French: Fresh, fun native media at my fingertips

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French: Fresh, fun native media at my fingertips

Postby emk » Sun Jul 19, 2015 10:11 pm

The beginning

Here are the first posts in my old HTLAL log, starting from February 19 2012:

For two years, I studied French using Assimil New French with Ease, native books, newspapers, podcasts, and a Mnemosyne deck with about 1000 words. I started with a 30-day trial, and never skipped a day. At the end of 2 years, I could carry on a conversation and read some books, but I didn't have much luck with movies or news podcasts.

Unfortunately, the next two years were busy, and I had to put French on hold. I read a few paragraphs from Le Monde every day, and listened to my wife speak French with the kids, but that was about it. My French improved slightly.

Here are my goals for the first half of 2012:

1. I want to pass a DELF B1 exam in June, preferably with room to spare.
2. I want to understand full-speed news radio.
3. I want to read more books in French.
4. I want to speak full-time French with my wife much more often.

It's time to get off this plateau and take my French to the next level. Wish me luck!

My listening skills have really been improving rapidly this week. This morning, I was
surprised to understand 80+% of RFI Français Facile, which is a major breakthrough for
me. After listening to the regular RFI news podcasts, Français Facile sounds
surprisingly slow!

I've also started reading Le Tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours using the
Android Kindle app. The Kindle app has a nice built-in dictionary, which makes it easy
to look up some of the old-fashioned vocabulary. The older French verb tenses are a bit
challenging, and I'm looking up a couple of words per paragraph, but the story has a
wonderfully retro science fiction feel, and I can't wait to find out what happens.
After this, I've got a great kids' book to read.

I'm also using the Android Anki app to learn 5 cards per day from Anki's Intermediate
French deck. This is mostly idioms and specialized vocabulary, and I'm not being nearly
so religious about it as about my earlier Mnemosyne deck. Anki has a great "drop
leeches" feature, so I don't keep recycling the same 50 evil cards all the time. I do
use my old and new SRS vocabularly on a regular basis, but man, SRS will eat my life
given half a chance, and it's less fun than reading.

Speaking French with my wife is doable when we're both rested and alert. I find that I
need to push fairly hard to use French all the time, and not just for the easiest 80%
of phrases that I already know. Even though we've done several 95%+ French days in the
last week, we need to keep working on this.

Also, my subjunctive is a mess. So I spent some time reading up on the French
subjunctive on, and I'm starting to recognize it in books and use it in
conversation. My French grammar has pretty much always been intuitive, thanks to
Assimil, and I still have big gaps.

I also flipped through a sample DELF B1 exam. I could probably pass this today if they
let me listen to the audio clips a few extra times and didn't enforce the time limit
too strictly. So if I study hard, I should do fine at the June test date.

It's really beginning to sink in just how much work lies between B1 and C1. Yikes.

My wife is awesome; she speaks French with me. :-) It's relatively easy for us to speak
about day-to-day life, because I've spent so much time listening to her speak with the
kids. It's more challenging if we want discuss a play, or an abstract idea, and she
often has to supply me with vocabulary.

RFI Français Facile was more challenging today, and I didn't understand as much the
first time through. But after the 3rd listen, I got a lot of it. There was a
ridiculously fast report on the soccer championship between Montpelier and
Saint-Germain. The demonstrations in Spain are growing, the demonstrations in Athens
are shrinking, and Germany has a new president, a pastor and human rights advocate from
East Germany. Oh, and Iran has decided to stop selling oil to the UK and France, but
neither country cares, because they don't buy that much Iranian oil, and because the
cold wave has receded. Greece, however, gets 30% of their oil from Iran. In a few
sections of the news report, I could understand plenty of half-sentence fragments but
couldn't tie them together. (It's amazing how some days are so much easier than

There was also a long discussion of "la damme de fer" and other uses of "de fer", such
as "santé de fer" ("iron constitution"). This would have been more interesting if the
idioms didn't have near-identical counterparts in English.

Tonight, I plan to curl up with Le Tour du Monde again. I'm at the 12% mark
after several days of casual reading. Gotta love that Kindle dictionary.

Oh, and I ordered 3 DELF B1 prep books last night. They should arrive in a week or two,
and I'll try to post some reviews at some point.

[Written yesterday on the 21st.]

I alternate between euphoria and frustration.

First, the euphoria: French is remarkably, surprisingly fun. I've now read
28% of Le Tour du Monde on the Kindle, and I'm enjoying every moment. I
also peeked at the first page of Voltaire's Candide, and thought, "This
is going to be a great book." Suddenly there's a whole new world of awesome
classic books that I need to read. (Sadly, it's hard to get modern French
novels on an American Kindle. But the classics are free, and I have a
secret fondness for the prose of late 19th century.)

I listened to RFI Français Facile again, getting most of the easy parts on
the first pass, and several of the harder correspondents on the second
pass. I spent another 10 minutes listening to other native French
podcasts, including an amusing annecdote about Sarkozy's «france forte»
website on RFI Nouvelles Technologies (he has a nice photo of the Greek
ocean) and water-heater problems on "One thing in a French day." About
half the native podcasts made sense tonight.

