Developing a spec for the LARA social network

If you are interested in learning your second language by reading, you might want to get involved in LARA.

LARA - Learning and Reading Assistant

At the LARA workshop last week, we discussed what people would most like to see in the way of substantial new functionality for LARA. The biggest single item was clearly the social network top level. I am opening this thread so that we can develop an initial spec together.

I think it will be best if we can arrange this as a series of stages with a clear upgrade path: we put in the central features first, let people use them, then add more. If we make the first version too complicated, it won’t be available for a while. My impression is that we can put together a minimal version quickly, and people will already find it very useful. I’m consequently organising the post in that way.

Stage 1: people pages and content pages

The first step is to extend the information we currently have in the LARA Portal database…

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It’s Japanese but don’t let that worry you

I’ve just discovered the best language blog in the world. Ever. It’s on Japanese, but I see no reason why one cannot extrapolate. In a post where he laughs at the idea of it being easy, aka ‘A friend of mine learned Japanese in 1 year’ he discusses the learning by hanging out with children method.

I read an interview with James Heisig where he mentioned learning to speak Japanese by playing with children, somewhere up in the mountains. How could you even make this stuff up? So when I heard the man was in Tokyo, I knew I had to ask him about it.

Because here’s the extent of what I learned from children by teaching grade school in Japan for several years: The word for lunch. How to say “I’m so cold.” How to say “I’m so hot.” How to grab your teacher’s penis and exclaim “bigu sticku.” How to insert your fingers up his butt in a move known as the kancho. Beyond that, children typically ramble about some toy or cartoon or playground game. They’re not going to coach you on how to make hotel reservations or order up another plate of gyoza. The idea that one could learn to speak from them is insane. They can’t even use the language decently themselves. That’s because they’re freaking kids.

Take a look at his blog when you have some spare moments and a warning: I am hooked, so make sure you have a decent amount of time to read. And read….and….read.


It would be wrong to talk about Audiocité and not Litterature Audio, a site which has the same basic aims:

  • free audio books
  • good quality audio
  • assisting blind/sight impaired readers

There are differences between them which means one site may be preferable to another for the individual user. In particular, Litterature Audio allows the reader to download books as one zip file, whereas Audiocité does not, you have to do it in chapters. Having tried both, I think that the online reading experience is nicer on Audiocité.

Fascinated to see the top ten downloads on Litterature Audio:

ss top ten books

Three works by HP Lovecraft! Curious as to why, I hunted around and discovered that Houellebecq wrote a book about him, subsequently translated into English as Lovecraft Against the world, against life. And one of his fans is French philospher Quentin Meillassoux. Lovecraft has some heavyweights batting for him in French, in other words. But I can’t help thinking there must be more to it than this.

Audiocité for free French audio books

I’ve just discovered Audiocité.

It’s a non-profit association based in Belgium which provides free audio books, and has a focus on accessibility for blind/visually impaired readers. Volunteers record the texts and they are issued under a creative commons licence.

The text is either provided or links are given to online versions so they can be read at the same time.

The standard of audio is excellent, with different styles according to the particular reader. Martine reads Madame Bovary in slow, clear French suitable for beginners.

SS Bovary

Some are a little faster, though I am at a loss to account for the two recordings of Flaubert’s great novel Sentimental Education having such a huge discrepancy in timing. Five hours! They are both recordings of the original novel.

There is a wide range of content, from fiction to fact, adult to children. There are French translations of English texts.

Highly recommended.

To Learn French: a community built site

I wrote about To Learn a couple of years ago (how time flies!) and you can see that post here.

This is a community built site with tools to make exercises, so it is for creating teaching material, as well as for being a learner. You can make friends, and find penpals in the enormous database and there are chat rooms where you can talk to them. There are forums where you can go for help.

To Learn French dot com screen shot forum help

which may several and quite detailed replies. In this case including:

To Learn French dot com screen shot forum help 2

Here is a screen shot of a page of audio lessons/tests. It’s just the start of 384 (and counting) audio lessons available.

To Learn French dot com screen shot audio lessons.jpg

It’s all fairly self-explanatory. The lesson, degree of difficulty, the author, how many have tried it and their average score. At number 6 you see one I’ve done, so that my own score is shown.

