Reading is an excellent way to make progress in a language, especially if what you’re reading is well-written, interesting, and not too difficult. It helps build vocabulary and creates familiarity with common expressions and normal patterns of phrasing. Fiction is especially good because it usually combines spoken dialog with narrative prose, which in many languages tend to differ from one another.
Unfortunately, reading a novel in a foreign language can be frustrating for a beginner. You constantly have to interrupt your reading to consult a dictionary. As a practical matter that usually means setting the book or magazine aside, searching for the words in question, and then finding your place again in whatever you were reading. This takes enough time that by the time you reach the end of a long sentence you may well have forgotten the meanings of the words at the start. Furthermore, you can’t just carry the book or magazine itself around with you; you have to cart along a dictionary as well.
Even worse, idiomatic expressions can remain baffling even after you’ve looked up all the individual words. (Consider how many non-native speakers of English are baffled, or even horrified, when an English-speaking waiter delivers a plate of food with the cheerful announcement, “There you are.”)
Ilya Frank, a Russian trained as a German language teacher, and who now operates his own foreign language school in Moscow, has introduced an interesting technique for adapting books to be read more easily by foreign language students. Since 2001 well over a hundred books have been published using his approach, so obviously it has proved reasonably popular in Russia.
Frank’s basic idea is to imbed the translations right in the text, so there’s no need to stop reading to consult a dictionary. Each sentence (or with longer sentences, each clause or phrase) is followed by a fairly literal translation. Where necessary, an additional, non-literal translation is included to clarify idioms. Then, after a few paragraphs presented that way, the same text is printed again without the translations, so the student can re-read the passage as a connected, flowing, uninterrupted whole.
Here’s an example of the Frank approach taken from the beginning of Edmond Privat’s 1909 novel Karlo:
Kiam naskiĝis Karlo, rozkolora kaj sana bubeto (when Karlo was born, a pink and healthy little baby), liaj gepatroj estis ankoraŭ tre junaj (his parents were still very young). Ilia unua infano li estis (he was their first child). Lia apero en tiu ĉi mondo (his appearance in this world) kaŭzis grandegan ĝojon en la tuta familio (caused great joy in the whole family). Filo! Vera vivanta knabeto! (A son! A real living little boy!) La junaj gesinjoroj Davis estis tre fieraj pri Karlo (the young Mr. and Mrs. Davis were very proud of Karlo) kaj ĝuis internan kaj trankvilan plezuron (and enjoyed an internal and tranquil pleasure).
Kiam naskiĝis Karlo, rozkolora kaj sana bubeto, liaj gepatroj estis ankoraŭ tre junaj. Ilia unua infano li estis. Lia apero en tiu ĉi mondo kaŭzis grandegan ĝojon en la tuta familio. Filo! Vera vivanta knabeto! La junaj gesinjoroj Davis estis tre fieraj pri Karlo kaj ĝuis internan kaj trankvilan plezuron.
As readers progress, they can start skipping ahead to the untranslated passages, looking back to the translated versions only as necessary.
The full text of Karlo adapted to the Frank method can be found on Lernu. There you’ll also find an introduction to Frank’s approach and an Esperanto translation of Pipi Longstocking adapted to the Frank method.
Incidentally, despite being aimed at students learning Esperanto, Karlo is widely regarded as one of the best original novels in the language (and not just for children). It can also be found online as straight prose and can be ordered from the Libroservo (KAR004, 47 pages, $2.90 plus shipping, less for members of Esperanto-USA).
A more detailed explanation of Ilya Frank’s ideas can be found on his website. For very specific and detailed advice aimed at translators preparing a text for the Frank method, see the page on book adaptation.
The Frank method is of course not entirely new. It shares a lot in common with the interlinear and facing-page translations that go back at least a century or two. (Google “interlinear translation” to see a number of examples.) Computer-based language instruction often allows you to click on an unfamiliar word to see an instant definition. (This is true of the reading matter in the library section of the Lernu website, for example.) But the Frank method differs from related approaches and may well have some advantages.
However tempting it might be to suppose that reading a novel might serve as a painless way to learn a language, it seems unlikely that the Frank method can stand by itself. For one thing, it offers no direct help in learning the spoken language. Even someone interested only in learning to read is likely to find it frustrating to dive in completely unprepared. I think Lernu is right to classify the Frank-method versions of Karlo and Pipi Ŝtrumpolonga among its intermediate courses. At a minimum, a student needs a basic knowledge of Esperanto’s alphabet, pronunciation, and grammar first. (True, it’s possible to read a language without being able to pronounce it, but it helps to be able to hear the words and sentences in one’s head, and besides, most students want to learn to speak.)
Fortunately, a reasonably enthusiastic student of Esperanto could tackle Karlo after only a few weeks (or even a few days) of study. Beginners won’t have much vocabulary, but that isn’t a big problem given Frank’s presentation of the text.
Ideally it would be nice to offer students Frank-method versions of short, entertaining novels in a variety of genres—mystery, fantasy, romance, adventure, comedy, realism, etc.—so they can pick whatever appeals to them.
For now, I’d be interested in hearing from people who have tried the Frank method for themselves or know someone else who has. How well does it work in practice?