My wife and I spoke extensively in French this evening, which was a blast.
The words came easily and smoothly, and when I accidentally spoke to the
kids in French, it took me several moments to translate back into English.
As I said to my wife, "You've created a monster. Now I speak endlessly in
two languages, and you can't shut me up in either." The biggest
challenge, as always, was trying to express precise ideas about a play, or
an abstract topic.

Which brings me to the frustration. There's still just so much that I
don't know. So many conversations where I look like a total idiot. So
many podcasts where I understand lots of little pieces, but can't fit them
together into sentences. So many clever turns of phrase that baffle me
upon close inspection.

Assimil's «Où est le Metro? Le metro est là-bas.» was so long ago. I've
come so far, and I see my path behind me, winding through the valley
below. But C1 still lies far ahead, and it looks like the Matterhorn.

Shortly after making these posts, I began working 3 times a week with an excellent DELF tutor over Skype. About three months later, I passed the DELF B2 exam with 78/100 points, which is supposedly a solid score.

After the DELF: Super Challenge, lots of TV, and current progress

I went on to do the original Super Challenge, reading over 10,000 pages of French in 20 months, and watching hundreds of hours of television, including box sets of Buffy contre les vampires, Ulysse 31 and L'Avatar, le dernier maître de l'air. After the Super Challenge, I could comfortably read almost anything in French. In my favorite genres, I run into an "opaque" word (one which is sufficiently unknown that I notice it) every two or three pages. Apparently massive input helps a lot!

Along the way, I've spent years speaking French at home, and I've had actual professional conversations in French. My speaking ability is somewhat uneven—my "household" French is almost fully automatic, but more intellectual discussions require sleep, warm up and a bit of luck!

Want lots of cool links and media in French?

My French resources post
My "Immersion française" Twitter list, with lots of addictive stuff
Media I like on SensCritique
Favorite song playlist on YouTube (notes)
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The Cheating & Consolidating Method

Postby emk » Sun Jul 19, 2015 10:14 pm

Or How I Reached 99.8% Comprehension of (Some) French Fiction While Goofing Off

[This was one of my most popular posts on HTLAL, and it explains most of what I think I know about improving comprehension using semi-"natural" methods.]

[I’ve said all this before, but I think it’s time to put all the pieces together in one article. This is a long article, and it mostly covers passive skills. But you shouldn’t need lots of insider knowledge to make sense of it, and it includes almost all of my favorite tricks.]

During the Super Challenge, I read over 10,000 pages of French, and I spent about 90 hours reviewing sentence cards in Anki. By the end of the challenge, something really cool had happened: I could understand virtually everything I read, easily, almost as if I were reading in English. I could understand most of the text automatically, just by looking at it. Nearly all of the rest of the text was easily decipherable just by staring at it for a few seconds. And only 1 or 2 words out of every 1,000 were completely opaque to me.

As best as I can figure it out, here’s how this worked, from the beginning up to today.

Opaque, Decipherable & Automatic

When I first started learning French, it was mostly opaque. Sure, I could guess a few words thanks to Latin roots, and maybe I could get a very general idea of what the text was about. But I couldn’t actually read it.

Thanks to Assimil’s New French with Ease, I gradually reached the point where I could decipher a fair bit of French text. (I’ll talk more about Assimil shortly.) Reading wasn’t easy—I read slowly, and I could only understand about 70% of a typical page, even with guesswork. But I picked up La grande aventure de la langue française, a 450-page history of the French language, and spent a couple of months plowing through it slowly. But by the end of the book, I found that I could understand more and more of the text automatically, without deciphering it.

Let me put this in visual format:


In the story above, text started out opaque. With various forms of cheating, it became decipherable. (“Decipherable” corresponds to what the linguist Stephen Krashen calls “i+1 input”: something you can understand thanks to context and effort, but which you haven’t fully internalized yet.) And with more exposure, I could eventually consolidate this decipherable text into something I could read normally.

Note that all three kinds of input will typically appear together during this process: Parts of a text will be easy, other parts can be figured out with some effort, and some parts make no sense at all.

Cheating & Consolidating: Assimil

I never would have gotten started in French without Assimil’s New French with Ease. This is a great course, published by a third-generation family company in France. Each lesson in this book contains:

1. A short text in French.
2. An English translation of the French text.
3. An audio recording of the French text.
4. Short explanations of how things work.
5. Some simple exercises.

The idea is that you read through the English text, and use it to puzzle out the corresponding French text and audio. This usually takes me 8 to 12 passes through the material, focusing on the different versions in various orders.

Each Assimil lesson is short, requiring 20 to 40 minutes, and there are slightly over 100 lessons. Starting with lesson 50, the student is encouraged to start an “active wave”, which involves going back to old lessons, and translating from English and to French.

So how does this fit into the model?

Cheating: Assimil starts out very simple French texts, with English translations and explanations. If I made multiple passes through the lesson, this was enough that I could eventually hide the English, and “understand” the French directly.

Consolidating: As the course progresses, Assimil repeats lots of common vocabulary and grammar. Further repetition and consolidation was provided by my 8 to 12 passes through each lesson, and by the active wave.