As an example of the lesson material available, I have just completed one on the cedilla and its use to make a soft ‘c’ in front of the ‘a’, ‘o’ and ‘u’. When I’m given the result of the test, there is the option of ‘asking a question’ which takes you to the forum, reporting an error or looking at your report card. Then it tells you have you’ve done compared with others:

To Learn French dot com screen shot results of test

One of the things I like about this site is that the gamification of it is gentle and constructive. Yes, it encourages you to stay, but by showing you other material you could continue with that fits in with what you have just done.

Audio-lingua: a free listening site

I mentioned audio-lingua some time back, but it’s really worth a discussion on its own. It began back in 2007 when French teachers were looking for resources for beginners.

The CRDP agreed with the creation of a “sound bank” and gave money to find human resources who could develop such a platform. Audio-Lingua opened in 2008 with four languages and in four languages : English, German, Spanish and French. Other languages were then added, among which some French regional languages. From the start, the aim was to create an international , collaborative website for all users : people learning a foreign language and not just for teachers. Audio-Lingua offers audio files, no transcription or teaching material.

It’s free, everything on it can be downloaded. Users can give stars to each piece of audio.

This one, as an example newly uploaded to the site is A1:

Bonjour, je m’appelle Yann

A nice feature is that you can select the age and gender of the person speaking and also the length of the audio file. There are, for example, 10 audio files of up to 30 seconds by a male child.

For A1 there are 130 audio files. Some of the audio’s terrible in quality and I’m surprised it isn’t monitored. But the user star system seems to work for this and basically a low number of stars says ‘don’t go there’. Still, really simple audio, at a pace planned for beginners isn’t easy to find online, and this is a valuable source.

Once you get past A1 the number of files increases, there are 262 at the time of writing for A2 and 248 for B1. It’ll be a long time before I need to look past there, but it goes up to C2.

Highly recommended.


The truth about Joel Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair
La Vérité sur l’Affaire Harry Quebert

I’ve now read 40 pages of this ludicrously long book. I’ve been reading it in French. These are the truths.

(1) Assuming that it should have been published in the first place, it is nonetheless perhaps hundreds of pages too long. Every single notion is repeated ad nauseum. There is not one idea stated once that isn’t repeated a dozen times. In a row. Just like that. The book should be much shorter. It’s too long. It repeats things to the point of insult. Oh, let’s go further than that. Its use of repetition adds injury to insult. I could keep repeating myself here in slightly different ways, but I hope you get the picture. Too. Offensively. Long. By far.

(2) Fabulously badly written.  After going to see Hobbit 3, I wrote:

I had no idea that Tolkien was such a great writer. The line where the dwarf dude says to the kungfu-elf-chick ‘You make me feel so alive’. And where she says in a marvellously anguished way about love ‘It hurts so much’. That I could think up such lines.

The Truth about Harry is like that for 670 pages. So, yeah. If you thought that the dialogue in Hobbit 3 was pushing the boundaries of literature as we know it, then absolutely this book is for you.

(3) The book is B1 standard. Seriously. A 670 page novel has been written in French which is B1. Theoretically B1 can be challenging. Camus’s The Outsider is supposedly B1, but I’m still finding it painful to read because it is sparing in its use of words and the ideas expressed by the words are not easy. The Truth about Harry, on the other hand, because it spells everything out over and over, leaves the reader in no doubt. Even a bad reader. Even, I imagine, the very worst reader in the entire world ever.

(4) I’ve had my suspicions about the literary taste of the French since discovering how much they like Eliot Perlman.  But their admiration of Truth about Harry is way beyond a joke. It was awarded their highest literary prize. The mind boggles, I have to say. Does it reflect their ignorance of American literature (this book claims to be an American Novel in French, whatever that is), or the dire state of French literature. There isn’t a good answer.

