Learning any language can be tough, particularly when you are trying to do it entirely on your own or at least enhance your learning outside the classroom without guidance. There are many ways to help make this easier and go smoother for a person, but the thing I want to focus on today is building your vocabulary through reading. When I was in Japan, I knew that I wanted to build my vocabulary and I knew it would be a good idea to do so through reading, but I didn’t really know where to begin, so I bought and read books aimlessly–which did not help my language acquisition as much as it could have. Because of that I want to share my experiences and knowledge, and hopefully help others in their language learning journey–as well as receive feedback on my own language learning journey.
One thing that a teacher does in a language classroom is create scaffolding. No, not actual physical scaffolding like what is used when building a building, but imaginary scaffolding that works in a very similar (imaginary) way. A teacher creates an environment where a student is safe and comfortable to acquire new skills, while also providing boundaries so the student stays within the intended topic and lesson and also to provide support and a safety. Theoretically as a student progresses and becomes more of a proficient learner, the scaffolding lessens and eventually is removed.
Scaffolding is often created through simplifying language, utilizing visuals, and by asking for completion and not generation. This is done through worksheets and conversations in a classroom, generating background knowledge, repetition, and making connections. In a classroom setting, teachers are the holders and givers of knowledge, and they not only provide the opportunity for such scaffolding, they have the target information and are able to help students along as their individual needs develop.
So when I decide to study independently, I rely on this knowledge of scaffolding in order to create such a safety net and structure for myself. In the last two weeks of being in France, I have bought a bunch of books. To some people this may seem ridiculous and excessive (and it very well might be) but I have very specific, academic reasons for why I bought all of the books I did.
I am going to share with you the books that I bought here in France and explain a little bit about why I bought them–hopefully in a way that will help you in learning whatever language you are trying to learn!
I actually bought these books on four separate occasions, and while the first time to the bookstore was a lot of just scoping out what was available and buying something I wanted in the moment, the next trips were very planned.
I ended up with 11 things in total.
The first thing I bought was a textbook.
One of the odd things about IFALPES, the language school I am attending in Annecy, is that they don’t provide students with textbooks. It is probably because students are always coming and going, and they switch classes at varying times so it would be challenging (maybe) to have that many different textbooks, and it would be harder for teachers to make each lesson individual to the students needs who are present that week.
Anyway, I don’t have a textbook, I am always given handouts. Sometimes that is nice, but it doesn’t allow me to work ahead or take home future lessons when I return to the states. So I went to the bookstore and bought this textbook, which is A2+ of the Saison series. I am only a chapter or two into the book so far, but I absolutely love it.
Each lesson teaches grammar, reading, writing, and the book comes with not only a CD but a DVD so students can listen and watch content from the chapter. There are some exercises that I can’t do or can’t do well alone, but in general it is a good textbook for working alone.
The reason I bought a textbook, besides being able to bring it home with me, was because I want to see what I should be learning and able to understand as I continue studying. I am probably an A1+ French speaker right now, and by buying an A2+ textbook I am able to know what grammar points to tackle next and what texts I should be able to read and understand as I continue studying. Again, as I mentioned before, this is about scaffolding and creating guidelines and parameters for myself so I don’t just wander about randomly in the epic field that is the French language.
The next thing I bought was a collection of fairy tales.
One thing I have really taken to heart with language learning and language teaching is that for new learners, it is a million times harder to learn the words and structures when the content is new as well. Therefore, it is important to use content that is already known–well–in the mother tongue.
This book is fantastic because it is a whole collection of fairy tales–everything from The Frog Prince to Princess Kaguya–all of which I know in English, and have heard since I was a child. I could tell you each of the stories without even rereading the tale in English or any other language.
The fairy tales are also quite short, so it is possible to read through a story in one sitting, even as a new learner. What I have been doing with this book is using it to increase vocabulary and grammar structures by reading through a story and then looking up words and phrases that I don’t know. Some books stories are too long or too complicated to do this with as a new learner of a language, but when you have phrases like “The princess had a golden ball like the sun” it is very practical to look up and memorize the new vocabulary and the grammatical structure.