Cheating & Consolidating: Extensive Reading

Since I’ve started learning French, I’ve read between 10,000 and 15,000 pages of novels, news articles, bad humor sites, and so on. That’s the equivalent of 40 to 60 short novels, or around 2.5 million to 5 million words. At first, this involved a lot of fumbling around, but things got better quickly:

500 pages: I could read! In French! OK, I was slow and missed a lot.
2,500 pages: Reading got dramatically easier and faster.
7,500 pages: I could read about 40 pages per hour with an "opaque" word every other page or so. Not bad!

Cheating: I discovered lots of fun ways to cheat. My favorites are (1) e-readers with pop-up dictionaries, and (2) reading French translations of my favorite books, which I already knew by heart. Another great way to cheat is to use parallel texts, like Assimil does.

Consolidating: Reading a few thousand pages will provide an amazing amount of consolidation.

Cheating & Consolidating: Anki Sentence Cards

Anki is a great tool for reviewing information efficiently. It exploits the forgetting curve to get as much information into your head with as little effort as possible. My favorite way to use Anki is to make “sentence cards” with short blanks to fill in. Here’s a sample card I just made from New French with Ease lesson 1:


Pardon, madame. [___] est le métro Saint-Michel ?
Excuse me (pardon) madam. Where is the metro [station] St. Michel?


Pardon, madame. est le métro Saint-Michel ?
Excuse me (pardon) madam. Where is the metro [station] St. Michel?

The card format was first popularized by Khatzumoto under the name MCD cards. It works best if you don’t worry too much about any given card, and if you delete any card which annoys you. Remember: If something’s important, and if you read enough, then you’ll see it again soon. Keep things easy and fun, and don’t try to learn more than 10 new cards per day for the first month—the reviews build up quickly. Oh, and eventually you’ll reach a point where you don’t really need an English translation any more.

Cheating: Most of the “cheating” here happens when you make the cards, because you can look up missing vocabulary and puzzle things over. But you can also stick an English translation or other hints on the front of the card.

Consolidating: Anki will review these cards at rapidly increasing interviews, and most of the cards will sneak into your brain like an annoying top-40 song lyric. Even hard cards will often become a lot easier around the 30-day mark.

Cheating & Consolidating: Buffy on DVD

Once I could more-or-less read French, and once I could have one-on-one conversations with very patient and sympathetic French speakers, I decided to do something about listening comprehension. After many false starts, I discovered some online Buffy transcripts and I bought a DVD box set. When I started watching, I could follow maybe 40% of the dialog. By the end of the first season, I could understand 70%. By the end of the third season, I understood well over 90%. I repeated this with several other TV series, and I could eventually understand the vast majority of French television.

Cheating: For the first half-season, I read through episode transcripts, looked up unknown words, and watched every episode twice. But even after that, television series offer many subtle ways to cheat: pictures of the action, repeated vocabulary, and familiar voices.

Consolidating: Again, TV series provide an excellent way to consolidate your knowledge, because you can watch season after season.

In a Nutshell

Find cool things to read and watch. Cheat any way you can until you can decipher them. Keep doing this until your knowledge consolidates and the language becomes second nature.

You are encouraged to invent your own methods for cheating, as long as you remember to spend plenty of time consolidating!

UPDATE: For another example of "cheating and consolidating" taken to an extreme, see my Spanish subs2srs log.

Some more examples from a later post

Thank you for your kind words!

Just as a fun mental exercise, I'm going to try to apply this model to some other popular techniques.

* Cheating & Consolidating: Childhood Language Acquisition

How do children learn their first languages?

Cheating: Parents say the same 50 things a thousand different times, with plenty of pantomime. (Trust me on this.) If they really need to get a point across, they slow way down and explain things as many times as needed. Eventually children master enough of the basics that they can start learning from context and asking lots of questions.

Consolidation: Studies claim that children hear between 3 million and 13 million spoken words per year. The children towards the upper end of that range do better in school. This is the equivalent of multiple Super Challenges per year, every year.

Kids work surprisingly hard, and they get far more input than all but the most dedicated adult learners. However, Krashen claims that although school-aged children may learn the basics of a new language quickly, they still generally need 3–5 years to catch up with their monolingual peers academically.

* Cheating & Consolidating: Listening/Reading

Although I've never tried Listening/Reading seriously, it fits into this model very nicely:

Cheating The L1 text makes it much easier to understand an L2 text, and the L2 text makes it easier to understand the L2 audio. There are presumably some limits here: L/R will be much harder to make work in unrelated language, with very different grammar, no cognates and possibly an unfamiliar writing system. But I would guess that it works amazing well when moving between related languages.

Consolidation: L/R recommends do lots of long sessions, which should offer plenty of chances to consolidate.

My prediction is that as long as you make the L2 text semi-decipherable and you put in enough hours, L/R should be a pretty efficient method.

* Cheating, with Consolidation After: Iversen's Word Lists or Gold Lists + Reading

Methods like Iversen's word lists and Gold Lists focus heavily on the first part of the problem:

Cheating: By quickly learning a large number of frequent words up front, the learner builds a mental "dictionary". This makes it easier to tackle natural texts.

