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Alphonse Chérel (*1882) founder Assimil

  Tags: France | Polyglot | Assimil
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emk
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 Message 1 of 4
21 March 2013 at 3:19am | IP Logged 
I recently tracked down and read My tailor is rich : Assimil, 80 ans d'histoire, which is an official history of Alphonse Chérel and his company, Assimil. The 10 first and last pages were marketing fluff, but I really enjoyed the rest of the book.



I don't have the time to quote long passages from the book, but I thought I'd pass along some highlights.

Alphonse Chérel was born in 1882. His father thought that Alphonse spent too much time studying languages and not enough time worrying about his career. But Alphonse found work as a private French tutor in England, where he quickly learned English. After that, he moved to Germany, Russia and Italy, typically spending several years in each country, teaching French and learning the local language. In Italy he did commercial work.

During World War I, Chérel worked as a translator and interpreter for the military. During a campaign in Greece, he was wounded, and wound up hospitalized. While he was delirious, he spoke quite a bit of German, which understandably made the military suspicious. However, when confronted with his excellent work as a translator, his superiors decided that he was not, in fact, a German spy.

After the war, Chérel decided he wanted to do something about teaching languages. Like a lot of polyglots here at HTLAL, he was frustrated with the available materials, and had strong opinions about how to do it right. The first version of Assimil was actually a calendar with one daily English lesson for French speakers. This later became a book, which even in its very first edition is recognizably an Assimil course.

Chérel's goal was to target language learners who had perhaps 30 minutes a day. He wanted to encourage them to study consistently (hence the daily format), and he wanted to give them some easy victories early on. This is apparently why he split the course into a passive and active wave. I mean, anybody can do the passive wave, right? You just read and listen. The active wave was delayed until it would be easy and comfortable.

Interestingly, the original goal of Assimil was always to get students to a basic conversational level. That's around high A2 or maybe B1 on the CEFRL scale, which is actually pretty realistic for Assimil even today. Sure, the marketing claims B2, but that was apparently never the goal.

Alphonse later married and took his young son to Portugal in hopes of turning him into a polyglot. It worked—Jean-Loup Chérel was the editor in chief of Assimil's books up until just a few years ago. Two generations of the Chérel family took Assimil through about 80 years.

During World War II, Alphonse lived in occupied France, and was actually dragged up in front of a German tribunal for satirical cartoons in Assimil's German course that mocked Hitler and other Nazi officials.

I was quite impressed by the story of Alphonse Chérel, as a polyglot, a teacher and an entrepreneur. And I have to admit that I ultimately owe him my French—I spent years occasionally trying to learn French before the Assimil passive wave seduced me, and it got me to the point where I could have a conversation and more-or-less read a book.

So here's thanks to one polygot who shared the gift of languages, and to a family business that's still going after 80 years.

Edited by Fasulye on 21 March 2013 at 8:29am

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Zarmutek
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 Message 2 of 4
21 March 2013 at 4:14am | IP Logged 
That's so awesome...I always wanted to know more about the history behind this guy and his company.
The German spy part was particularly funny. Thanks for sharing! Is this book available in English or is it
only in French?
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emk
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 Message 3 of 4
21 March 2013 at 4:56am | IP Logged 
Zarmutek wrote:
That's so awesome...I always wanted to know more about the history behind this guy and his company.
The German spy part was particularly funny. Thanks for sharing! Is this book available in English or is it only in French?


It's available in French, if you can find it. Unfortunately, it disappeared in the Assimil site reorg, as far as I can tell. It's very occasionally available through a 3rd-party seller on Amazon.fr.

It's interesting that Alphonse Chérel was a remarkably private polyglot. Not even his own extended family and two professional journalists could piece together more than a short biography. There were major incidents in his life, such as when he lost his leg in accident, that he almost never talked about.

What I'd really love to see is a scan of a lesson or two from the original Assimil "calendar" edition. The book contains readable photos of some very old Assimil courses, but not the calendar. I think that Assimil's short, daily lessons are an underappreciated part of what makes the courses work, especially for people like me who had no idea what they were doing. :-)
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Teango
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 Message 4 of 4
21 March 2013 at 6:23am | IP Logged 
Thanks for sharing some of the story of how Assimil got started and the inspiring man behind it! I agree that setting "easy victories early on" and establishing a workable daily habit of language study is the way to go. I'll be sure to keep a lookout for a French copy, as well as those original satirical cartoons.

Edited by Teango on 21 March 2013 at 6:49am



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