Along the same vein, I bought the manga version of Romeo and Juliette.
I mean, who doesn’t know at least the outline of what happens in this story?
The reason I bought the manga and not the play version of the story though, is because by being a manga the book gives me two additional ways to scaffold my reading: 1) simplified language, and 2) visual aids. For the most part people use simple sentences and words in order to fit in the little speech bubbles on the page, and if the words and/or grammar structures are new to me, I can verify my guesses with the pictures on the page–thus combining my background knowledge, simple language and visuals to make reading and comprehending the vocabulary much easier.
Speaking of simplified vocabulary and visual aids, I also bought a few picture books.
I bought four books of increasing difficulty–all with pictures, all meant for young children–to work on overall comprehension of new stories. Each were, very importantly, stories that looked interesting to me based on the pictures, so I would actually want to read them.
Though I can’t remember the data I have previously read about concerning second language learners, I know for children beginning to read, a book is a good amount of a challenge when the child doesn’t know 1 in 10 words, or if there are 5 new/unknown words on a page. If there are greater than 1 in 10 words that are unknown, it is most likely too challenging. Children should also be able to read aloud books with relative fluency. Both of these are the things I am targeting with these books–overall comprehension but still with learning occurring, and the ability to practice fluidly reading aloud (to myself).
As young children are wont to do, I intend to read and reread these books until the content is no longer new and I am fully comfortable with the storyline and all of the vocabulary and grammatical structures.
The next thing I bought was a cookbook.
I LOVE baking (obviously) and so I found a great cookbook for french desserts that I can use when I get home. Again, I looked for a cookbook with pictures on every page, with simple recipes that I would actually make.
The main reason I decided to study French was because I decided to apply to a French pastry school–so for me, learning and being able to use vocabulary related to food and cooking is very important. Because of my love of cooking, while I have never used or even seen this exact cookbook in English, I still have background knowledge of the content and am able to make connections between this cookbook and my previous cooking experiences and other cookbooks.
The next book I bought as a novel AND as an audio book was The Hobbit (or Le Hobbit in French 😛 )
I have read the book more than once and seen the movies more than once in English, and The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite comfort stories.
Yes, this book is way too hard for me at my current level. In fact I probably comprehend 1 in 10 words on any given page.
BUT I bought the audio book so that I can hear the story being read–with the correct pronunciation and pace. This is key for independent learners to be able to do, because without a teacher or native speaker around to tell them they are saying things incorrectly, learners of the language have no idea how far off they might be, and if too much time passes without being corrected, saying words or thinking words incorrectly could become a hard habit to break.
While this level of scaffolding doesn’t come with visual aids or simplified words, I do have a great deal of background knowledge and am able to make connections, so as I read or as I listen to the story I am able to know more or less what is (or what should be) going on. Reading a book of this level has also been surprisingly helpful with learning new grammatical structures. For example, in class we were discussing reflexive verbs, and wouldn’t you know it I opened the first page of The Hobbit and found several examples of this structure–which I will now remember forever.
Speaking of books that are too hard for me, I also bought a “goal” book: Ender’s Game.
Ender’s Game is one of my favorite books of all time, and when I saw it at the bookstore in Annecy I just knew I had to have it. However, there are no pictures, no simplified language, and there is no audio book to help me through it.
So this book is for me to hold on to, for me to aspire to. Every time I see it, I will have more motivation to study in order to some day in the future read it just as I would read the book in English. Yeah I could try to muck my way through it now or a month from now, but I am saving it for a day, months from now, after I have studied my hardest, so that I can crack it open and see how far I have come and how much I understand my first read-through.
So there you go. Those were the books I bought here in France, and for what purposes. I hope it helps me with my language learning, and I hope it helps whoever is reading this with their future language learning as well. ^_^
Let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, suggestions or recommendations for reading in another language! And thanks for reading! Come back soon for more adventures in France 🙂