Consolidation: As I understand it, Iversen recommends plenty of reading once a reasonable amount of vocabulary has been learned. I suspect that if you omit the reading practice, none of these vocabulary-oriented methods will produce fluent, automatic reading.

And for the scientifically-minded, I'll make some predictions: If a method provides no way to produce decipherable text, or if it offers no way to consolidate, then it's probably going to work poorly. And conversely most methods that fail to produce comprehension will do so because they neglect one or both steps.
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Spanish: A little subs2srs experiment

Postby emk » Sun Jul 19, 2015 10:27 pm

My little subs2srs experiment

Here are a few posts from my brief experiment with Spanish (to which I hope to return soon). This was intended as a test of "cheating and consolidating".

Why this experiment?

I was inspired by Sprachprofi's article Understand Your Favourite TV Series in 30 Days, where she used subs2srs and Anki to achieve pretty decent listening comprehension for a single Japanese TV series in 30 hours. Of course, as she points out, her skills were quite narrow.

Now, I've already used subs2srs with Amélie, and I once used a similar hand-made tool with Buffy and a bunch of MC Solaar songs. And I've spent plenty of time with Anki: I've done 31,965 reps across all my decks, and I'm using it to learn Middle Egyptian slowly. Given this experience, I think Sprachprofi's approach would be fun to try.

What's the plan?

I'm going to try to learn beginner some Spanish the way I learned intermediate French: Using native materials, and lots of video. Any grammar study will be purely haphazard. My primary source will be subs2srs cards, but I reserve the right to mix in a bit of Destinos or anything else which looks like fun.

Is there any sort of half-baked theory behind this?

After learning French and a bit of Egyptian, I'm a big believer in Krashen's hypothesis that "We acquire language when we understand messages." (Mind you, unlike Krashen, I also think other things are important.) Personally, I think of improving passive skills as a process of "cheating and consolidating", where I use various unfair advantages to understand things, and then I become used to them through sheer exposure:


In particular, I feel that it's worth being as creative as possible in the "cheating" step. I've generally found that watching incomprehensible video is largely useless, at least for me.

Why Spanish?

Spanish has been on my list for a while. Even in the northeastern US, I run into a fair number of Spanish speakers, and Borges is one of my all-time favorite authors. And of course, I get a huge discount, thanks to English and French.

What's the media?

I've got copies of Y tu mamá también (recommended by tastyonions) and Matando Cabos (recommended by iguanamon). These look like fun.

UPDATE: Useful links

A few highlights which might be of interest:

Subs2srs tutorial
Subtitle edit tutorial
Spanish subtitles for use with subs2srs
Making the audio on each card longer (for more advanced learners)
Using LF Aligner and Aglona Reader to make parallel Android ebooks (because books have their own vocabulary)

Progress reports:
Watching TV after 5 or 6 hours of reviewing cards
Trying to read the graphic novel Blacksad after 29 days
30 days, 10 hours of Anki reviews!
Extensive watching after almost 60 days (watching 6 new episodes)

Manually synchronizing subtitles

For Avatar episode 1, I had very accurate subtitles, but they were badly synchronized. So I installed vlc-2.1.5-win64.exe from here, and set Subtitle Edit to use it as a video player:


Then I chose Video > Open Video File and Video > Show Waveform, which makes it possible to realign subtitles individually, using drag & drop:


Cleaning up the alignment took a bit under two hours for 20 minutes of video, but it was the first time I've done this. Note that you don't need to get the transitions exact: If you add, say, 1250 milliseconds of padding in subs2srs, you can save lots of time during alignment.

Once the subtitles were ready, I only needed to run subs2srs normally:


This yielded about 25MB of data.

And so it begins…

Image Image

Since my goal with this experiment is to be able to enjoy TV series and graphic novels as early as possible, I'm switching from Y Tu Mamá También to Avatar tomorrow morning. Even though Y Tu Mamá También was actually working surprisingly well, Avatar gives me a better chance of transitioning directly to native television.

Two weeks!

Things were going well yesterday, before the switch to Avatar. And I can already see that they're about to start going even better. This is frankly awesome.

A green sheet experiment

Now that I've had two weeks to stare at Spanish, I've decided that the biggest challenge will be internalizing the verbs. Basically, Spanish seems to include:

1. Most of the verb forms present in English (progressive, perfect).
2. Most of the spoken verb forms used in French.
3. Most of the "narrative" verb forms used in French.

And just to make matters more annoying (at least for this French speaker), Spanish drops the pronouns and actually relies heavily on verb endings. So Spanish verbs are kinda new, and I want to pay some attention to them. As patrickwilken recently demonstrated, sometimes even massive input won't be enough for an adult to acquire certain complicated language features.

So I decided to read through my 4-page Spanish quick reference and make an Iversen-style green sheet listing all the regular verb endings:


I'm not going to memorize this. Instead, I'm going to use it more as a "bird spotter's guide" to Spanish verbs. Basically, if I see something interesting, I'll occasionally glance over and try to classify it.

Verb-spotting with Avatar

Oh, man, are these cards a ton of fun. They're a lot easier than my Y Tu Mamá También cards, and I use the "Easy" button a lot more aggressively.

