September 22, 2013 | Review Period
I am now venturing into uncharted language-learning territory.
In the wee hours of this morning, I began using Assimil, which bills itself as “Europe’s top language learning method.” I liked it. I liked it quite a lot.
What I Started Reading Around Midnight Last Night
Assimil is a French company with more than 80 years of language-learning publishing history. One of the cool things about them is that they offer language products with a number of different base languages.
To clarify, if you go to their website (either the English or the French version), you will see a drop-down menu on the right-hand side where you can pick a starting language, meaning the language that the explanations are given in. Usually that will be your native language, but if you’ve acquired others, you have the luxury of more choices.
For example, say you pick English; in that case, there will be 10 foreign languages available to you to study. Pas mal!
But if you are fortunate enough to speak French already, well then, all hell can break loose. There are roughly 80 options for French as a base language, including, I am noticing to my chagrin right now, Yiddish. That would have come in handy a couple of months ago.
If you know German, then you are still way ahead of the English speakers, with a total of 24 languages to study, including Swedish and Vietnamese. Or you could study Hebrew in Hungarian, Arabic in Dutch, English in Portuguese, French in Turkish, German in Russian, and much, much more.
Suddenly I am feeling very, very, very greedy. This is way better than a giant sushi platter followed by a pint of Häagen Dazs.
I will now force myself to concentrate and return to my experience of last night. I was a little bit surprised by my immediately positive reaction to my Assimil book—which is called Using French and is part of the advanced series—because I did not initially care for the layout. Although I love the book’s diminutive size, diminutive sizes often affect the size of the text contained within, and this is no exception. The font is pretty cramped and small, and I have trouble coping with certain aesthetic challenges. I mean, I spend a lot of time on this stuff, so small problems are often magnified for me.
The Brooklyn Book Festival Today
Another issue, which I am sure will strike some as petty: the paper used in the book and my pencil are incompatible. For some reason, my Pentel Twist-Erase mechanical pencil does not move with total ease along the Assimil pages.
These two things would normally irritate me—language-learning is a physical experience, after all!—but I barely noticed them.
The print quality is high enough that I can read it despite its sometimes tiny size. And any gripes about that or my pencil-related ease of use were quickly overshadowed by the intelligence of the text.
In the black of night, I read the opening French dialogue, a clever and philosophical one, and I said to myself, “Oh! So that’s why I don’t like many of the language books that rely heavily on dialogues!”
The issue is not, it turns out, that I have an inherent dislike of dialogues; the problem is that the dialogues are normally boring. This wasn’t!
I was floored to see a complete English translation right next to the dialogue. I cannot remember seeing such a thing in a language book. I know there are dual-language books (Dover Publications has some, for example), but don’t think I’ve ever seen full-on translations given in a language-learning text, especially not an advanced one.
What about all the cheaters out there? The ones who give up on a foreign tongue at the slightest hint of trouble? Will they learn or will their eyes be drawn irresistibly over to the right, where the English resides?
Now for me translations are great. I love translations. I don’t read them except to look for the words I don’t know. Therefore, translations are not a cost to my learning, but rather a benefit, because they really speed up my reading process by preventing me from needing to run to dictionaries for critical vocabulary.
They are quite frankly a relief and a frustration reducer.
Midtown Manhattan and Central Park, from a Conference Room I Taught in This Week
After I finished reading my engaging Assimil dialogue, the next thing I had to do was translate some French sentences, grounded in what had been presented in the dialogue, into English. Normally I hate that kind of thing, because usually I have just read a dialogue that I dislike and want nothing more to do with. This time it was fine. The choices for translation also happened to be good ones, useful for me and in my opinion very smartly chosen.
Then I had to fill in blanks in some French sentences, guided by English translations below. This was extra good, because the sentences involved idioms and constructions that are tricky for non-native speakers of French.
This French book contains so much more English than I am accustomed to seeing. This is not an immersion approach. It is very efficient for me, but I am surprised.
Today I did a couple more sets of dialogues and exercises and was similarly pleased.
What I am missing, though, is the sound! There are audio files that go with this book, and I don’t have them! I want them! I am investigating!
I also want to study some of these foreign languages in languages other than English, and I haven’t yet received those in the mail! More investigation needed. My life is one long series of language-learning crises; waiting for a new language book to arrive is hard. Much mail-checking occurs. The guys in the mailroom see quite a lot of me.
Looking at the Assimil site, I find my mind reeling at how much language could be studied!