Linguistics

The Assimil Language Method: Some Thoughts

Recently, a reader asked me whether I had heard of the Assimil method, and whether I’d recommend it or not. I had never really looked into them, and now that I’ve done a bit of research, I can comment a bit.

The Assimil books/CDs are a fascinating series from a French company. They present texts of steadily increasing difficulty, typically with translations on the opposite page and grammar notes afterwards to explain any new grammar concepts. The texts are, by all reports I’ve seen, excellent. They get really good writers for them, and they tend to be funny and interesting. They often use dialogues, and have professional voice actors reading these texts on their CDs/tapes. The idea is that if you spend 30 minutes a day casually reading these texts and listening to the CDs, your language skills will gradually improve, and you should get to decent proficiency within 6 months.

There are 4 main editions of them (they’ve been available since the 1950s), and they come in all sorts of language pairings (the earliest ones tend to be target language + French translations, and then they start broadening out into Target+German, Target+English, etc). The older ones seem to have a bit better content, and contain fewer exercises (which I’ll discuss next), and the newer ones tend to have CDs or mp3s instead of tapes, which makes them much more accessible for most people.

The exercises in the newer books seem to be either reworked vocabulary from the texts (same vocab, new sentences), with the goal of translating it into English, or Fill in the blank texts with English translations of the sentence you’re trying to make.

The Assimil books/CDs are a fascinating series from a French company. They present texts of steadily increasing difficulty, typically with translations on the opposite page and grammar notes afterwards to explain any new grammar concepts. The texts are, by all reports I’ve seen, excellent.

Here are some pros and cons:

  • Getting access to well designed, interesting texts with recordings that start simple and gradually introduce more and more grammar and vocabulary is an absolutely wonderful (and extremely hard to find) resource. I’m tempted to find a Russian Assimil course for my own use.
  • Having the English translation next to you all the time is something that is both useful and dangerous.  If you’re new to the language and have no idea what’s going on in a given sentence, then having an English translation is going to save you a lot of time.  Also, because the translations are sentence-by-sentence rather than word-by-word (except in some of the more difficult languages like Chinese and Japanese, where they give you both word-by-word and full sentence translations), I think there’s slightly less danger in making strong connections between target language words and their English equivalents (instead of connections between those words and their meanings [so connecting ‘il cane‘ with ‘dog‘ as opposed to ‘that animal with a tail that barks and chases cats‘).  However, the danger is there that you may come out of an Assimil book with a better sense of translating than really thinking in the language, depending upon how much you rely on the translations.  In my experience, when there’s a translation that’s right there in front of me, it gets very difficult not to look at it.  When I don’t have a translation, it’s more difficult, and that sense of difficulty is in fact the feeling of my brain wrestling with this new language and getting better at comprehending it.  I stop developing my reading comprehension skills when I just jump to the readily available translation.
  • The exercises are all translation based, and I don’t think you’ll get much of anything from them, except for some more examples of how the vocabulary you’ve learned can be used.  You can (and probably should) skip them.
  • The grammar is explained in little blurbs after the texts.  I think this is actually quite a good idea, although it’s not going to be very useful as a reference book, and if you really want to focus on the grammar and put it into your Anki deck, I think a real grammar book will help more for that.

Overall, I’m going to recommend them, because well written (and recorded!) texts like these are really valuable.  I’ll put the better reviewed ones up on the language pages and link to this post.  I think they’d make a good additional resource if you want a bit more material to work off of, and will help get beginning students reading earlier in the process.  Here’s how I think you should use them:

  • Cover up the translations (typically the pages on the right side) with a sheet of paper.
  • Read the texts and mark the words you can’t quite figure out.  Try to read them out loud, even while listening to the recordings.  Any time you’re surprised by the pronunciation, mark that word too for future review.
  • Now you can look at the translations, and put those key words you need into your Anki deck using either pictures or the example sentences straight from your Assimil book.  This will weaken the target language <–> English connection and strengthen the target language <–> meaning connection.  Here’s an example:

Modérateur: Bienvenue à notre soirée cinéma!  Aujourd’hui nous avons le plaisir d’accueillir l’acteur Alain Belon.  Merci d’être venu, Alain! Alain Belon: De rien!

Moderator: Welcome to movie night!  Today, we have the pleasure of welcoming the actor Alain Belon.  Thank you for coming, Alain! Alain Belon:  You’re welcome!

  • Let’s say you didn’t know the word accueillir (to welcome/receive, more or less).  This is a word that doesn’t lend itself to pictures very well.  On the front of the card, you could put accueillir, and on the back, you’d put the example sentence “Moderateur: Bienvenue à notre soirée cinéma!  Aujourd’hui nous avons le plaisir d’accueillir l’acteur Alain Belon.  Merci d’être venu, Alain!”  There’s enough context here (assuming you know most of the other words) to remind you what the word is, and since you’ve already read the story, you’ll remember it fairly well and won’t be surprised and lost when the example sentence comes up.
  • Ignore the exercises, or use them as additional sources of example sentences as discussed above with accueillir.
  • Ignore most of the instructions.  They tell you to read the book and then go back and translate the whole thing into English or back into the target language; most of you aren’t training to be translators.  You can learn a lot more from other uses of your time.

Those of you that have used the Assimil series, please feel free to add comments! Also, if you end up purchasing one, make sure it comes with the CDs.  For some reason, the prices on Amazon vary drastically – I’ve seen books range up to $195, which I don’t understand at all, since it appears that the same book with the same recordings also exists for a bit over $30.  I suspect that this has something to do with old, out of print versions, which are reputedly a bit better in terms of their content.  If anyone can shed some light on this, please comment.

On the language pages, I’ve tried to link the cheapest versions I can find that still have CDs (I think having access to the recordings is pretty important, especially for beginning students).  I’ve found copies on Amazon for German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic and Japanese.  Russian is reportedly available somewhere, but I can’t seem to find an English version anywhere.

Edit:  I got my hands on an old French version of the Russian Assimil books – these are awesome!  The texts are just great, and they build up in difficulty pretty comfortably.  It takes a bit of willpower to prevent yourself from looking over at the translation until you’re done and have tried to figure it out from context, but again, really awesome texts.  Very impressed.  Also, anyone who’s read La Cantatrice Chauve by Ionesco (Hilarious French absurdist play) is in for a real treat with the Assimil books, since it’s pretty directly based on the Assimil texts.

If you’d like to see a bit of the content and get some insights as to how the new versions differ from the old ones, check out Alexander Arguelles’ video review here.

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