On the left, let's use our new green sheet: Han pasado cien años y la nación del fuego está alcanzando la victoria en esta guerra. We have both a perfect and a progressive form!

Image Image

On the right, we have unirse. I know that French has a verb unir "unite, join", and se is the French reflexive pronoun for "him/her/it/themselves." So if I had to guess, I'd say unirse is something like "to unite themselves." So let's take a look at the phrase:

Hace dos años, mi padre, junto con los hombres de mi tribu decidieron unirse al reino tierra para luchar juntos en contra de la nación del fuego…

Two years ago, my father, and the men of my tribe journeyed to the Earth Kingdom to help fight against the Fire Nation…

I read this as:

Hace dos años (two years ago), mi padre (my father), junto (joined???) con los hombres de mi tribu (with the men of my tribe) decidieron (decided) unirse (to unite themselves) al reino tierra[/I] (to the kindom? of earth) para luchar (to fight?) juntos (joined/together???) en contra de (against?) la nación del fuego… (the nation of fire)[/I]

Some of these guesses are almost certainly wrong, but it doesn't matter. If I've interpreted something incorrectly, I'll see a counter-example soon enough, and I'll just revise my theories.

Why I cheat shamelessly to understand

What I'm doing here is actually fairly subtle: Like victorhart, I'm trying to learn directly from native video. I'm relying on guesswork and context to teach me the language. But my approach here is different, because I'm far more willing to cheat shamelessly:

1. I use bilingual subtitles to help decipher the audio.
2. I use Anki to turn small chunks of audio into "earworms," and hold on to what I can understand.
3. I'll occasionally make a sheet of verb endings or something, and use it as a "spotter's guide."

The goal is to take that natural, video-watching experience, and to supercharge it shamelessly so that I can actually get to the point where I understand native video as soon as humanly possible.

gordafarin: By the way, on the subject of synchronizing subtitles for Subs2SRS - if you have one set of subtitles that are synched and one set that aren't, Subs2SRS has a built-in tool for that. It's in the Tools menu, Subs Re-Timer. It does rely on having at least one subtitle file that's already synched, but if you have that, it's way quicker than adjusting subtitles manually.

Ah, thank you, that's good to know about! I've also been really impressed with Subtitle Edit—it has tons of features for cleaning up subs.


Today, I decided to use my new "verb spotting" guide to see if I could identify a few verb tenses during my reviews. Below, I use the names of verb tenses that I found on my grammar sheet.

Image Image

necesitaba: imperfect, 3sg
desapareció: preterite, 3sg
dejándonos: present participle + "to us"

Image Image

volvió: preterite, 3sg
se ha roto: perfect, 3sg (we have -to and not do, so it's probably irregular)
he perdido: perfect, 1sg

Image Image

todavía = "yet" (looked up with Google Translate app)
creo: present, 1sg
regresará: future, 3sg
salvar: infinitive

Image Image

mira, aprende: imperatives? (not on my sheet)
es: present, 3sg
como se atrapa un pez: present, 3sg (hey, this looks like that funny "reflexive passive" thingy in French)
atrapé: preterite, 1sg

What's going on here?

For the most part, I'm still doing 95% of my learning by regular osmosis, and relying on my brain's natural language learning ability. But I've identified one potentially tricky area (verb forms), and I'm keeping a "green sheet" by my elbow. So this gives us:

Things I'm learning by osmosis: Pronunciation, spelling, pronouns, grammar, vocabulary, irregular verbs, when to use specific tenses, etc. Pretty much everything.

Things where I'm using a "birdwatcher's guide": Identifying verb forms.


At this point, Avatar is working wonderfully: The audio and meaning are sticking just the way I like Assimil lessons to stick, except I'm using one of my favorite TV shows. And I'm getting all sorts of little spontaneous earworms floating around in my head, such as:

He venido "I have come" (may have errors!)

This happened when I pulling into the driveway, so I told my brain, "Hey, you can do better than that!" And my brain responded:

He venido a mi casa "I have come to my house" (may have errors!)

So it's been 15 days and 4 hours of Anki reps, and my brain is spontaneously constructing vaguely Spanish sentences in the perfect tense. The process seems to go like this:

Cheating -> comprehension -> earworms -> "mix and match" chunks of earworms -> maybe learn some grammar?

So far, so good!

So how did it work out?

Not bad, for such a brief experiment! I think that subs2srs is a pain to set up, but it's really fun, and it works at least as well as Assimil. As an added plus, it allows you start extensive TV watching ridiculously early in the learning process.

Next Tuesday will be the 60-day mark for this experiment! My deck now contains 437 mature and 263 recent cards (and 271 suspended). I've done 20 hours of Anki reviews, and 3,483 reps. I've learned 3 episodes of Avatar.

While waiting for some software to recompile, I watched parts of two more episodes, all without subtitles. Here are the results:

Episode 5 (above, studied using subs2srs). Comprehension is very high—about where I was after several seasons of Buffy, and after passing my B2 exam. This is pretty remarkable, when you think about it—subs2srs has allowed me to actually "learn" three episodes to the point where I have essentially B2 comprehension. But only for those three episodes.

