Average cost of the method: ~$50-70 for the Book + CDs Edition ($20 for the book only)
Available in: 10 languages offered for English speakers learning another language, and many more for French and other European language speakers.
Type of method: Dialogues with minor grammatical explanations in footnotes. Audio, entirely in the target language, is included.
Assimil is personally one of my favorite language learning methods, and it’s the favorite one of several well-known polyglots, including Luca Lampariello, who speaks nearly 12 languages fluently, and Robert Bigler, a professional translator and simultaneous interpreter from Austria who speaks around 10 languages.
Although Assimil is not that well-known in North America, it is an extremely popular method in Europe. While it’s probably not the cheapest alternative you can find out there among available language textbooks (roughly $50 to $70 for both the book and CDs), it’s still reasonably priced, and it’s an option seriously worth considering because of the quality and effectiveness of the method. So what is it, how do you use it, and why do I recommend it?
Assimil is a French company, and the series was created back in 1929 by Alphonse Chérel. The company publishes several different series, but their most widely published one is the “With Ease” series for beginners. This series enables beginners to acquire an average vocabulary of 2,000 to 3,000 words, learn the basic grammar rules, and gain a command of everyday conversation. The “With Ease Series” takes you to Level B2 [high-intermediate] of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages in a few months. The “Advanced” (or “Using”) series is aimed at more advanced learners, and teaches more advanced idiosyncrasies and idioms of the target language.
Assimil is available, on the whole, in more than 100 languages, although if you are a native English speaker you will only be able to purchase the books in 10 different languages. For an exhaustive list of the available languages, please visit this Wikipedia page.
How Does It Work?
Assimil is focused on learning whole sentences, for an organic learning of the grammar. It begins with a long passive phase of only reading and listening, and eventually adds active exercises. The “With Ease” series consist of a coursebook with 100 lessons on average (~4-6 pages/lesson), with the active phase starting on Lesson 50. The “Advanced” series is very similar, except that there is no “passive phase” as in the “With Ease” version. Each lesson includes a short dialogue, getting progressively longer throughout the book, written in the target language, together with a translation after each dialogue, as well as short exercises to test your comprehension.
You are recommended to spend as much time on each lesson as needed and to review them every once in a while. Generally speaking, though, going through one lesson should take you anywhere from one to three days. As you follow through the dialogues, you listen to the audio and read through. The audio does not contain any lengthy explanations in English; it is 100% in the target language.
The word “Assimil” comes from assimilation, and as such the method encourages learners to “assimilate” the language, similarly to how you assimilated your mother tongue when you were a child. It’s very intuitive, but at the same time there are helpful explanations about grammatical rules, idioms and other expressions in the footnotes. I’ve personally found this method to work surprisingly well. I’ve also had a few interviews with Luca Lampariello, an amazing language learner by any standards who speaks 12 languages to a level of fluency quite astonishing, and in Part 1 of our interview he says that this is the method he uses whenever possible to learn a new language. Besides all this, here are a few additional reasons I think this method deserves serious consideration:
- The strength of Assimil truly lies in the fact that you get to understand how the language works without any lengthy grammatical explanations. The grammatical concepts are presented at you through practical conversations, and you get to read short explanations about these concepts after having actually seen them used in actual conversations, which I think is really important. So if you are the type of person who has been traumatized by long verb tables and endless grammatical rules at school, this might be the exact fit for you. You’ll enjoy learning the language the fun way, without getting a headache.
- When it comes to the dialogues, they are usually very practical, and contain words and phrases that you are very likely to use from “Day 1” when starting to speak a language with actual human beings. Since the method also tries to use as little English as possible, it gets you to think in the foreign language as soon as possible.
- You learn words from context. Forget about long vocabulary lists to memorize. Assimil has no such thing. Every single word you learn comes from the actual dialogues. Therefore you learn sentences and patterns rather than words taken out of context, and I believe this is another one of Assimil’s strengths.
- The lessons are short enough to be studied within an hour (more or less), so they are easily digestible chunks of information. This makes it easier for you to divide your study time and to focus on one step at a time. Also, the passive phase (also known as “First Wave”), in which you only read and listen for the first 50 lessons, followed by the active phase (also known as “Second Wave”), in which exercises are added and reviews of previous lessons are encouraged, is a great idea that improves vocabulary retention and helps solidify learned concept and accelerate conversational fluency in the language.
Any downsides? Well, in fact, I’ve found this method surprisingly good and I haven’t found any major downsides to it. Nevertheless, here are a few minor things that I could point out:
- If you’re an English native speaker and you do not speak any Romance or Germanic languages fluently (such as French or German), you will only be able to purchase Assimil in 10 different languages (Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Russian, and Spanish). So the choices are somewhat limited, but if you’re looking to study any of the 10 languages listed here, then that’s not a problem.
- Although there are some black and white cartoons included in most lessons, there are no shiny colorful pictures. If you are the type of person who really enjoys pictures, diagrams, photos and other such things, you might be disappointed by Assimil on that side.
- The dialogues do not have names of people, they are only numbered. It can sometimes be confusing to follow the conversations as, often, 3 to 4 people are having a conversation, so at times you’re not sure who’s saying what. It really is not a big deal, honestly, but I thought I’d mention it anyway.
- Assimil is very popular in Europe, but still not that widespread in North America. This can pose some minor problems in terms of accessibility (i.e. where you can actually find and buy the books). Amazon does sell most of the Assimil series available for English speakers, though, so check it out if you are interested to purchase the method.
For additional screenshots of Assimil, click on any of the links below to see a picture: