chunk” is a section of text that is followed by a set of glossed words. I do both of these chunks, as it is possible that the known vocabulary would be greater as the story progresses, as is the case with Gnomeville.
First up is Voyage en France. The first chunk has 16 glossed words out of 74, making a coverage of only 78%, which is very low, even when reading stories written for native speakers as a foreign language learner with a vocabulary size of 1000.
The second chunk is much better, having 92% coverage, but still a bit low.
Second story is Le Pendentif, which is actually the first volume in the series. This is truly simple French, and if we make the same assumptions of vocabulary knowledge as above, has only 2 glossed words for 74 words, giving a 97% coverage, which is perfect for extensive reading. The final chunk is a little low at 3 glossed out of 38, making 92% coverage, but overall, this story does seem to be a suitable beginner story.
Voyage à Marseille goes from 93% coverage to 91% at the end. Based on these three stories, I’d say that you can expect an average of 92% vocabulary coverage from the series, assuming your knowledge matches the assumption of the author. Comments from reviewers indicate that people reading these stories still need to consult a dictionary for some words, so these coverage figures are an over-estimate for some people.
So in summary, I believe that Le Pendentif (t. 1) should be a fairly comfortable read for beginners after a few lessons of French, and is good for those who are after stories written in authentic French for adult beginners. The other stories would be slow reads due to the vocabulary load, despite the glosses, so it would be better to come back to the series after reading other stories with a better-matched vocabulary level. Apart from my own comic that assumes zero vocabulary, there are series that go from vocabularies of 150 words onwards. Looking at my database of graded readers for French I can see that most beginner ones are indeed targeting children or adolescents. If you can’t face those (I quite enjoy some of them), there are some excellent simplified classics published by CLE International for vocabularies of 500 or more. Two of my favourites so far are Jacquou le Croquant (vocabulary = 600) and En Famille (vocabulary = 500).
A disclaimer for my review of these stories is that I haven’t read beyond the preview chunks available on Amazon, so I can’t comment on how they progress, or how entertaining they are. If you find them very interesting, then you may have the willpower to read on despite the vocabulary load. The Amazon reviews are mostly favorable.
onlyhavetwo_noteasy
People sometimes say “you can only have two” of the three for things. I think the original was probably the [good:cheap:fast] for projects, and I’ve seen [good grades:social life:enough sleep] for college life. I’ve also seen the somewhat dodgy [pretty:intelligent:sane] for girlfriends. The equivalent for graded readers seems to be: [easy:authentic:interesting]. The more authentic it is, the less easy it will be. The easier it is, the less interesting it’s likely to be. The more interesting, the more difficult, etc. So as authors of graded readers, we try to balance these three things. I also try to include a fourth element, related to “easy”, and that is, perhaps “effective”, in that I try to ensure that the stories are constructed in a way that ensures vocabulary growth, by using all the outcomes from extensive reading research:
  • 95%+ vocabulary coverage,
  • focus on very frequent words (eg. “le”/”the”) to give best coverage sooner,
  • repetition of new vocabulary,
  • glosses,
  • images to enhance recall,
  • high interest story (I hope).
Anyway, that’s all for this review. I recommend Le Pendentif, based on extensive reading criteria. The others may be useful for more advanced learners.
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Challenges of Representation in a Language Comic Book for Beginners

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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.

What is the target age range of your writing?

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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.

Episode 2 Launch Tomorrow!

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I’m launching Episode 2 of my French language comic for beginners in the French language that have English as a first (or accomplished) language. The launch happens three years after Episode 1’s launch, and both are associated with concerts of my choir. I use appropriate choir concerts as a deadline for me to push myself to complete things. It works for me, although it does wreak havoc with my health in the short term. Last time it was a concert of music from France. This time it’s a fantasy-themed concert featuring a dragon.

The concert is The Quest, an entertaining night of music interspersed with a fantasy narrative involving a dragon. Music from my second (La Potion des Pythons) and third (La Mission) comic books will be featured in the concert. The song La Mission is also available on my third album On the Rocks.

Episode 2 (and Episode 1) will be available on the night in large format comic book, which is roughly a standard comic book size. Episode 1 is also available as an ebook from Amazon, and I’m running a special countdown deal starting on the day of the concert (Thursday 1st June), so Thursday is the best day to get your copy of Episode 1 for US$0.99.

Episode 1 provides incidental repeated exposure to 12 of the most frequently occurring words in French, but also provides gloss support and explanations of the new word of the page at the bottom of the page. Episode 2 uses the remaining 8 of the 20 most frequently occurring words in French newspapers. All the rest of the words used in the story are French-English cognates, like “dragon”, or names, like “Jacques”. In Episode 2 the amount of text in the main story reaches a level that it starts to be possible to guess the meaning of the new word of the page before checking the meaning provided in the gloss. This is considered optimal for vocabulary acquisition.