Episode 6 (prepared for subs2srs, but not yet studied). This case is a bit more interesting. I've recently watched this episode and spent some time aligning the subtitles against the Spanish audio. So I have a pretty good idea what's going on. Overall, this gives a nice boost, especially in the scenes I've watched several times. I can follow the plot, and I can sometimes get big sections of the dialog.

Episode 7 (watched in French about a year ago). This is the purest test of comprehension. I remember the plot of this episode (more or less), but I've forgotten all the details. And I have good news: I can follow most of what's going on! I'm definitely missing over half the dialog, but I almost always get at least several words per sentence, and sometimes I get multiple consecutive lines. Overall, this is actually pretty fun.


So it looks like I'm definitely nearing the point where I could start just watching Avatar for fun. Even with my strong background in French, this is pretty awesome—20 hours of "official" reviews, according to AnkiDroid, and I'm more-or-less able to follow an actual TV series (with lots of guesswork). (For comparison's sake, Sprachprofi was watching a Japanese TV series unaided after ~30 hours of Anki, with 50% comprehension, but she's a talented polyglot.)

Personally, I'm just happy that my brain is starting to understand things like hay que hacerlo automatically. My English-and-French discount doesn't actually help much with phrases like that, but after 3,483 reps, they tend to jump right out at me.

rdearman: I don't know if I'm just naturally more pessimistic (or stupid) but I'm not seeing a huge boost in comprehension. Although our situation is different since I already understood 50-70% of the dialogue and I can read ~B2 in both languages already.

Well, there are three things worth keeping in mind:

1. I started with basically no Spanish, and I'm using subs2srs as an Assimil replacement until I can watch TV unaided.
2. I have accurate Spanish subtitles, which allows me thoroughly learn very hard material.
3. I'm doing a lot of subs2srs.

The best way to measure quantity is to look at mature cards. At least in my experience, the real comprehension gains occur after 20–30 days, which is about the same time Anki marks the cards as "mature."

Here are your card numbers:

rdearman: For Hero Corp:

Mature: 34
Young+Learn: 171

For The Hobbit:

Mature: 13
Young+Learn: 208

That gives you a total of 47 mature cards across two languages, whereas I have 10 times that number just for Spanish alone:


To put this in perspective, Sprachprofi learned 1500 Japanese cards in 30 days. She might have had something like 500 mature cards and another 1000 young cards at the 30 day mark. And remember, we're both beginners tackling carefully selected TV series—the same sort of stuff that a strong B1 student might marathon-watch with decent comprehension.

So what about subs2srs as an intermediate? I actually tried this in French, and results were mixed. On the plus side, I could use subs2srs to gain near-total comprehension of my favorite French songs and movie scenes. But it was always far more effective when I had accurate subtitles.

The biggest problem with subs2srs at the intermediate and advanced level is that once you understand 90+% of the dialog in a series or movie, it's too much work to make subs2srs cards for the remaining 10%. I've love to see a tool like with an integrated subs2srs mode. (In fact, I'd love to see a version of for students of languages other than English.) If I had some way to capture 20 or 30 subs2srs cards from each episode of Le Trône de fer with minimal fuss, I'd be a very happy student.

All that said, I've tried side-by-side experiments comparing subs2srs and manual dictation exercises. Subs2srs (with accurate L2 transcripts) worked better than endlessly looping audio and trying to copy down what I heard. But your mileage may vary.

Episodes 11 & 12. Ah, that's better! My comprehension was much better than it was with episodes 9 and 10. To review:

Episode 5 (studied with subs2srs): 80+% comprehension.
Episode 6 (reviewed without subs2srs): Variable, but good overall.
Episodes 7 & 8: Less than 50% comprehension, but I could follow the plot pretty well! Definitely fun.
Episodes 9 & 10: Definitely harder than 7 and 8. Rough going overall.
Episode 11: Not as good as 7&8, but definitely better than 9 and 10.
Episode 12: Wow, this was great! I followed almost all the story, and I understood some sections solidly.

Overall, I feel like my comprehension is a little too low for extensive TV watching. Out of 6 episodes I hadn't seen in Spanish before, maybe 3 or 4 of them felt like they were helping me make progress efficiently. The hardest 2 felt like a waste of time—well, except for the fact that my Anki reviews afterwards were ridiculously easy.

EDIT: Summary: Out of 6 episodes, 3 or 4 of them were at the very low end of the "useful extensive listening zone". Another 2 were still outside of it. Excellent progress, especially for such a modest investment, but I still have more work to do.

Anyway, there was a lot more in the original log, but I hope this conveys some of the feel or the experiment!
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French media resources

Postby emk » Sun Jul 19, 2015 10:31 pm

And a list of some of my favorite French resources. This is a year or two old, and I've found lots of new stuff since, but this should still be useful.

I put this list together last year for Khatzumoto, but I thought somebody here might find something interesting. I know I've mentioned all this stuff a dozen times, but I figure it can't hurt to gather everything in one place.


