Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Cinq semaines en ballon (Five Weeks in a Balloon)

On October 19, I finished reading Jules Verne's Cinq semaines en ballon, after ten weeks of on-again, off-again effort. Since the book itself came out in 1862, it seems a bit late to write a review of the novel itself, but it was the first novel I ever read in French, and since I've only been studying French for 40 weeks, I thought it might be of interest to discuss how I managed to read a French novel at all.

(All pictures taken from WikiSource.)

The Motivation: Reading on a Kindle

As I've mentioned elsewhere, I got excited about reading foreign-language novels about a year ago, when I discovered that I could use the bilingual dictionary on a Kindle to read a Spanish novel in four days. That was remarkable because I had spoken Spanish for forty years without ever managing to read four pages of a Spanish novel. I felt this proved the Kindle lets students beat the "beginner's paradox," and I wanted to get more people excited about it. Trouble was, my Spanish was too good in the first place--to be really exciting, this would need to work for people who didn't start off with C1 fluency in a language.

I had studied Italian on and off for about ten years, but I had never had better than A2 competence, so I brushed up my Italian for a few months and managed to read an Italian novel. As I expected, this was more work than reading the Spanish one, but still reasonable, and the effort improved my Italian dramatically.

But for a really strong test, I started studying French in January 2014, with the goal of showing that I could read a novel in a language I had never studied before at all. Moreover, I wanted to show that the mere act of reading could itself greatly boost one's ability with the language.

Elsewhere on the blog I've discussed my method for learning French. I use Duolingo as the core, and supplement that with other resources. I have invested about two hours per day for almost 300 days now. I estimate I'm somewhere between B1 and B2 French, which is about right for that level of effort. It's where someone should be after two years of college French, and those are exactly the people I'm hoping this will work for.

Reading the Novel

To read Cinq semaines en ballon, I carefully followed my own suggestions for learning a language by reading a novel. I was able to buy the original French text plus an English translation for under a dollar. The translation wasn't very good (it contained a lot of rather unnatural English sentences) but that didn't matter, since I only intended to use it as a last resort.

In a number of ways, this wasn't really the ideal first novel to pick. I chose it partly because I had really loved reading Verne novels as a kid, and this was one I'd never read before; I thought it would be cool to say I had read it in French. It was a little longer than I'd have liked--the first Spanish novel I read was about half as long. I also worried a little bit that French itself might have changed in 150 years, but that doesn't seem to have been a real problem.

A more serious problem is that like a lot of nineteenth-century literature, Cinq semaines en ballon starts slow and doesn't take off until you're more than 25% of the way into it. It's an adventure story about three men who ride a new kind of balloon across unexplored parts of Africa, but the balloon doesn't leave the ground for a long, long time. This is terrible for the first-time foreign reader, because those first chapters are unavoidably difficult, frustrating, and slow. It helps a lot if they're exciting, but that's definitely not the case with this book. From reading in the other languages, I knew that my reading speed would build with time, and that was motivation enough to get me through the first quarter of it.

After that, there's plenty of excitement.

A different kind of problem is that I started the novel before I finished learning the French grammar. I was comfortable with newspaper articles, but French has a verb tense called the passe simple which is almost unused in day-to-day speech but is very heavily used for narration in novels. It corresponds to the Spanish preterito and the Italian passato remoto, so I had a solid understanding of what it meant, but I still had to learn to recognize it. Since the narration is third-person, I only had to learn the third-person forms, and that turned out not to be too bad.

By the time the balloon finally lifted off, I had discovered another problem. The book is hopelessly racist. Given the era, that shouldn't be a huge surprise, but somehow I expected better of Verne. It's also not very environmentally conscious; the elephant in the picture above is eventually shot and killed, and the heroes eat just a single meal from a piece of the trunk. To be fair, there's not much else they could do given their circumstances, but neither the killing nor the waste bothers them one bit. This sort of thing doesn't turn up in every chapter, and it's not enough to spoil the book; it just jolts you every now and then.

That aside, it's a fun adventure with a satisfying ending. It turned out not to be such a bad choice after all.


My reading speed climbed from under 1% an hour to over 5%. It's hard to say what that means in pages or words, but toward the end, I could comfortable read two or three of the little chapters (44 in all) at a time.

At the beginning, when I found an unknown word, I consulted the bilingual dictionary first and used the monolingual only if that failed. By the half-way point, I had reversed this. The Kindle's built-in monolingual French dictionary turns out to be pretty good. Not only does it have a much bigger vocabulary than the Collins French-English bilingual dictionary, the definitions are written in simpler language. By the end of the book, nine times out of ten, when I needed to look up a word, the monolingual French dictionary was all I needed. It felt really good to stay immersed in the language and the story.

In the first half of the book, I made heavy use of the English translation. I always made myself read at least a paragraph before resorting to it, but all too often there was no other way to make sense of the text. Toward the middle, though, I was usually able to finish a whole chapter in French and then quickly reread it in English, looking for any big mistakes in my interpretation. There were quite a few to start with. For the last quarter of the book, though, the rereading didn't turn up any big surprises. That is, my reading in French was accurate enough that in the last quarter of the book, I didn't really need the English translation at all.

As with the other languages, I felt this really improved my ability across the board. For example, I'm comfortable reading most stories in Le Monde now without using a dictionary at all. I haven't attended a French meetup lately, but I should do that soon to see if there's a difference with my listening ability, as there was with Spanish.

All in all, it was a very worthwhile experience. I think I'll try Voyage au centre de la terre next.

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