Hey dear linguophile fellow, how is it going? In this post, I share my experience with one of my favourite language learning methods, about a language as captivating as it is complex: Assimil Arabic.
Arabic and I have been friends for a long time. Back in the day, finding material suitable for self-teaching was impossible. 😓
Then, it gradually became more common to stumble upon textbooks, dictionaries, bilingual books on bookshelves. How did it go to the half-baked language learner that is now writing this guide? ❓
Well, at a certain point I did include Assimil Arabic With Ease in my study plan. Still, I had a gazillion doubts, the same troubling many other learners:
- Is Assimil Arabic really worth it? 🤔
- Does that work for visual learners?
- Should I use it at the beginning or later on? 🤔
- May I study it in parallel with other textbooks / Apps / tools?
Bear with me and in five minutes you’ll have heard all I have to say about Assimil Arabic With Ease. 😉
Assimil Arabic: How did I discover it?
I was a kid the first time I heard Arabic. Fun fact, in Italian, when you talk but you are not understood it’s common to express your frustration with a: “Am I speaking Arabic?”. Understandably, I didn’t understand a thing. 😐
The speaker was a professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University La Sapienza, the largest university in Italy. I’m talking about pre-2001 times: it was all but common to bump into Arabic, neither in TV nor anywhere else; the Internet was still in its embryo years.
Arabic sounded darn exotic. The professor, introducing the language to secondary-schoolers, after uttering these few sentences had to clarify: “these sounds… are an actual language”. I got hooked. 😻
I went to the bookshop and got hold of a textbook. I was mesmerized by the writing: to this day, I deem it the most beautiful way of representing sounds graphically.
The textbook was good, no doubt: it was the one the latest generation of freshmen had been using in Arabic Studies.
Nonetheless, its approach, as you can expect, was heavily theoretical: learn the letters, do massive amounts of exercises, practice writing till exhaustion, grammar drills, singular, dual, plural, numbers, lexicon, verbs, independent clauses, subordinate clauses… 😒
Argh, the same old way of teaching languages: swimming your way towards fluency in Arabic while they drown you in an ocean of theory. So, I was left wondering:
When will I speak? When will I be capable of reading The Little Prince in Arabic? When will I be able to go to Jordan and speak, albeit primitively, with Jordanians? 🇯🇴
Meanwhile, stuff happens, other passions make land in my life and that meant other languages taking residence in my daily routine too. 📅
Years later, living in the Netherlands, a friend invited me over to his place. As soon as I reached the dining room, I noticed a whole shelf dedicated to a peculiar series of language courses: Assimil.
Russian, Dutch, Chinese, German, Japanese, Persian. Wooow. I fell in love. Truth be told, Assimil Arabic wasn’t the first course I explored: first came French, then droves of languages; but Arabic remained an itch I had to scratch.
Whenever I was bumping into an Arabic textbook, of whatever age and type, I was buying it, bringing it home and dissect it from cover to cover: I wanted to understand the best way, for a half-wit like me, to learn Arabic on my own.
Arabic With Ease, by Assimil: a timeless language course.
Years later I eventually got Assimil Arabic With Ease: it became clear that to learn Arabic there was good stuff around, but Assimil’s was the best for a complete beginner.
Why? The method is just spot-on. I’ll deep-dive in soon enough, but now, let me describe specifically how Assimil Arabic works.
Assimil Arabic: How is it structured?
There are 77 lessons spread over 611 pages, plus 160 more pages of explanations concerning the alphabet, pronunciation, conjugation tables and grammatical data.
So, don’t be fooled by appearances: the book looks small, but it’s as dense as an H bomb. The package comes with four audio CDs or the USB stick with the MP3 files. 💿📘
Listen to an audio track by clicking here below. They are taken from the French version but they are the same as the English:
Audio lessons are paramount in any course, but with Arabic… they are compulsory. You have to familiarize yourself with written words without the help of short vowels, which are crutches best limited to the first three-four weeks.
Thank you, Semitic languages. 😒
In Assimil Arabic, each lesson is a conversation or a short story. Opening the textbook, you have the text in the original Arabic on the right; on the left you have the source language, or more specifically:
- in bold: pronunciation (well, more of a phoneticised spelling, frankly),
- in italics: literal translation,
- in simple lower-case: translation to English.