The mother load of French movies, TV series, graphic novels and games, reviewed by French users. Good starting points are livres/tops and bd/tops. Pick a list, pick an interesting book, check the right-hand column for other user-made lists containing that book and, voilà, you've now got a $300 wish list of stuff you can't resist. Plus tons of user-written reviews (in French) talking about why stuff is cool, with far better spelling and grammar than you're likely to find in the average comment section. And here, let me pick you a few graphic novels to get you started.

If you're learning French, you have access to literally thousands of high-quality graphic novels. To read them online at surprisingly reasonable prices, check out Izneo. Get on their email list; they give lots of stuff away. (Credit to geoffw for discovering this site.)

VPN France
Nearly all digital French media is region protected. VPN France is one of the easier ways to work around this.

French TV in the United States, via broadband. Includes France 2, France 3, France Ô, France 5, a whole pile of political and news channels, a couple of sports channels, and one channel with cartoons around the clock. Customer service is in French.

French movies and TV series with accurate subtitles
It's really hard to find French movies and TV series with accurate subs. Fortunately, other students of French have been here before you, and they've made a list.

Buffy contre les vampires, 7 seasons, plus near-complete fan transcripts
A really excellent dub (even Joss Whedon likes it). And thanks to one dedicated fan, you can now get transcripts for all the early seasons.

Vie de merde
The French version of Every day they publish a half dozen stories of days gone horribly wrong. This is first-rate SRS material: Complete, entertaining stories in just a few sentences, and tons of colloquial vocabulary. Follow this site for a couple of months, feed the good stuff into into your SRS, and you'll give a huge boost to your day-to-day vocabulary.

Sort of like, but in French. Mixes formal, informal and profane vocabulary with wild abandon—and it will teach you a surprising amount about French life. (Thanks to sctroyenne.)

More TV series: Intermediate edition

Very few of these have French subs.

L'Avatar, le dernier maître de l'air. One of the best cartoons of the last decade, and the French dub is top notch. 61 episodes, short enough that you're going to watch one, and good enough that you won't stop.

Castle. Another fine French dub.

Les Revenants. What you do when your dead daughter walks in through the front door, acting as if nothing had ever happened? Slow, creepy and moody, with excellent acting. The dialog is ruthlessly native speed, but with long pauses.

The Quebec version of BBC Planète Terre. Documentaries feature some of the easiest native speech you'll ever hear, and this documentary is absolutely stunning. The Quebec dub has far fewer scientific mistakes than the French dub, but the accent is a neutral international accent.

Tintin. The classic adventures of Tintin, in a surprisingly competent animated adaption. 21 episodes.

Ulysse 31. Ulysses in space! A giant robot cyclops! Angry gods. A seriously cool spaceship. A French 80s classic for your inner 7-year-old.

Honorable mentions:

Code Lyoko. Teenage sci-fi. Some episodes are available legally on YouTube. Go check 'em out.
Tara Duncan. A teenage sorceress. Based on a popular, long-running series of French novels. Not bad at all, if you're into this sort of thing.

More TV Series: Advanced Edition

No French subs (or at least not accurate ones), no mercy, but lots of fun.

Bunny Maloney. Extremely sarcastic French rabbits who pilot a giant flying robot. Cannot be explained; must be watched. Here's a good introduction, which appears to be legal.

Engrenages. Corruption, crime and general dysfunction. The best "gritty" French police show of modern years.

Le Trône de fer. Because Tyrion Lannister's terrific in French, too. An excellent dub.

Do you have a list of your own that you'd like to share?
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Re: French: Fresh, fun & effortless media

Postby emk » Sun Jul 19, 2015 10:57 pm

I hereby declare this new log open for business! Please feel free to ask questions, or to suggest cool things to watch and read in French.

At this point in my French voyage, I'm basically enjoying all sorts of cool media in French: TV shows, movies, podcasts, web sites, audiobooks, music, and so on. I'm surrounded by all sorts of French media, most of it nearly effortless to enjoy, because I spent a while setting up everything I needed to make it easy.

A new audiobook!

Following up a suggestion from Cavesa in my old log at HTLAL. I've just purchased an audio book of the first volume of Autre Monde from Audible and listened to a chapter. This sounds really cool! It feels like a "Young Adult" book, but the narration is clear, and there's only a few characters to keep track of, which is always an asset with audio books.

Remember: seems to be totally happy to sell French language audio books to people with US Amazon accounts and credit cards. (And the Apple Music store is happy to sell lots of French music.)

This week in movies on French television

This works best if you have access to FrancophoneTV or another method of accessing French TV channels. This list of films is courtesy of SensCritique's weekly movie guide:


Last week in French TV series

I'm also using to keep track of various French TV series. I've told tit which series interest me, and it says that it knows of 139 episodes that I can watch online using a VPN ("virtual private network") that allows my computer to connect directly to the French internet.


Found any cool stuff in French that you'd like to share?
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Re: French: Fresh, fun & effortless media

Postby emk » Mon Jul 20, 2015 4:39 pm

Cool stuff:

  • The French dub of Flash, the superhero series, is quite clear, and it's a pretty reasonable dub—not quite Buffy or Le Trône de fer, but not bad. I had near-complete comprehension right from the beginning. This is available via FrancophoneTV or via the usual 7-day online replay window if you have a VPN.
  • On the other hand, I don't think the Green Arrow dub is a good as the Flash dub.
  • I'm really enjoying the audio book version of Autre Monde. It's well done, and it's easy to purchase in the US.