(5) And yet presumably many people like the book, it’s a big seller, translated into many languages; apparently there is a film on the horizon. I can only assume that the secret is that Dicker has managed to make a book which is defined as being for adults, not children, but which is even simpler than a lot of YA adults rely on for their reading material. I’m guessing, I admit it. Whereas prior to this book, adults who couldn’t cope with proper novels had to read YA, now there is something entirely new available to them. Extremely simplistic books marketed to adults, not children. How very interesting. At the same time, it won a French award in which school kids vote for the book they think is best, so although I don’t think it is marketed to children, clearly they recognise their level when they see it.

Who should read this? If you are a B1 French reader and need to read something that encourages you to feel like you must be okay, this is the book for you. I certainly don’t know every word, but trust me, you don’t need to. I sit there with a dictionary in hand because it’s my wont, but I doubt that there is a paragraph in the book of which I would not have an adequate, if not good,  understanding, without looking up words. But I find myself stymied now. Camus is too hard. The problem with this one, on the other hand, isn’t its simplicity but that it is too patronising and takes tedium to a new level. Simplicity does not have to be boring.  Even at my really bad level of French I am not incompetent enough to deserve this constant heavy handed spelling out of everything. In case you are wondering, yes, the characters are cardboard. I don’t know if the author thinks that this is the case in the American Novels he apparently admires.

The patronisation isn’t just about making sure you get the storyline. It’s about how to write, which is a major ongoing theme. We are given gems like The Importance of The First Chapter – who knew? This got me wondering. Is there a huge market out there of would-be authors, is that the real audience of this book. Sucking up these bits of advice that they could get from anywhere. Forty-three things you need to know about Writing Novels.

And yet, the bottom line is, the dude’s written a book which is bought and read all over the world. That means something. I just don’t quite get what.

Verbs, the brussel sprouts of language learning

I’ve been writing about brussel sprouts on my cooking blog, so it only seemed fair to mention verbs here. Putting brown sugar on sprouts before roasting does indeed make them palatable, but what’s the equivalent for the ingestion of verbs?

In the end I suspect plain rote drill as we used to do in school when we were little is imperative, but there are many attempts online through games, tests, puzzles etc to make the process of addressing verbs less painful.

Here are a couple I’m using at the moment.

Language Gym has interactive tools for verb practice.  There are the odd typos and the harder sections may be down to opinion from time to time. For example in the section indicative present, one of the sentences you have to translate is ‘I drink two litres of water a day’ and there is a required translation ‘Je bois deux litres d’eau par jour.’ Might one say ‘chaque jour’ instead? Or even ‘tous les jours’?

One of the things that Geneva University’s CALL (computer assisted language learning) projects permit is optional responses so that one can learn in a more natural conversational way. You can see the sense of that as you notch up error after error trying to get this sentence right!

However, perhaps because of this, most sentences are even simpler with no possibility of variation. ‘We play cards’ ‘I do nothing’. Still, challenging enough for a beginner whilst getting verb practice in as well. Despite the odd frustration, I like this site. for French is excellent for many things, not least nicely laid out conjugation pages. Sound files are good quality human recordings. Mousing over the asterisks gives example sentences, though these are not audio. You can then move on to quizzes. It might ask for the ‘tu’ form of travailler, and after you key in travailles, it will mark you correct or not and provide one or more example sentences, in this case: Je travaille à la mairie. I work at the town hall.

Okay. Je finis, tu finis, nous finissons!


Places you shouldn’t go….

Update: although I wrote to the site about this, and although they responded that it was old content that they were deleting, it is still there now as of Easter 2017.


I guess if I was an idiot in regards to the following site, then you might be too.

I was looking for simple sentences with examples of verbs and came upon this list of French verbs. I had it printed out before I could stop myself. So the first item is this:

1. Acheter – to buy

  • J’ achète du pain tous les jours. –> I bought bread every day.
  • -Achète is the past participle of the verb acheter.

Firstly, the French sentence is in the present tense and it has been translated into the past. It should be ‘I buy bread every day’.

Secondly, this is not the past participle of acheter. It is acheté as you might discover at a specialised French learning site. My conclusion is not to go to those generalised learning sites that do a gadzillion courses and have bloggy posts. If I’d looked into it I would have seen that the same person writes on cats, hiphop, science, maths, what to do in the vacation, business…you name it.

Obvious? Yeah, well. It is now!