Thursday, May 12, 2011

Penelope, Pezi, and puny songs and activities

My quest to find a fantastic educational DVD for preschoolers learning French continues to frustrate me. Some videos, like Brainy Baby French, are mediocre because of how generic and bland they are. Others, like Globe-Toddlers Adventures in France, are lively and show many aspects of French culture, but present lists of individual words that you can't really use to express anything meaningful in the second language.

French for Kids: The Fun and Easy Way to Learn French, from Language Tree, also disappointed me, but it wasn't dreadful, and Griffin watches it attentively. (This review is based on the "Beginner Level 1, Volume 1" DVD; so far only this one and volume 2 exist.)

The Language Tree website touts their Stanford-created, trademarked "Multi-Cognition Approach," which they see as innovative because it "stresses three proven learning techniques: 1) repetition, 2) deep processing and 3) information clustering." However, based on my experience using French with kids, I would argue that repeating phrases several times is not usually enough. (Of course, if your child watches this video several times a week, perhaps that does provide enough exposure to learn the expressions.) And the idea of "information clustering" makes a lot of sense to me--rather than tossing out long series of, say, nouns, for the children to memorize, this video limits the number of words and phrases introduced in each section and makes sure that they are logically connected to each other, like the names of some foods, polite ways to ask for or offer food, and how to express thanks.

I like that. And I truly like that this video presents conversations on a theme, doesn't translate them word-for-word into English, and then explicitly teaches phrases and sentences (not individual words). I also appreciate that each video that Language Tree publishes is unique to the language it teaches--so many of the language-learning videos (or programs like Rosetta Stone) out there use the same images and footage for all (or almost all) languages, changing only the narration and words on the screen. (Language Tree also offers Spanish, Chinese, Italian, and several others, each with a different child and a different pet, though apparently the same plot as the French version.) I'm not sure, however, that I would go so far as to agree with the company's claim that this is a "fun and natural" way to acquire a second language!

The "star" of the live-action French videos is Pénélope, a cute little girl who wakes up on her birthday morning to find Mr. Language Tree, a large man wearing a green sweatshirt with fabric leaves attached to it, in her bedroom. (A little creepy, perhaps, but he seems jolly and harmless.) Mr. Language Tree introduces each of the seven short scenes in English and then explains what the characters discussed in the scene.

Next, a smiling Pénélope repeats the key expressions from the scene while the English translation appears on screen. She is joined by her dog, Pezi (an animated character who wears a beret) in all of the scenes. (In the Spanish videos, the pet is a Chihuahua named Chiquita. I don't know if she wears a sombrero or not.)

The seven scenes in the 45-minute Volume 1 are the following:

1. Pénélope wakes up, greets us, asks us how we are feeling and what our names are, and tells us it's her birthday today.

2. She introduces us to her family who wish her happy birthday. Then Pezi dances stiltedly and sings an original song using the words for different family members ("Bonjour, je m'appelle Pezi/Je suis le chien de Pénélope/Et voici ma famille/Ma mere, mon père/Ma soeur, mon frère.")

3. Pénélope's friends arrive for the party and her dad distributes balloons to each guest. Each child politely asks for a certain color and then thanks him. We hear the balloon color song next: "Qui veut un ballon/Je voudrais le vert/Je voudrais le bleu/Voici, le bleu pour toi/Merci, monsieur."

4. Party games! First the children have to point to different body parts, which prepares the viewers to watch them play Jacques a dit (Simon Says). The target vocabulary includes the words for hands, feet, and so forth, along with expressions like "Êtes-vous prêts?" and "Où est…?" and "Allez!" This scene is accompanied by perhaps the lamest song of the video, "Mon corps," which includes scintillating lyrics like "Ma tête est là/Mon nez est là/Ma bouche est là/Mes yeux sont là."

5. The next scene finds the family and their guests at a table outside in the backyard. Her mother serves the food, asking each person what he or she wants to eat or drink, sometimes giving them a choice ("poulet ou jambon?" "du lait ou de l'eau?") Some guests politely ask her for what they want or to have something passed to them; others answer her questions; others inform us that they are hungry or thirsty. And everybody thanks her. (Pezi watches but doesn't sing this time.)

6. After the meal comes the dessert! Maman distributes slices of cake, counting each one. The song is "Compter c'est chouette" (counting is cool). (My favorite French counting song is one I found on a Beausoleil CD for kids; it's to the tune of the Alphabet song: "1, 2, 3, 4, 5 et 6, 7 et 8 et 9 et 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 et 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20/Je peux épeler et compter/Dites-moi ce que vous en pensez." Now that's chouette!)

7. Finally, Pénélope opens her presents, which allows us to learn some words for toys and clothes. (Surprisingly, this ten-year-old girl is thrilled to receive a box of blocks.) She thanks everyone, tells them how much she likes the gift, and asks if they want to play with her.

Can you tell I'm not impressed by the songs?! The promotional materials refer to them as "lively sing-alongs," but each verse is only repeated once and they're not that catchy.

More disappointing than the songs, at least to this former teacher, are the "interactive" and "playful" games. These four exercises are interactive in the sense that the viewer uses the remote control to select the correct true/false or multiple choice answer. The former provide a French expression and an accompanying English translation; the viewer must decide if the translation is correct or not. There's nothing natural about these exercises! And they just confused my three-year-old: when an authoritative voice on the television screen says "Does 'Comment t'appelles-tu?' mean 'How are you?'", he's inclined to agree.

In the other type of exercise, we see and hear the name of an object and then have to choose a picture of it (out of four), again using the remote control. Not thrilling, but at least it doesn't require children to translate, and kids older than mine will probably be more skilled at pressing buttons on the remote.

I didn't intend to be snarky in this review (at least not too much), but it's just that I have high standards for my own teaching, and if I'm spending $25 on an educational DVD, I want it to be stimulating and creative but not cheesy while introducing useful expressions in a communicative context that doesn't rely on translations! So far, I haven't found it. (And I'm well aware that a video in no way replaces actually teaching your child something yourself.)

But while I won't be purchasing Volume 2 of this one, I will check to see if my library carries it.  (Besides, I need to find more chansons to make fun of!)


  1. These are probably not primarily aimed at small children, but you might want to take a look at the old Marc Favreau Parlez-Moi videos on YouTube. They star a hobo-clown; the skits are in French, with significant physical comedy. The skit is first presented in parts, with this structure: an aural English explanation of the key phrases in that part explained my M. Favreau's talking head before each segment; the segment of the skit; the words printed on the screen with M. Favreau's voiceover of the phrase and its translation. After the skit has been presented in three parts, the complete skit is shown so one can appreciate the content as once piece.

    Be warned, of course, that as physical comedy, it does not model the most socially acceptable way to handle the presented situations. :-)