Also, I made a heroic effort to find Profilage on the FrancophoneTV replay schedule, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I do want to try this series!
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Re: The Cheating & Consolidating Method

Postby Serpent » Tue Jul 21, 2015 1:17 am

emk wrote:And for the scientifically-minded, I'll make some predictions: If a method provides no way to produce decipherable text, or if it offers no way to consolidate, then it's probably going to work poorly. And conversely most methods that fail to produce comprehension will do so because they neglect one or both steps.

This part caught my eye now that I saw this again... Makes me wonder about why textbooks can be quite good for reading, but materials with audio are far from enough for listening (apart from things like French in Action, GLOSS, Destinos, and only to some extent anyway).
Can it be that for reading, overlearning and repetition are enough for consolidation, but for listening you can extract far less from the same text, and it's more efficient to listen to more texts instead of overlearning? Basically that you can get more out of a written text than out of a corresponding audio, even with repetition, but somewhat counter-intuitively, this means you need *more* recordings and should go for the audio whenever possible, even if you'll get less out of each.
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Re: The Cheating & Consolidating Method

Postby emk » Tue Jul 21, 2015 10:54 am

Serpent wrote:Makes me wonder about why textbooks can be quite good for reading, but materials with audio are far from enough for listening (apart from things like French in Action, GLOSS, Destinos, and only to some extent anyway).
Can it be that for reading, overlearning and repetition are enough for consolidation, but for listening you can extract far less from the same text, and it's more efficient to listen to more texts instead of overlearning? Basically that you can get more out of a written text than out of a corresponding audio, even with repetition, but somewhat counter-intuitively, this means you need *more* recordings and should go for the audio whenever possible, even if you'll get less out of each.

That's a really interesting question!

Certainly, some audio-heavy resources work really well for many people: French in Action, Destinos, Assimil and subs2srs come to mind. On the other hand, I found news radio to be an incredibly inefficient use of my time around B1, and when I switched to TV, I starting making much faster progress. I can think of several things that might explain why some audio works, and some doesn't:

  • As a general rule, you need figure out audio at full speed. You can't easily stop and puzzle out a tricky sentence, or think about a vocabulary word. So with audio, there's less built-in "cheating" to give you a boost.
  • When audio comes with video, it seems to work a lot better. Well, it does require a fairly large volume of input—10 to 30 hours of a single series of videos seems to work well. But video provides many excellent opportunities for "cheating", by using the images to puzzle things out.
  • Overlearning audio seems to work best if it creates "earworms". Music is great for this, as are subs2srs cards.
So my guess is that perhaps audio works just fine, provided you either mine several hours of interesting audio with something like subs2srs or Assimil's method, or if you watch a few dozen hours of of video extensively. But you need to have some way to artificially boost your comprehension, and then repeat it enough to make it stick. And a lot of textbooks with CDs are pretty bad at that—they don't always offer enough audio, and it's not interesting enough to overlearn. Again, Assimil seems to work well, because there's lots of repetition built in.

Does any of this make sense in terms of your personal experiences? I know you make heavy use of audio (especially music and sports), and you get great results. So I'd be really interested to hear what you think.

(Honestly, somebody should license an awesome kid's TV show, and make a super-easy phone app inspired by subs2srs and Anki. It would be tons of fun, and it would probably work at least as well as the best courses and apps currently available. Watching TV by the 60 hour mark is a miracle, even if you're limited to just one show, and you only understand 50% of that. And yes, Sprachprofi's results with Japanese were more impressive than my results with Spanish.)
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Re: French: Fresh, fun & effortless media

Postby AlexTG » Tue Jul 21, 2015 11:28 am

emk wrote:On the other hand, I don't think the Green Arrow dub is a good as the Flash dub.

I've recently been watching the first season of Arrow in French and have found the dub pretty good, though I'm halfway though and the show itself has started to drag a lot imo. Before I started watching I checked around to see what the dub was like (googling the name of the show in English + "doublage") and French internet users overwhelmingly hated the dubbing of the second season onwards but liked the first season.
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Re: French: Fresh, fun & effortless media

Postby Mohave » Tue Jul 21, 2015 11:48 am

emk wrote:
Last week in French TV series

I'm also using to keep track of various French TV series. I've told tit which series interest me, and it says that it knows of 139 episodes that I can watch online using a VPN ("virtual private network") that allows my computer to connect directly to the French internet.


Found any cool stuff in French that you'd like to share?

Thanks for this suggestion! This took two minutes to set-up and now I always have fun things to watch in French!

Over on HTLAL, I asked for suggestions for streaming French movies. If your VPN has access to Australian servers, this is a wonderful suggestion by AlexTG.

AlexTG wrote:The Australian public broadcaster for ethnic minorities, SBS, has 133 French language movies and 58 Spanish language movies
streaming for free. But you'll need to use a region unblocker. They do have an IOS app.
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