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Assimil is a dialogue based learning course popular amongst language learners. This is clearly illustrated by the 4+ star reviews on Amazon for the majority of the available courses.
Assimil has a range of courses available in a variety of languages, but is geared primarily towards French speakers. Dubbed “The Magic Books” by NPR, Assimil is quickly approaching both 100 years of language teaching, and 100 languages in their catalog of courses.
What is Assimil?
Assimil, a French company, was created by Alphonse Chérel in 1929. It publishes several different series, their most popular being Sans Peine or With Ease.
The Assimil Sans Peine courses are a combination of dialogue-based texts and audio where you learn by working through passive and active stages. In the passive stage you complete the lessons by reading and listening. While in the active stage you not only listen to and read the lessons, but attempt to translate the dialogues on your own.
Compared to the apps and podcasts that many learners use these days, Assimil arguably offers an “old fashioned” approach. The method hasn’t changed much since its original release in the 1920's. So is it still a relevant learning tool?
In the past, I have used Assimil to study languages I already had a foundation in – Chinese and Croatian. So for this review I decided to take on the challenge of studying a language in which I was a beginner: Korean.
Assimil’s Korean courses are only available in French, so I choose to work through Assimil Coréen Sans Peine to see how I would do.
Before I started using Coréen Sans Peine, I’d categorise myself as a “false beginner”. I had dabbled in the language, but my Korean reading was precarious at best, my vocabulary extremely limited and my understanding of grammar non-existent.
Having completed the course, here are my thoughts.
Assimil Korean with Ease: Getting Started
Each course in Assimil’s Sans Peine series includes both a book and four audio CDs (and/or an MP3 disc or USB key). The courses are available in 148 language combinations, although only 16 of these are for English speakers while 49 are for French speakers.
I really like that both the audio and book are available as a complete package, especially because the audio is directly related to the text. What’s more, I like that the audio is to the point. There aren’t any fancy introductions or extra banter from the speakers that you have to endure to get to the real “meat” of the program.
Assimil’s Sans Peine courses are created with beginners in mind, and it’s very easy to get started. Each book includes a thorough introduction to the language with tips on pronunciation, the writing system if there is one, and general features of the language. Following the introduction, the course dives right in.
For languages with different writing systems, such as Chinese, Japanese or Korean, transliterations are included in Assimil’s courses. While I could have slowly worked my way through Korean texts, I really appreciated having the transliteration printed below the dialogues so that I could focus on speaking and listening comprehension, rather than my reading skills. Plus, the accompanying audio offers you the chance to hear how the words sound so you don’t feel like you’re guessing.
Each chapter includes a brief dialogue (although these grow longer as you progress) and notes on content. There are also exercises that give you the opportunity to use the material you’ve learned. Together with the translation that conveys the meaning of the text, a literal translation is included so that you get a feel for word order and vocabulary without needing vocabulary lists or grammar exercises.
The lessons intentionally avoid going into great depth on grammar, instead offering a collection of simple dialogues with detailed footnotes on rules as they appear as well as notes on the culture tied to the language.
How I Used Assimil
I personally work through the lessons, reading the dialogues out loud before shadowing them once more along with the audio. The way that I use the course, the active stage starts when I repeat the lessons with the audio alone to see how much I’ve really mastered. I can then go back and review what I need with the text. I also like to try out what I’m learning as a part of language exchanges.
This approach works well for my learning style, but I could understand why other learners might not be a fan of the series. For me, the process ensures that the material I’m learning really sticks, but others might find it tedious.
The strengths of the Assimil method definitely lie in the way it offers context for what it teaches rather than word lists or grammar exercises isolated from how the language functions in day-to-day life.
Most lessons can be completed in around an hour, so they are a manageable length.
Assimil with Ease Review: What Did I Learn?
Assimil Korean includes practical and relevant phrases and vocabulary for real world situations.
Through the course, I learned words and phrases that were incredibly useful and applicable to daily conversations. These included:
- I almost forgot!
- What genre of books do you read most?
- What time do you get off work?
- There was nothing to eat in the fridge, so I went out to the restaurant across the way.
- What kind of food do you like?
I really like that Assimil jumps right in and skips the laborious introductions that span several chapters in other courses. My only criticism is that you are not equipped with everything you need to give a full introduction to someone you’ve just met. While I don’t need to know how to describe my entire extended family, it would be nice to get a bit more content for introducing myself, my hobbies, and my preferences.
One thing that’s really great about the series is that the dialogues vary from language to language so that they’re more culturally and geographically relevant to the language that the book teaches. But this also means that depending on the learner and depending on the language, the usefulness of the material in the books really varies. Compared to other With Ease books, the Korean course did seem much more travel/business orientated, but there was enough additional content (karaoke, seasons, food, jokes) that this didn’t deter me much.
Overall, the language in the texts is relatively formal. Personally, I prefer this. I would rather be overly formal than rudely informal. Especially with a language like Korean where honorifics are important.
What Level Can You Reach With Assimil?
