e-Books versus Paper Books

When I began learning French in the 1990s, I carried around an arsenal of reference materials: a French-English dictionary, Le Petit Robert (a French dictionary), a Bescherelle (for verb conjugations), a notepad to store my personal vocabulary list, and a pencil and eraser for underlining and in-text note taking. Today, I can manage with just one: whatever Internet connected device I am carrying. At first glance, the resources of today seem better suited to supporting the language learner’s needs. Digital tools provide almost instant access to information that can help you understand another language. But, I’m not yet ready to abandon my printed references books.

Consider these two French classics: Guy de Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Émile Zola’s Germinal. Both were published in 1885. Both were part of literary realism, a movement that aimed at presenting the lives of everyday folk authentically. Both were on my reading list this spring. Bel-Ami was on my Kindle and Germinal in print.

Bel-Ami: the e-book
Bel-Ami tells the story of Georges Du Roy, a commoner who climbs the social hierarchy of 19th century Paris through the manipulation, sometimes complicity, of multiple bourgeois women. His audacious seduction makes him the paragon of a gigolo. Georges, nicknamed Bel-Ami, both irks you with his tactics and awes you with his success. The novel was a page-turner. Nearly every scene left me shocked and thinking “No he didn’t!” I curled up with the book every night before going to bed to see what Bel-Ami was going to do next. It took me about a month to finish the 394 page story.

Germinal: the paper book
Germinal tells the story of Étienne Lantier, an unemployed youth who finds community and a job in a mining village in northern France. Working under dire situations and extreme poverty, he leads the town in a violent strike against the mining company. Amid the turmoil, a love triangle between Étienne, the daughter of Etienne’s sponsor, and the daughter’s lover culminates in a somber scene when the three become trapped in the mine. Familiar with the story from Claudi Berri’s 1993 film adaptation, I was eager to read the book in French. The novel should be a page-turner. But, since starting the book in early May, I’ve only made it through four chapters of the 591 page story.

What’s taking so long?

My vocabulary gap. Many terms appearing in Bel-Ami and Germinal were specific to 19th century life, terms that I did not know. Sometimes the meaning of these words was new to me. For example, I quickly learned that une berline was a wagon used to transport coal from the bottom of a mine to the extraction pit. Other times, I needed to verify the form of a word, especially with verb tenses I never mastered (e.g., eussent, the third person plural past subjunctive form of ‘to have’). And I occasionally encountered a word usage that is new to me (e.g., crever can be used to say that a person died).

When I encountered an unfamiliar word, I turned to a dictionary for help. In reading Bel-Ami (the e-book), I simply touched a word to access multiple reference sources installed on my Kindle. In reading Germinal (the paper book), I had to move out of bed to get my dictionary, flip through the 2,000 page tome to find the word, and then read its entry until I found the appropriate definition. Where it took me less than a second to find the meaning of a word in Bel-Ami, it took me 30 seconds or more to look up a word in Germinal. Imagine going through that process for 10 words on every page across hundreds of pages…

But which approach is better?

You might say the digital version is better because I looked up more words in less time. That is, the size of words I encountered in one month with Bel-Ami is greater than the number of words I encountered in one month with Germinal. But, the depth of vocabulary knowledge with Germinal feels richer.

  • First, words like boisage and besonge are still floating in mind, although I haven’t picked up the book in days. So, the personal vocabulary I am developing in reading Germinal may endure longer than that of Bel-Ami.
  • Second, I am spending more time exploring new words in Germinal. Researchers have found that greater exposure, attention, manipulation, and time spent with a word leads to better learning of the word.
  • Third, the definitions in Le Petit Robert are just better than the dictionaries on my Kindle. With Le Petit Robert, I more easily identify multiword phrases and polysemous words with many definitions. The dictionary also includes authentic quotations that help me make sense of the word.

Instead of deciding which format is better, I say we harness the benefits of both digital and paper to improve the language learning experience. Here are just two ideas: (1) when a reader touches a word, the e-reader should interpret the entire sentence and make a more accurate predication of which meaning to assign to the word in that context and (2) add glosses to words the reader looked up before. If I look up voyou on page 3, underline it on all subsequent pages so I can focus on retaining that new word.

How would you improve the reading experience of second language learners?

Want to learn more about reference materials:

  • New General Service List: A list of the 2,800 high frequency English words that provide 90% coverage of general texts.
  • CNRTL: My favorite online language reference for French
  • Linguee.fr: My favorite online bilingual dictionary that includes many authentic examples of words used in context and their translations (available in several languages)

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