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ProfArguelles
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United States
foreignlanguageexper
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609 posts - 2100 votes 

 
 Message 1 of 278
18 January 2005 at 7:55pm | IP Logged 
I was truly astounded to read the negative overall review of Assimil in the program section of the FAQ and to see some other slighting comments about Assimil in various other postings. I firmly believe Assimil to be the very best method available and had imagined that all language lovers would concur that these handbooks were their best friends. I have purchased every single course they make for my personal language laboratory and unhesitatingly recommend them to any of my students who are serious about learning languages. I myself have attained some sort of genuine competence in several dozen languages, and most of the time an Assimil program was the cornerstone of my progress. I cannot help but believe that the negative utterances about Assimil stem from a failure to use the courses correctly rather than from an inherent weakness in the method.    

I assume that most people participating in this forum will be aware that it is important to figure out their own learning style and to take control of the learning process by modifying any program they use. The same is true of Assimil. The instructions provided at the beginning of each book are adequate, but you need to tailor them to suit you. How do I do this? First and foremost, I edit the tapes by getting rid of all the gaps so that I obtain at least two hours of solid and continuous narrative in the target language only. I then shadow this tape repeatedly until I begin to grow familiar with the pronunciation and intonation, and until I have figured out as much as I can of what is being said on my own. Then I turn to the book and shadow while reading the teaching language so that I understand globally what I have been saying. Slowly I switch to shadowing while reading the target language so that I learn to read it. Each day I go through the notes of several lessons to catch the fine points. When I have done them all, I then write or type out the target language lessons in their entirety, sometimes several times. In other words, I thoroughly internalize the contents of both books and tapes. I know that I am "done" when I can successfully "play" the advanced lessons through my brain while I am taking a shower. Depending on the difficulty of the lesson, I might have to listen to the tapes hundreds of times, and likewise repeatedly review the book. However, by taking a chunk of the language like this and peeling it layer by layer like an onion so that you come to ever greater understanding of how it works, this rarely grows boring, and when it does, I am advanced enough to move on. With "easy" languages, I can then generally cope fully with both texts and all sorts of conversation, with "difficult" languages I then go through systematic grammatical exercises and begin reading primers.

Example: I went through Assimil's Russian course (the excellent old one still available as Russisch ohne Muehe, not the dreadful replacement nouveau russe sans peine - one of the most classic examples of the deteriorating quality of language methods across the board) in this fashion and then worked through an exercise book before going to do a month-long homestay in St. Petersburg while I took private lessons each day. My Russian is far from perfect, but I can express my ideas on any topic and follow even more complex conversations, and I can and do enjoy reading Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky in the original with pleasure and understanding without needing frequent recourse to a dictionary. Russian was my first Slavic language and still the only one I have had the time to "master" to any degree, but to the degree that I have done so, I attribute my success to the excellent materials provided by Assimil.

In sum, I believe that serious language lovers who dismiss this series do so to their own very great loss, and I encourage them to experiment further with it. If anyone would like more tips on shadowing bilingual texts, I will be happy to provide them.
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administrator
Hexaglot
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 Message 2 of 278
19 January 2005 at 12:42am | IP Logged 
Thank you for your feedback Ardaschir, authoritative and exhaustive as usual!

The Assimil programs I saw are the ones sold in France and the US. I am not familiar with either the "old" ones nor with the German versions. If those are different, then we are not speaking about the same.

I think that a very experiences language learner like you can probably use material in a way that is far more efficient than somebody who tackles his second or third language. You seem to know exactly how to use the material, edit the tapes, listen to them many times. Perhaps that a raw beginner would just blindly follow the instructions on the tape, and then, I am not sure that the time he invests in this program will be as efficient as time invested with FSI for example.

But I think we must take your point that Assimil has courses that can be of great use to the language learner.