Assimil claim that their Sans Peine series will take learners to the B2 level according to the CEFR scale and that their Perfectionnement series will get you to the C1 level. I’m not entirely sure how accurate this is because while you may work with material that ranges from the A1 to B2 or C1 level, there are gaps that would need to be filled with the help of other resources. In terms of vocabulary, it was not as thorough as I would like from a course that works through so many levels.
For most learners, this is fine because relying on just one course or learning tool to teach you a language is never a good strategy, but it could be deceiving for those expecting an all-in-one language resource.
I will say this: Because the Sans Peine course gets to B2 level in about 71 lessons, they quickly grow challenging. The course also covers quite a bit of grammar, but it’s done in a way that isn’t overwhelming. You’re introduced to different grammar concepts on an as-needed basis.
For the same reason, the course isn’t for someone who hasn’t had any prior exposure to the language. It’s a bit difficult to pick up without any experience in your target language. But it’s fantastic for those with a basic vocabulary.
What Could be Better about Assimil?
I did have some issues with the Assimil approach.
The introductions and basic pleasantries were not as in-depth as I would have expected for a course aimed at beginners. There are some phrases that fall into this category, but the course quickly shifts into situational and culture-related dialogues. While these are useful later down the line, I thought that just two short chapters on introductions weren’t quite enough. At the same time, however, this is something you can easily find in any other resource, so it’s not a huge strike against Assimil.
The one thing that I would really love to see added to the series would be additional relevant phrases at the end of each chapter. These could be phrases that might fit into the example dialogue and they would serve two beneficial purposes. One, you could role play and swap out some of the phrases so you really get to maximise the dialogues in the book. And two, you get additional vocabulary and phrases suitable to the theme of each chapter without having to figure out the grammar to piece them together yourself.
My biggest complaint was about the audio. Most computers no longer have a disc drive built in, so I had limited listening options. Fortunately, there is now an option to purchase the course with a USB key with the audio.
In addition, I wasn’t a huge fan of the transliterations for the language in the book, but only because it was different from what I’m used to. There really isn’t a standard for Korean, so it’s hard to penalize them for this. Plus, since I wasn’t that great at reading Korean, it was helpful to have this available to me.
Finally, the selection of Assimil courses available to English speakers is relatively small in comparison to their overall catalogue. If you don’t speak French, your options with Assimil are limited. This also makes accessibility outside of Europe somewhat difficult (or more expensive). If you do speak French (or another continental European language), however, Assimil is an excellent resource to work on laddering.
Assimil Review: Did I Actually Remember What I Learned?
Because it’s a traditional coursebook, Assimil really doesn’t have a way to keep you accountable. It’s up to you as the learner to monitor your progress – there are no leaderboards, progress bars, or points awarded for working through the material.
That said, the lessons are short and easily digestible, so there’s not anything to keep you from continuing through the lessons on a regular basis. The only critique I had is that you do have to find the time to sit down and concentrate on the lessons, which is different from some of the other resources available that are more portable.
If you don’t have the time to really sit down and study, you can always just work with the audio to see how your listening comprehension fares.
I really enjoy Assimil’s approach. It was just challenging enough to hold my attention and the time it takes to complete the lessons is just right. I also like the extra cultural tidbits and language facts they add in the endnotes. It gives me a nice break from actual language learning but still keeps me in the right mindset.
I was honest with myself as I completed the various exercises, working to find the answers on my own before double-checking the result against those provided. Because the lessons were so succinct, I found I ended up with just the right balance of right and wrong answers to keep me motivated (not so many that I grew frustrated but not so few that I became bored).
If you really want a way to track your progress, you can do so with the exercises at the end of each chapter. You can also check how you’re doing through the review sections, by how many lessons you’ve completed and by how much of the audio you understand without the help of the text.
The book contains review sections every six chapters. I was pleased with the frequency of these – neither too much nor too little. The course structure offers you the opportunity to work through the information in a variety of ways, so even though I didn’t retain everything I learned using the course, I was able to take away the things I was most likely to use in the future.
Assimil: The Verdict
The verdict: I would definitely use Assimil again in the future, but with the caveat of doing it my own way.
Assimil brought me from having an entirely shaky understanding of Korean to being able to confidently have short and direct exchanges in the language. I am definitely not at a B2 (or even B1) level, but I would say that I am somewhere in the vicinity of A2 and that I might hit B1 with another pass at the book and by more intensively working on the translations, or active phase of the book.
The Assimil method runs contrary to the Speak from Day 1 approach. It suggests that the learner take a passive learning approach for the first several chapters, then step into an active approach in the later chapters.
This means that you work through the beginning of the book by reading, listening, and completing the exercises. You’re then advised to go back during the active stage and work on translating the lessons. If you ignore these directions, however, and reading the dialogues from the first lesson, you can Speak from Day 1 with Assimil.
The great thing about a self-guided course is that it’s, well, self-guided. You can use it however you see fit and take as much time as you need with each section.
I will use Assimil again in the future – in fact, I’m already using it for Russian. While the content of every dialogue may not be useful for every learner, I like the context that it gives the language and I find this approach much more effective than that of some of the other available course books.
You can find Assimil Coréen Sans Peine on Amazon.
Other Assimil courses available for English speakers: