A Polyglot’s Review of the Assimil Series
Assimil is a language learning series that enjoys an almost cult-like following among certain language learners. I have used Assimil for two languages, Russian and Korean, and own a copy of Assimil for Romanian, which I have not used. What do I think of Assimil?
A Brief Description of Assimil
Assimil was first founded in 1929 by Alphonse Cherél, a Frenchman. At the time, the philosophy behind Assimil – that learners could acquire a language mostly by listening to and reading interesting content – was new and innovative. Originally developed for French speakers learning English, Assimil now offers courses on a wide variety of languages for native speakers of a number of languages, as a visit to the Assimil website will show.
Each Assimil language course consists of 100 or so lessons. These are dialogues or simple stories that become progressively more difficult throughout the course. Whereas most starter courses, such as Teach Yourself or Colloquial, consist of 12 to 20 chapters covering scenarios such as shopping, going to the doctor, going through customs and the like, Assimil provides more content on a wider range of subjects.
Assimil is also unique among starter books in that it doesn’t offer vocabulary lists for each chapter, but rather gives the learner a complete translation of each lesson. There are also fewer grammar explanations and drills than most starter language courses. Assimil’s approach is to rely on the gradual “assimilation” of the language through listening and reading. Apparently Assimil does step up their exercises after 50 lessons, once the learner has absorbed more of the language. There are other theoretical underpinnings to this method, and interested readers will have to do their own research on that.
Assimil also offers cultural notes and comical illustrations throughout the course.
1. Interesting and graded content all in the target language: I am a believer in the importance of listening and reading, but the content needs to be interesting and within a range of difficulty acceptable to the learner. To the extent that the content of Assimil’s lessons are interesting, and graded for difficulty, this series will help learners acquire the language.
2. The sheer number of lessons: The large amount of listening and reading content is an advantage. I have never felt that learning how to shop or visit the doctor, staples of most starter language courses, were all that compelling as learning content.
3. The focus on content: I don’t do drills. I also find it difficult to understand or remember a lot of grammar explanations until I have absorbed a fair amount of content. Thus the focus on content, rather than on grammar explanations and drills, is an advantage of Assimil. In that regard, Assimil was a pioneer.
4. Audio only in target language: Assimil avoids the practice of many starter language series, where the audio is full of commentary and explanations in English, or the language of the learner. Commentary in English is probably helpful to many learners relying on listening in their car etc., but for someone like me who likes to listen and read, and to listen more than once at the early stages, it is an increasingly annoying distraction.
5. The variety of languages offered: If you are looking for language resources for less studied languages, you are likely to find a course from Assimil. The variety of languages offered is, I believe, unrivalled.
1. The cost: Typically Assimil courses cost between $50 and $70. This may be justified in terms of the amount of learning content offered, but it is a bit of an obstacle.
2. No vocabulary lists: I find having to refer to full translations of lessons to find the words that I don’t understand to be distracting. I much prefer to just look up those words that I don’t understand and thereby remain immersed in the target language.
3. Varying quality of content: I found the content for Russian interesting, engaging and humorous. The content in Assimil Korean was awful, just plain boring. Even though I had bought the series, I could not bring myself to listen to it.
4.Unattractive appearance: The font is usually quite small, and this is a problem when we are learning to read in a new language.
5. Frivolous comments: I found many of the cultural comments and attempts at humour a distraction, but that is personal.
Where Assimil fits in
Still just a starter course
Assimil is correct in its emphasis on content, and assimilating the language through input before producing output or doing exercises. However, as with most language courses, they over promise the learner what he or she will achieve. In fact, in order to progress in a language we need massive amounts of input, hours and hours of listening, and tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of words of reading. Assimil is still just starter course. It just gets you going on your journey.
For content to be compelling, eventually the learner has to seek out material that is of interest to him or her personally, and at a level of difficulty or uncertainty that each learner is prepared to accept. Not all of Assimil’s content is interesting, and to many learners the lessons increase in difficulty too quickly.
Some people want to challenge themselves with authentic content early, while others are better served using graded readers such as those produced by polyglot Olly Richards, or the wonderful 100 simple stories for Polish that I bought and used from Real Polish. There is a vast amount of content available on the Internet for learners to choose from. This means that Assimil, a pioneer in 1929, is now just another source of content, and a part of the long journey to fluency.
Online dictionaries and tools like Google Translate, text-to-speech and more provide services that facilitate independent learning from content that can be found online. This makes it easier to wander away from set courses like Assimil and explore the language. LingQ, where I do most of my language learning, takes advantage of this technology so that language learners can learn form content they have a real interest in.
Online grammar resources
I have found that I learn grammar best when I am curious about some aspect of the language. I can read an overview of the grammar of a new language, but little sticks. I need to go back again and again to specific issues. This might be conjugation tables, how prepositions work, word order, cases etc.
I find I can google for these resources when I feel the need, and in doing so, I usually uncover some great grammar resources on the web. The ability to I seek out the grammar explanations and tables that I am curious about rather than relying on what the course provides is, to me, more satisfying.
Language learning is a personal journey. Assimil has undoubted appeal to many learners. Some will use it as a complete course to take them to their goal. To some it is an enjoyable start on their journey. For others it is a complementary source of content, complementary to other listening and reading activities.
Assimil offers serious quality courses with an amazing variety of language combinations. While expensive, they do provide undoubted value. It is up to each learner to decide how much time and money to spend on Assimil as compared to other options.