September 22, 2013 | Review Period

Assimil Underway!

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

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

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

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!

Comments (9)

Charles • Posted on Wed, September 25, 2013 - 12:14 am EST

I’m happy you found Assimil.  I like them very much.  The nice thing about the audio is that it is only in the target language.  So you get a lot of listening practice.

I know you’re keen—for good reason—to get copies of the books from the publishers, but if you do find that you need to buy an Assimil course, I strongly recommend using Schoenhof’s in Cambridge, MA.  They are the US distributor for Assimil so the prices are much lower than if you ordered from France and their website often has sales.

Shannon • Posted on Wed, September 25, 2013 - 11:38 am EST

Very happy to read your review of Assimil - it’s something I’ve been considering for a while now, but this post convinced me. I’m also absolutely elated to have stumbled across your blog. Can’t wait to start digging through your posts and reviews.

Kris L. • Posted on Sun, September 29, 2013 - 3:22 pm EST

I still love Pimsleur all the way!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, October 05, 2013 - 9:43 pm EST

Charles, I love Schoenhof’s! That was my bookstore for all my language classes in college! Fortunately, the Assimil materials have now arrived and I am all set for the foreseeable future.

I’m hoping to make a field trip to Schoenhof’s next time I am in Boston. In the meantime, for those who are interested, here is a brief review:

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, October 05, 2013 - 9:51 pm EST

Shannon, thank you so much for your nice post. I would love to hear what you end up thinking of Assimil!

Kris, I hear ya. I have done 29 Pimsleur lessons over the past three days (the majority of them lessons I had already done at least once in the past), and I swear on a stack of foreign-language dictionaries, nothing installs or resuscitates language skills in my brain faster. Pimsleur is a genius product.

Shannon K. • Posted on Thu, October 10, 2013 - 6:35 pm EST

Just saw your reply to my comment! I haven’t yet purchased Assimil, but it is definitely on my list. The book I wanted wasn’t available the last time I checked (which was a while ago), but it seems there is now a new edition (hooray). I think I have my next wishlist item!

Chris Fisanick • Posted on Thu, October 31, 2013 - 12:37 pm EST

I love the Assimil books too.  I first heard about them on CSPAN in a lecture by the great linguist John McWhorter.  For some reason, Assimil isn’t well known here in North America That’s a shame.  I have both the New French with Ease and Using French, and they are excellent because starting from ground zero, they make you feel really comfortable hearing and reading a new language.  I’m a grammar person too and if I may make another recommendation, I highly recommend the Hugo series, such French in 3 Months and the Advanced book.  You’ll have to shop around because they are UK imports. (It took months for me to receive them.)  I used them after the Assimil series, and I have not found a better laid out, more logically presented, clearer description of grammar anywhere. Following their instructions, I’m not sure that by studying an hour a day for 12 weeks you can become proficient in the language, but you will get an excellent grounding in the grammar. If you like exercises, their grammar exercise aren’t just fill-in-the-blank like Assimil.  They are very challenging.  (For example, add a half hour to 8 heures 20 and give the time.  Or change all familiar instances of “tu” in the dialogue to the formal “vous.”)

Simone • Posted on Wed, January 08, 2014 - 11:26 pm EST

Hello Ellen, I enjoy your blog! I was pleased to see that you were trying out Assimil. After starting Portuguese with Pimsleur, I got my hands on Assimil in mid-November. I hope you try learning another language from the French. For me it has been interesting and fun to do so. With two Romance languages it is intuitive and helpful. It also seems to be improving my French! I’m half-way through and some days, like today, I learn vocabulary in both languages. Today’s word was “clutch”. I drive an automatic ;-) I don’t have the audio (it was too expensive for me) but with Pimsleur and some native speakers around, I feel like I’m doing fine. Next I hope to buy Assimil for German but I think I’ll get the English because it should be more intuitive. Then I want the advanced French course and the French grammar and orthography courses they offer. I learned French by ear mostly so that should be interesting. All that said, I agree with you that Pimsleur is brilliant. The length of the lesson corresponds to the length of my walk to work. When it isn’t too cold to walk, this is perfect. I have it in mind to get Pimsleur from some other languages that I wouldn’t study otherwise just because it’s so much fun and easy to work into my life.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Wed, January 08, 2014 - 11:35 pm EST

Thank you, Simone! I am definitely going to try more Assimil. I am behind on it right now, but have Portuguese and other languages (with a French base) to check out.

My addiction to Pimsleur is increasing rather than decreasing. I thought I might get sick of it at some point, but every language is a new adventure, even if I am learning how to say coffee, tea, water, and beer over and over again! It is so good for walks and commutes.

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