Assimil’s second, active wave

I posted the instructions found at the beginning of the Assimil Dutch course some time ago. I’ve found that the Assimil instructions are often rather lacking, and plenty of people post on forums asking: how exactly am I supposed to use this course? How should I go about doing the active phase?

After seeing an excellent response to a question about the active wave, I took a look in my Dutch book to see what it had to say:

Use the following procedure in the second wave of your study:

1. Read the lesson, repeating each sentence once. If you have the recordings, listen to them carefully.
2. Cover the Dutch text and try to reconstruct it, looking only at the English sentences. Make an effort to do this both out loud and in writing. This is the most important part of the second wave!
3. After you are finished, uncover the Dutch text and carefully correct any errors you have made.

After each new lesson, you will be told which earlier lesson you are to review in this precise way. This second wave of your study will lead to an active and, in a very short time, spontaneous knowledge of Dutch.

This is a bit clearer than some Assimil courses, but it still has nothing on this wonderful response provided by lingoleng at the HTLAL forums (reposted with his consent):

I can only give some hints, but what you do should really depend on your own needs, not on anything else.

Second wave wants two things, both are very easy to understand:

– repetition

After two or three months, however long it took you to get to lesson 50, you have forgotten many words and phrases of the previous lessons. So you have to refresh them by going through the old lessons again. Very simple, no problem here.

– activation
After the reading and listening of the first wave you start producing sentences, speaking and probably writing. Again, very simple concept. How to do it? Everything is allowed and possible, it depends entirely on you and your needs.

Look at the English text of the first lesson. Try to translate it without looking at the German text. A piece of cake? Not as easy as you expected? Oh man, I don’t remember anything at all? Well, whatever, no problem at all. Of course you use the written text in the book as a tool for correcting your translation, what else? You can use the audio just as well, but this is not as easy, and not necessary. (Just listen to the audio on another day, never a bad idea.) But you have to check if your sentences are right. That’s the most important thing, of course. What if you’ve made a mistake, or two, or it is all nonsense? No problem again, that’s why you do the repetition, look at what is wrong, say the correct version several times, and go on.

Next sentence a complete failure? Well, who cares, you are learning the language, that’s why you do it. If you write your first try and make a mistake, or several, no problem, but in this case you write the correct version twice, or three times, now you’ll know it. For a while 🙂
Assimil says you can listen to the audio before starting your active work, so you can do this. Or you try to get it right without a previous short time reactivation, but as repetition is one of your primary goals it is not so important whether you get it right without listening before, these are all minor details.
. . .
You see, what I propose is a little bit different than only remembering the phrase by heart. Learning by heart is not a bad thing, really not, but only if you understand what you remember. So if you have the automatic reaction: Oh, I remember very well what was written on this page, it was the strange and very queer expression “Haben Sie Hunger”, no idea why and how, but this is it,- you get a point in a multiple choice test but not as many language points, I guess.

To make a long post short: You want repetition, and you get it. You want active skills, and you have to work for them. And the exact procedure is not a law, do what you want to do, or have to do. A third wave, or even a forth one, may be what makes the difference between a successful language learner and a less successful one, but I would never confess that I ever needed a fifth wave, not me.

I really liked his answer, as it shines a bright light on an issue I think some people might run into with Assimil courses: they see the active phase as a “test” rather than a process. They go to their active lesson, read the English, and if they don’t come up with the perfect foreign language equivalent right away – panic! There’s no need to be so harsh on yourself. With the active wave, unless you have a photographic memory, you’re going to make mistakes, and that’s fine; the whole point is to see the material again, and to start playing with it in your mind. If you’re moving bits of the language around in your mind, trying to produce something, it’s worthwhile, even if many of your attempts have errors.

How to use an Assimil course

I’m quite fond of Assimil courses, and I use them for French, Spanish, Russian and Dutch. But in one area, they’re very often lacking: instructions. In many of the courses, the instructions amount to: “during the passive wave, just listen to the audio and read the text, and you’ll slowly start to understand; during the active wave, go back and translate from the base language to the target language.” Considering Assimil uses a methodology that is different from most textbooks, the instructions are rather vague, especially for a person who might be studying their first foreign language. There are also “exercise” sentences at the end of each lesson, but it’s never really clearly stated what you’re supposed to do with them; do you not look at the translation, and translate them on your own after doing the lesson? Do you just treat the exercise sentences exactly like the lesson itself, listening, reading, and understanding?

The Dutch with Ease course, unlike the other courses, actually has very detailed instructions:

1. Listen to the text with the book closed. It does not matter if you do not understand what is said. You will gain a general impression of the sounds, hearing the pronunciation without being influenced by the spelling.

