Most helpful critical review
37 of 38 people found the following review helpful
Highly recommended, but with weaknesses
on 12 August 2012
I have read no other reviews before writing this.
There are quite a few things I would like to say about this book and, because many of them are negative, I should start by saying that, contrary to what it may later seem, I would highly recommend this reader for any beginners, or low to mid-level intermediate students of French. I could best describe my own level, when I bought this reader, as advanced beginner; I found it tremendously useful. It builds up one's vocabulary very well and it advances one's understanding of grammar. The first section is particularly clever by including one or two conversations between the students - Marc et Julie - which explain some principles of the language that beginners would find especially useful and which affords learning in two ways.
There is a vocabulary of key words in the right hand margin. This is a novel idea, and somewhat useful, but see my later comments on this. There is also a vocabulary at the end of the book. Each part is followed by a comprehension exercise.
This first section is rather "Janet and John" (remember them) and I found this a bit tedious, but I still learnt from it. There was a word on the very first page that I had not met before. However, this would be perfect for beginners.
The later articles are very interesting. The second section deals with French history from Vercingétorix to Jaques Chirac. Naturally, it is on a simplistic level - the history, not just the language which begins to get more challenging at this stage - but for someone most interested in English history, but knowing very little about French history, this was illuminating and allowed me to learn not only more French but some of the country's history and culture as well.
The final section includes four short stories from nineteenth century writers. I found this much more challenging, in parts, but less so than I had expected. I rather assumed this would be like a beginner in English reading Dickens, but it wasn't like that at all. However, I think the stories were edited a little, from the original, but, from what I could see, not radically; the main change, I think, being to remove the passé simple.
So what about the negative?
Firstly this book is written for Americans so if, like me, you find American English an irritant then you have to overcome this prejudice. Some of the translations need a bit of thought before you realise that the English equivalent given is actually American. To be honest, this is a nit-pick because there are not many words that present a problem in this way. However, it would be good to have an English version, but I quite accept that this would not be economical.
I am not entirely sure how a complete beginner would cope with this book. Unless they are a quick learner with lots of time to devote to their studies (perhaps a full time student for example), I think this will need to be regarded as a companion that they use over a long period of time. I work full time and have limited time to devote to my French. I also mix up my learning with different techniques. I spent only between half an hour and an hour each day, with some days missed, on this book and it took me nearly 4 months to complete it - including doing all the exercises and doing all the looking up and research on new words.
The marginal vocabulary is a bit random. I suppose it is impossible to decide what should go in this margin and what should be left out. Learners pick up words randomly and what one would have met another may never have seen. But I found many words in the margin that I already knew well, but equally some words in the text which I had never encountered which were not in the margin and, worse, not in the vocabulary at the back either. Sometimes a word I didn't know was not in the margin but, when the same word reappeared later on, it was in the margin. I felt the choices, sometimes, as to what was included and what was not, seemed to me slightly odd. You must not expect every word you do not know to be given and everyone will need a good dictionary or access to Word Reference to help them through.
I looked up every word in the margin in a good larger Oxford dictionary (the pocket sized dictionaries are not very good and I wouldn't recommend them) or, mostly, on Word Reference. I also had to look up many more words that were not in the margin. I recorded them all in my vocab book to help me learn them. I found that I more or less ignored the vocabulary at the back.
The gender of nouns is not given in the marginal word glossary. More often than not one can work out the gender from the text, but not always. It is important to learn nouns with the definite or indefinite article so that gender sticks and my own view is that this was one of the most serious shortfalls in the book. The gender is given in the vocabulary at the back but, as already stated, not all words are in this and, personally, I didn't use it as explained.
I also felt that the marginal vocabulary should have used the infinitive for verbs rather than merely quoting the form of the verb that appears in the text. If you only use a dictionary, especially a small one, this can prove a problem because verb forms will not appear.
Some of the translations were dubious as well and I felt sometimes gave the wrong sense to things. This is another reason why it is important to look up new words in a good dictionary or online so as to find alternatives and put the correct spin on what was written in the French, before you get to the stage of thinking in the language. It is surprising how small nuances can put such a different meaning on things and I truly felt that, on several occasions, the editors had made the wrong choice.
The comprehension exercises are useful but they require discipline. Much of the time it only requires rewriting what is in the text, but even this can be useful as a means of learning and getting words to stick. Once or twice I felt the questions were ambiguous and I found I had got the wrong end of the stick completely when I looked at the answer at the back; this was not because of a incorrect translation (although I did this too on a couple of occasions) but just because the question had no obvious answer. Mind you, I never liked English comprehension when I was at school!
So in conclusion I would say this is an excellent reader, highly recommended, provided you do not expect to have to rely on the vocabulary in the book, but instead prepare yourself for much looking up of words in a very good dictionary or online.