My Crazy Multi-Lingual Day!

A few posts back I wrote about the virtues of a century-old language method called the Assimil Method.  I am currently using the Assimil course for Norwegian and it seems to be going pretty well.I came across this article on the Freakonomics blog the other day:

The article praises the Assimil method and goes into much better detail about why it works than my brief post was able to.  He goes on to propose that students should be doing a similar method for math and physics.  I can’t say that I disagree with him!
I am currently on Lesson 40 of the Assimil course.  I had my doubts about how much material I was actually retaining until I went back and listened to lessons 10-20.  Unbelievable. I could understand everything perfectly.  It was a nice confidence boost as the dialogues are getting much more complex. The sentences are more like “You won’t be able to make it back to shore. Don’t you remember last year when I had to schlep your mother back to shore and I didn’t even want to swim!” (no joke – lesson 37!!)  I need to work on my verbal skills very badly, but I think this will come in time.

Many people have asked me how I am learning Assimil from a French course when my French is only at a VERY basic level.  The great thing about Norwegian is that it is probably the closest language to the “Germanic-side” of English that I have studied.  I have heard that around 60% of English words come directly from French.  Thus, 60% of Assimil is fairly easy to figure out from French/English cognates.  As for the remaining 40%, most of these are the Germanic words which remained in English.  So even if I can’t figure out the French, by going to the Norwegian side I can almost always figure it out. Example: the French word elan. I have no clue what that is.  But then, I see the Norwegian word is elg, AHA! ELK!  (moose, actually, but close enough).

So back to my crazy, multilingual day.  At work, I spoke some Lao.  What?  You speak Lao? Heck no!  But I do know some survival phrases in Thai, which is closely related to Lao.  There was a Lao gentleman who spoke very little English. I walked up to him, smiled and said in a loud, unapologetic voice “SABAI DII!!” (which means “Hi, good day!” in both Thai and Lao). He looked up, completely shocked with a huge smile and started laughing while vigorously shaking my hand.  He then said something that must have been “Do you speak Lao?”, (I have no clue whatsoever…). I said back in Thai “ I only speak a little Thai, very badly…”. He then tried to teach me some Lao (which, unfortunately,  I immediately forgot).  He said in the years he has in in the US, that was the first time any non-Lao had shown any interest in speaking Lao to him. The experience was fun for me and I’m sure I made his day!

The day continued with me going through my Assimil lesson for the day in Norwegian.  This was followed by listening to some “easy-Norwegian-news” with the Klar-Tale podcast.

Norwegian was followed by some German. My 10 year old daughter has shown interest in learning German so I’m doing a little experiment.  I have the Assimil German course so the two of us are going through the course together.  We are only spending 10 minutes a day on it and we shall see how far she can come in 100 days.

Later that evening I read several pages of Marjane Satrapi‘s Persepolis which had been translated into Spanish. Among other things, I discovered that hijab translates to pañuelo (who knew?)

The evening ended with another Assimil lesson; but this time it was Czech.  Czech?!?  Sigh…. I know, I know.  I got the Assimil Czech course for an absolute steal and it was looking really lonely sitting on my shelf … So I’m taking 15 minutes a day and going through the Czech course in addition to Norwegian.

…I know, I’m a hopeless language geek….

A Video of me Speaking Vietnamese after 2 weeks.

I thought I’d try to put together a few sentences in Vietnamese.

Shaky, but there is room for improvement!

Criticism always welcomed!

Learning Vietnamese through French with Assimil:

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!
ImageHere is a  great NPR story about Assimil: I love the line, “…then presto! You will be talking like, roughly, an unusually cosmopolitan three-year-old.”
& Assimil’s website:
& Video from Professor Alexander Arguelles (speaker of 50 or so languages) singing Assimil’s praises and taking the viewer through a few courses: wiki:

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!