Saturday, February 06, 2010

Assimil-ating non-Assimil materials

In my last post, I mentioned that I'd been playing around with an idea similar for getting similar benefits to the Assimil programs out of non-Assimil books. Today, I'd like to look at what I've been doing and how it works. This starts by considering just what it is that makes Assimil work, so let's start there.

Assimil books, as those who have used them know, work with facing page translations and extensive notes. The basic idea is that while working with the target language text, you can use your own language as a guide to what's going on. At a more advanced level, this can be problematic - the further you get into a language, the more you need to make it your own, not just a translation of a language you already speak. However, by the time people get to the advanced Assimil courses, they're mostly reading the target language text and glancing at their own language to double-check that they've understood, not to figure out what is being said. So what Assimil does is to give beginners a clear idea what's going on in the target language and advanced learners lots of good reading content. Cue the Michel Thomas quote:
What you understand, you know. And what you know, you do not forget.
There are lots of language textbooks out there that give you dialogs with translations. And there are others that eschew translations but have extensive notes, grammar explanations, etc. What happens in both cases, however, is that the learner has trouble assimilating the language because either it is unclear which words connect with which in the translations, or it is difficult to read the dialogs without turning it into a decoding exercise in flipping between the vocabulary, grammar explanations and the text.

What I have been doing with a Uighur textbook, Greetings from the Teklimakan, is to create a sort of passive phase Assimil course without an Assimil book. Here's what I do:

1) Learn the vocabulary list by whatever means necessary: link words, associations with words from other languages, etc. The technique is not important, because you only need to remember for five to ten minutes

2) Read the dialogs as best you can. Don't worry about understanding how everything goes together, about grammar rules, or whatever. Just try to make some basic sense of what's interacting with what.

3) Skim the grammar summaries, paying attention only to the sections with charts or endings. The idea is not to learn the endings, just to recognize what letter combinations are endings and whether they go with nouns, adjectives or verbs.

4) Re-read the dialog, seeing if you now recognize words you previously didn't since you've got a better idea what's the root and what's an ending.

5) Re-read the dialog once more and see if anything new falls into place.

6) Re-read the dialog the next day. If you think you mostly understand it, you can move on to the next one. If you've got doubts, repeat steps 1-5.

At no point should you actually try to learn anything. This is the passive phase. The idea, rather, is to get to where you're reading text in your target language and sort of understand what's going on.

A last thing: Every five lessons, you should probably skim the last five lessons and make sure they make at least as much sense as when you worked through them the first time.

I did the above with the Uyghur text for the first five lessons, including the re-read of all five lessons' dialogs. What I found is that my understanding of lesson 1-4 was actually pretty solid. Lesson 5 was weaker, but after a second reading, it started falling into place.

Note that if you want to, you can also put the words into Anki or somesuch. I did this, but I find that my recall is far better seeing the words in the context of the dialogs I know them from than in isolation.

When I have read all fifteen chapters this way, I will go back and work through the course - I haven't found a good version of Assimil's active phase to effectively apply yet. The nice thing about this system so far, though, is that I've built a passive vocabulary of around 300 words and I've learned a half-dozen structures without actively trying to learn any. And, I expect, working through the lessons when I'm done with this should be a breeze, since by then I'll be a false-beginner, not a neophyte.

The main thing we're looking at here, as is so often the case on this blog, is creating comprehensible input. New to a language and having trouble finding good materials for beginners? Apply this method to your materials as best you can and work a little ways into your text. Then, when you start to work in earnest, you'll have already assimilated hundreds of words of vocabulary and a few basic sentence types and you can get started with the "whys" of a language you already speak a little bit of, instead of everything being brand new.


Blogger doviende said...

excellent post! you touched on many things that I think are really essential for starting to learn a new language, and are not immediately obvious to those people who are just starting out. Many people seem to think they should be entirely perfect and know every single grammar detail before moving on to the next chapter, but nothing is further from the truth. getting exposed to it, and gaining that sense of familiarity is essential

4:23 PM  
Anonymous Jim Morrison said...

This is great advice.
It is pretty much how I have always studied languages too.
I think the review at the end each set of five lessons is very important before you move on.

5:32 AM  

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