What do we need to look for when buying an Assimil course? What are the essential features that are found in some Assimil courses but lack in others?
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Malcolm
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 Message 3 of 278
19 January 2005 at 3:26pm | IP Logged 
I'm interested. Could you please provide more information about the method. Is it just a set of dialogs with a bilingual book, or are there grammar explanations as well? Is it only for French and German speakers? Thank you.
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Malcolm
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 Message 4 of 278
19 January 2005 at 3:36pm | IP Logged 
Also, if I want to learn French, should I get "New French with Ease" or should I track down a copy of the out of print "French with Ease". What's the difference between the two. Thanks.
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victor
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 Message 5 of 278
19 January 2005 at 6:18pm | IP Logged 
I'm interested too. But it seems like they put up a lot of advertising - usually that discourages me from using certain products like these.
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ProfArguelles
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foreignlanguageexper
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 Message 6 of 278
19 January 2005 at 11:17pm | IP Logged 
I'm very glad that I've stimulated interest in this method because again I have found it to be central in my own treading the path of the polyglot. I always wanted to become proficient in as many languages as I could, as well as I could, and to that end I did indeed study a large number in college and graduate school, but mainly older ones, and mainly in an academic way. Still, I collected all sorts of language learning books and methods, but they generally gathered dust on my shelves. Then I discovered Assimil and began working with their method, modifying it substantially, but not out of recognition. Thereafter I consciously devoted a decade of my life to language study, and as a result I have some real grounding in over a score of languages, and in almost all of them I built that competence up on a base of Assimil. It is not Assimil per se that is "the best method"; rather, it is the bilingual text format with recorded material in target language only that is the best method. Over the years I've found a few such methods from private publishers for various and sundry languages that do this wonderfully as well, and the Linguaphone method, as I wrote in another post, is essentially the same. However, Assimil offers it for more languages than any other (some 50+ now, I believe), and in a format that is more readily available, more easily accessible, and more pliant to adaptation if need be.

Here's some background. The method was developed by a polyglot named Alphonse Cherel something like 75 years ago. The company's site used to have some information about him, but last time I checked it was gone, so I am writing from perhaps faulty memory. Apparently he spent the early decades of the last century wandering from country to country studying language after language, returning home around 1930 with lots of experience in acquisition, which formed the base of this method. The method has now gone through three or four generations, but its essence has not changed, and the formula is applied universally to all languages: target language on the left hand page, translation on the facing right hand page, explanatory notes underneath, a summary review chapter every 7th lesson, all of this accompanied by recordings of the text of all lessons and (90% of the time) all exercises in the target language only with no teaching language, no music, no bells or anything else on the tapes. Once again, on the basis of my considerable experience, this is really the right recipe, though you nearly always have to add salt to taste.

The company has never and still does not provide any information about the authors of individual courses, nor does it provide publication dates, so it is hard to tell just how many generations there have been. I have prowled used and antiquarian bookshops on four continents, but I do not believe I have acquired any vintage (i.e., 1930's) edition yet. However, I certainly have copies of many languages from the 1950's on. A feature of the series has always been little cartoon drawings in each lesson, illustrative of a Gallic humor that is sometimes hard to grasp, and I largely base my dating of editions on a layman's feeling for the era of the artwork - perhaps an expert could tell more accurately. At any rate, the oldest ones all bear the uniform title of "le X sans peine," and apart from the artwork, they are identifiable by the following features: the author is generally either only A. Cherel or A. Cherel & F. Cherel (his wife? his son?), the books have a plain cloth cover, and the paper is generally somewhat yellowing by now. You can still really learn a lot from this "1st generation," but the material tends to be rather vapid given that you must review it repeatedly, and the accompanying recordings through the early 60's tend to use absurdly exaggerated actor's intonations. The "2nd generation," from the 1960's and 70's, is far and away the best. Courses from this era bear the same name, i.e., "le X sans peine," but they are different from or at least substantially revised versions of their predecessors. They have different authors, the books generally have glossy illustrated covers, their paper is still white, their content full, rich, and generally more intelligent, and, most importantly, the recordings are generally done at a natural speed with natural intonation and with no pauses. From the 80's on, alas, the quality of their methods has declined, just as the quality of all methods (I wrote this in another post - I don't understand it, I just observe it and lament it - we are all being dumbed-down to a shameful degree). Titles from this 3rd and current generation are now "le nouveau X sans peine" if there was a preceding version, though new languages in the series are still "le X sans peine." The material is generally not as intellectually stimulating as it used to be, there is much less content and far more (too many) explanatory notes, and, worst of all, the recordings tend to be done at an unnaturally slow pace with far too many gaps between sentences, especially in the exercises. Maybe these newer methods are better suited to contemporary beginners, but yes, more experienced learners would be advised to hunt down out of print versions as well.