Have a look at the preview on Amazon and get ready to be entertained while reading the easiest French books you’ve seen. Then perhaps you’d like to read Episode 2.

didietdada

The Evolution of a Language Comic Book

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I sometimes reflect on the journey that led to me now having published a comic book in French as an eBook. Like many who studied languages in school, I realised that despite 5 years of French, I couldn’t understand a native speaker, and I struggled to read a book written for native speakers. This didn’t seem right. I had some reading books written for learners of French, but there still seemed to be a lot of vocabulary that I didn’t know.

I started tinkering with the idea of a story that would only use words that English speakers already knew, plus one new word per page. The Taxi story in my comic was the first of these ideas. The Gnomeville story came later.

In the early 2000s, I showed my scribbled draft to a near-native French speaker, who gave me excellent feedback on my French. In addition to picking up a few grammatical nuances, I learnt that I couldn’t trust my textbook or my French-English dictionary. Around this time I also showed the draft to an artist colleague who was an author of children’s books. She suggested inking over the sketches and sending it to a publisher. I started working on the artwork and really enjoyed it. While I did send to a couple of publishers, they were not interested, so I decided to self-publish.

Feedback from other colleagues and friends led to the language summary section at the back of the comic, as well as page numbers. All the while I was learning more about language acquisition via reading, through my research in the field of computer-assisted language learning and computational linguistics. I learnt that 95% coverage is needed for comprehension (guessing of unknown words), and that glosses help with vocabulary acquisition, as do images. A subtlety I learnt more recently is that the best strategy for vocabulary retention is to first guess the word, and then look at the meaning.

I attended the Alliance Française to improve my French language skills. I continued to work on the comic, and brought the latest draft along to one of my lessons and was please to hear chuckles from my classmates at some of the humour. A few more language issues were sorted out thanks to feedback from the teachers.

Initially I was producing an A4 draft. This switched to A5 at some point. Then later I had the peculiar idea to make the comic fit into a DVD case, so the comic and CD could be sold together in a protective case. This became the default format for the comic that was released in 2014, at my choir’s La Musique de France concert. Feedback from someone at le forum led me to create a large format, which is roughly the size of a typical American comic book. So I ended up with many formats: small, small +CD in DVD case, large, large + CD. Finally, I now have it as an eBook as well. For my next issue I will be sticking with large format (and eBook), and make the audio a separate product. This reduces the number of ISBN numbers required, and the paperwork side of things.

Tonight I received feedback on my draft of the second issue, and the language side of things is in pretty good shape, so I’m hoping to have the full issue finalised by the end of May. I’m keen to have some progress after all these years. Also, the more episodes I do, the more useful it is for learners. I can see future learners reading one issue per day to get maximum benefit, or at least one issue per week.

Where’s the Quality?

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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.

 

 

 

Reader Levels: Thoughts as I do another Tadoku month

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Level 0: Single-word nouns or adjectives – if the book is nicely illustrated in a way that makes the words identifiable, not too long, and maybe has some punchline equivalent at the end, as some do, then these are good for practising an unfamiliar alphabet such as hiragana and katakana.  The words are typically not high priority words, but tend to recur in stories anyway.  I have had enough repetition of certain animal words that I know them, even though they are not very useful for me when communicating to others.

Level 1: Repeated sentence structure – as above, these are excellent reading practice, and can help people learn some basic grammatical structures, while a story of some kind is told via the repeated sentence having different substituted nouns that are identifiably illustrated.  The LOTE series by Nelson Price Milburn are very good in this regard.  If they were longer than they are, then they would be tedious, but there are about 6-7 repetitions with minor variations, followed by a punchline of some sort.  The books by Evrat Jones, published by PCS Publications, are not as good, largely because of the illustrations.  Maybe I’m biased against old-fashioned repetitive images that look like dorky Grade 1 readers from the sixties, but their lack of appeal makes them more of a chore to read through.  They would also benefit from a glossary at the back.

Level 2: Small vocabulary and a small set of grammatical constructions.  Here is where the typical vocabulary-controlled reader fits into the scheme of things.  Within this level are all the stages of most published reading schemes, taking readers from around 300 words of vocabulary to 2,000, and from present tense to all the normal grammatical constructions.

Level 3: Native text.

Reading at levels 0 and 1 for the past week or so has me thinking there is a niche for books at these levels for adults.  Given an adult’s greater world knowledge and sophistication, it should be possible to create a more interesting narrative with these levels than is currently seen.