I have been butchering… er, ahem, LEARNING Vietnamese for a little over two weeks now. I won’t belabor the facts about how difficult Vietnamese is. (Did I mention the 6 tones?) Rather, I am quite pleased with how much I feel I have accomplished in such little time! Not that my abilities in Vietnamese are much better at this point than a Vietnamese one year old, but I’m am nonetheless pleased. I’d like to give most of the credit for this to the Assimil method.Assimil is a French company founded by Alphonse Chérel in 1929. The courses he created carried titles along the lines of “With Ease” ,” Without Toil”, “Sans Peine”, “Senza Sforzo”, “Sin Esfuerzo” etc. His goal was to make language learning just that, “without toil”!
The Assimil courses contain anywhere from 60-120 lessons in a course (sadly, Vietnamese has only 63…) The native language is printed on the even pages and the the target language is printed on the odd. This makes it easy to cover up one side and translate back and forth without peeking. Each lesson consists of 10 line, brief, recorded conversations which teach the language in context (not lists of isolated vocabulary words). There are also some scant exercises and fill-in-the blank drills at the conclusion of each unit. I am told the conversations are intentionally composed such that they are authentic and colloquial. A woman who completed the French course told me that in France people were quite surprised with the authenticity of her French. She said several people commented “ Wow! You actually speak French like we do!” …and we all know how liberally the French compliment foreigners attempting to speak their language!
Here is the real beauty of the Assimil approach. Each unit should take only 20-30 minutes a day to complete. The following day, one simply moves on to the next unit. Alphonse Chérel called this the PASSIVE phase of learning. “With ease”, one just listens and repeats. The brain gradually begins to ASSIMILATE the language so it becomes automatic (Get it? Assimil – ate?). Later, after 50 units or so, the student is encouraged to go back to the first unit and begin to translate the dialogues from the native language back to the target language. This is the ACTIVE phase and is said to cement the dialogues back in one’s mind after several weeks away from them.
I had never done a full Assimil course before so I figured I had nothing to lose trying the course for Vietnamese. After about 10 lessons, I felt totally lost. “Shouldn’t I be doing something more? Shouldn’t I be making vocabulary lists and translating sentences every night? What if I forget today’s vocabulary? How on earth can I move on to the next unit tomorrow if I haven’t totally mastered today’s yet?!?” I reached out with my concerns to several Assimil veterans and they essentially told me to just chill out. They said it isn’t called “Without Toil” for nothing and to just keep doing my daily regimen. One suggested that if I was so worried, I should go back to the previous week’s units and go through them all. He said I would be amazed with how easy they would be; he was right! What seemed near impossible a week ago was pretty easy on review. Maybe there is something to the method and its existence (nearly unchanged) for almost 90 years!
The only issue for me is that Assimil’s Le Vietnamien Sans Peine is only available in French. I have never studied French so I’m learning a language I don’t know, through a language that I don’t know. Luckily, written French is close enough to languages I DO know (Spanish, Portuguese and Italian) that I can figure out about 98% of what is written in French. For the remaining 2%, hellloooooo Google Translate
! I may have more problems as the conversations get more complex, but for now I’m making it work. An unintentional, extra bonus is that my French is getting a heck of a lot better!
These are my conversations that I learned this week… translated from Vietnamese… and French into English …
Bai Thu Tam
Are you still hungry?
Not any more. I’m not hungry any more.
Me, I’m really hungry!
Let’s go and eat!
OK, but where?
Nearby, at a Vietnamese restaurant.
You have eaten there before?
Yeah before, many times before.
Well then, lets go.
Bai Thu Chin
This is my new house.
How Beautiful! Your house, how many meters (big) is it?
My house, it is 100 meters (big).
How big! In this house, how many rooms (are there)?
My house has seven rooms.
1 dining room, 2 salons (“meeting rooms”), and 4 bedrooms.
Your family, how many people are there?
My family has 3 people.
Me, my wife and my son.
Bai Thu Muoi
Excuse me sir, this square, what is it called?
It is Da Kao square.
We are looking for Tan Dinh market.
Please sir, will you show us the way? (show the road for us)
It’s easy! You two arrive at the crossroad…
afterwards, you two turn right.
Tan Dinh market…from the crossroad, is it far?
No, Tan Dinh market, can’t be more, from the crossroad… about 500m.
… it is in front of the church.
Thank you very much!Bai Thu Muoi Mot
Is your work nearby?
No, I work in the outskirts.
How far from here?
Well, from here, the outskirts are 30 km.
That’s far! Then, how do you get to work?
Well, by bike!
I can’t believe that! Are you telling the truth?
It’s the truth! I go by bike to arrive at the station…
then, I take the train (in order to) go to work!
Bai Thu Muoi Hai
It’s beautiful weather today.
Let’s go out!
OK, but where to?
Would you like to go to the zoo?
A zoo? What is that?
It has plants, animals, people…
Are there a lot of people?
Today is Sunday, the zoo is crowded!
Well then, I’m not going …
I’m very afraid of crowds!
On to next week and 7 more lessons!