Assimil is a French company so all the versions are originally in French, though most are subsequently translated into English, many into German, and fewer into Spanish, Italian, etc. For some reason the English market seems to get "the new X with ease" almost immediately, while there is a lag in the other markets. So, many of the older (2nd generation) versions are still available in German, while the inferior newer versions are foisted upon the francophone and anglophone communities. [Here I would like to enunciate my belief that would-be polyglots ought to consider postponing their study of other languages until they have "mastered" English, French, and German to the extent that they can use reference materials in all three. So much good stuff for anything else you might want to study is available in each one of them that it is a shame to be limited to any one or two.]

Although Assimil has traditionally offered only more common European languages, in the past years they have been offering more and more “exotic” tongues as well. Although these have the same deficits (i.e., slow recordings with gaps) as others of their generation, they are still generally far and away the best on the market.

Once you have a base in a language, Assimil also offers an “advanced” course in the main languages (English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian), and also in Dutch, and also in Swedish (although it is not marketed as such, merely as volume 2). All of these are heartily recommended as most exciting and culturally rich improvement courses! For anyone who might want to learn a language based on the existence of an excellent course for doing so, I feel that far and away the best Assimil ever was “el catalan sin esfuerzo” (you do have to know Spanish already to use it). “L’occitan sans peine” is wonderful as well, and the 60’s – 70’s era Russian course was also great; likewise, the Serbo-Croatian book that they offer is a real feast for the mind, and there is a total of full hour more recorded material than there is for most of their courses, but lamentably at what seems to be an unnatural pace throughout. All things considered, none of their offerings are “bad,” though I did find their “le nouveau russe sans peine” to be such a disappointing watering down of the earlier book that I gave it away, but perhaps I would not have objected had I not already been somewhat advanced in the language. From my perspective, the courses are not all that expensive, so if you can afford it and if you can find them, I would suggest that you get both the older and the newer versions as they complement each other.

I’m getting tired of writing just now, but if there is still interest, I will be happy to write more on adapting the use of the method later.

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manna
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Kyrgyzstan
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 Message 7 of 278
20 January 2005 at 4:12am | IP Logged 
Can I ask you to compare Assimil to Linguaphone. I'm ashamed to admit that I've never tried Assimil for any of the languages.

One point, however, is not being discussed here: motivation. If you're really motivated, there are many courses that can help you - some just make your life a bit easier. There's nothing a brilliant course can do to disinterested students... (which is in fact a big issue in classroom language teaching).
4 persons have voted this message useful



ProfArguelles
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foreignlanguageexper
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609 posts - 2100 votes 

 
 Message 8 of 278
20 January 2005 at 11:43am | IP Logged 
Manna, you are 100% correct: motivation is the single most important factor when it comes to success in language study. I believe someone with great motivation could succeed in getting somewhere under the worst circumstances, whereas someone without motivation, or with the wrong kind of motivation, will not get anywhere even with the best of methods.

The basic principles of Assimil and Linguagphone are the same: bilingual texts with narrative recordings in target language only. Howevever, Lingaphone has diverged more from this in recent years, and some of their most current offerings do have some exercises that might please those who like FSI type drills. As I wrote in my answer to the administrator's querry on Linguaphone, in the 1950's and 60's, Linguaphone was a would-be polyglot's dream, for the structure of ever single course was the same, i.e., the content of, e.g., lesson 13 was the same in Greek, Icelandic, Japanese, Finnish, etc., so that the study of any one method greatly facilitated the study of any other. Sadly, they have totally deaparted from this stucture since then, though happily many of these older courses are still available. The biggest difference between the two is that Assimil provides everything in a single book, whereas Linguaphone divides the material (target language, translations, notes, exercises, vocabulary, etc.) into so many different books. Beyond this, Lingaphone courses tend to be somewhat dry, whereas Assimil courses try to be humorous. Also, Lingaphone is somewhat more inclinded to produce entire courses with recorded materials at unnaturally slow speeds than is Assimil. Finally, Lingaphone is considerably more expensive than Assimil. That said, both courses for any given language will almost certainly be helpful for would-be learners. All in all, I rank Assimil number one and Linguaphone number two, though for certain language (i.e., Arabic), the reverse is true. If you have access to them and can afford them, invest in both.


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