2. Listen to the recording a second time while looking at the English translation.

3. Read the Dutch text aloud (with the aid of the phonetic transcription if necessary). Be sure you understand the meaning of each sentence, comparing it with the translation as required.

4. Now read the Dutch text again, but this time without looking at the translation.

5. Listen to the recording twice, once while looking at the English translation, and once while looking at the Dutch text.

6. Listen to the recording again with the book closed. At this point you should understand what is being said.

7. Listen to the recording once more. Stop the machine after each sentence, and try to repeat it aloud.

8. Carefully read the comments several times. Examine the Dutch sentences being explained. These notes are very important.

9. Read the exercises. Repeat each sentence several times. The exercises review material from the current lesson and from preceding lessons. If you have forgotten certain words, consult the English translation.

10. Examine the examples of sentence structure. They show how words and phrases are combined in Dutch, which is not always the same as in English.

Of course, the Assimil courses can be used in many ways – adding the sentences and translations to a flashcard program, shadowing, writing out the lessons, etc. – but it’s nice to see detailed instructions as to how Assimil thinks their courses should be used.

Global Understanding Vs. Individual Words

In his detailed video on shadowing, Dr. Arguelles uses an Assimil course as his example. He says that at a certain point in one’s studies, using his shadowing technique, one will find that they have a global understanding of what’s being said – an understanding of each sentence as a whole, but not necessarily what each individual part of that sentence is doing.

While I didn’t shadow Assimil’s French with Ease very much, I find the idea of global understanding, as opposed to understanding each individual word, intriguing. Why? Because after hearing him talk about it, I realized that that’s where I was at when I finished working with Assimil’s French with Ease, and it’s where I’m now with Russisch ohne Mühe. In the more advanced lessons, I could get the gist of what was meant, but if I were to try and say something similar, I wouldn’t be able to, because I wouldn’t know what each part of the sentence was doing. This could go so far as I would know what a noun meant in the sentence, but if you gave me the English equivalent, I wouldn’t be able to give the French or Russian word – even though I’d be famiilar with it in the context of a sentence.

Dr. Arguelles says that once you’re at that point, it’s time to analyze the L2 and L1 side by side, and I’ve started to more or less follow that advice. As a test, I took a lesson from Russisch ohne Mühe which I could get the gist of, but there were many words in it which, if I saw alone, I wouldn’t understand. I learned all of the words using the word list method, and then I broke the lesson down grammatically, checking declensions and conjugations. As to be expected (at least, it’s what I expected), when I listened to the lesson again, my understanding of it was drastically increased. And, I could say what every single word was doing, and felt that I could say something similar if I wanted to.

Through this, I learned that for me at least, Assimil’s passive way is simply too passive. I can reread the lessons over and over; I can listen to the recordings over and over. I have no idea how many times I listened to French with Ease, in full, but it was a lot. But I simply don’t learn enough of the words and phrases as stand-alone entities that way. To get the most from the courses, I have to understand globally, and I have to understand at the word level. I suppose you could say it’s an issue of macro vs. micro. Interestingly, I think this implies that I’m one of those strange creatures who actually benefits from taking words out of context to learn them, and then putting them back in.

Has anyone else experienced this, or are you all able to pick up all of the words in a course like Assimil simply by reading and listening to the lessons again and again?

Grammar For Decoding

Geoff wrote a post a few weeks ago about the idea of learning a language without grammar, and I quite liked this bit:

I personally favor the use of grammar for decoding, but am more reluctant to use it for encoding. That is, it’s good to find out what’s going on with a language when you’re getting frustrated trying to “just take it in.” But the more I play with Assimil programs, phrasebooks and Pimsleur, the more convinced I am that the way you master grammatical patterns is to say a lot of sentences the right way and let your brain do the grammar processing based on habits formed rather than through deliberate conscious processing.

In learning Russian, I’m experiencing something like this. I’m using Assimil’s Russisch ohne Mühe along with the New Penguin Russian Course; Assimil is more packed with sentences, whereas the Penguin course is rather grammar heavy.

I’m finding it to this to be a nice blend. If I were just using the Assimil course, I really do think that I’d be frustrated due to not fully understanding all of the declensions. On the other hand, if I were just using the Penguin course (which I at first attempted to do, many moons ago), I’d be suffering from grammar overload and not enough real Russian content.

I’m finding that I grasp grammar more fully after learning the grammar points via the Penguin course, and then seeing the grammar in use repeatedly in the Assimil course. The courses are playing off of each other very nicely, and I’m not getting tired of either.