⏩ NOTE: I employed the method using French as source language. The English, though, it’s the exact same thing. ⏪
All over the textbook, you have cultural references (as language and culture go hand in hand), memos about pronunciation, brief exercises and the right amount of grammar to make you progress without becoming a hindrance.
The approach is communicative: you are not fed more theory than you can metabolize. 🍲
Every six lessons you have a revision unit, where certain difficult points are eviscerated: however, the leitmotiv is the gradual, guided exposure to the language. 💹
Let us now review the pros and cons of this method, starting with the cons.
Assimil Arabic: Cons
Nothing is flawless.
#1 The promised level
Through the With Ease collection of Assimil, including Assimil Arabic, according to the publishing house, you should reach a B2 level.
Forget about it. 🤨
It’s unrealistic enough with Italian or German, even more so with Arabic: roughly, at a B2 you are able to move where it’s spoken, study, work and get by in most of the everyday circumstances.
Can you achieve such a level thanks to Assimil Arabic? Hell, no. Honestly, you won’t get there through any other language method per se either. Let me explain. 🖋️
The best way to conquer a language is to attack it from multiple fronts: achieving fluency is a multifaceted strategy. ⬇️⬆️
You should vary textbooks and approaches, read books and listen to songs and have a teacher on your side and speak to natives and watch movies and write profusely and a lot more. No single language course suffices to land on B2 soil.
#2 Few cultural notes
Other textbooks have indeed more notions concerning the history, tradition, celebrations, pop singers, popular sports, famous landmarks of the countries where the language is spoken. 🕌
That does not happen Assimil Arabic With Ease, but that seems to me a minor discomfort: this course is thick enough already and learning equals prioritizing too.
#3 The lack of a C1
The Assimil portfolio is structured in a way that makes A1 to B2 available on the With Ease (Sans Peine, in the original French) collection.
Then, from B2 to C1, you have the the Using (Perfectionnement) collection. 👍 The latter is also very well done, although I still doubt that one truly gets a C1.
Unfortunately, Assimil has never produced any C1 material in English as a source language, so when it comes to Arabic, the only choice you were given was to cross the channel and get the Perfectionnement Arabe, but now it is not available anymore (who knows why).
Now, let’s mention the copious positive sides.
Assimil Arabic: Pros
#1 It’s the best tool to learn Arabic from scratch
The authors are Dominique Halbout and Jean-Jacques Schmidt, two absolute masters related to the French INALCO, Europe’s best institution in terms of oriental languages.
Even though it should be self-evident, it’s not a bad thing to reiterate it: with Arabic, you have to grind. I know Assimil core principle is intuitive assimilation, but Arabic isn’t Scots: liters of sweat are necessary. 💪
Nonetheless, it’s still one of the best resources: it’s like taking a guided tour of the Arabic language. 🧭
#2 It’s a bargain
If you stop for a second to calculate how much you can squeeze from a tool like this, you soon realize that getting Assimil Arabic is more cost-effective and efficient than online courses, offline workshops, software, Apps and so on. 💪
Do the maths. According to what Assimil prescribes, between passive and active waves, you have work for at least three months: with one lesson a day, you get to lesson 50, which is when you have to start the active wave. 🌊
How does it work?
In the case of Arabic, at each new lesson you also have to go back to the beginning, read the unvoiced text (in which the short vowels are not written), translate from English to Arabic the text of the exercises.
Why am I telling you all this?
To make you get the picture: not only there are nearly 800 pages of textbook, but Assimil makes sure you can work on these same pages in different ways more than a time, which makes the purchase of this method a worthwhile investment. 💰
#3 Its graphic design is wonderful
Layout is not the most important thing in a language method, but a poor layout might devaluate an otherwise good product.
I have sometimes studied with manuals so old-fashioned and bodged that I felt like turning them into confetti: in Assimil Arabic, instead, blanks, margins, colours provide a satisfying experience. Even page numbers are there to teach you numbers!
Sometimes you still feel like throwing everything out of the window, when you get another hollow verb, for example, though you can’t help but think hum, this manual is ravishing: at that point, your willingness to give up subsides, and any pedestrian walking the sidewalk below is safe. 😂
#4 Recordings are astounding
The audio recordings are terrific: the speakers talk in Modern Standard Arabic (or MSA), that is, the contemporary, educated, media version of classical Arabic. That of Al Jazeera, press, books, etc. 🎧
It is quite common to desire to learn Arabic to travel or live in Morocco, Egypt or the United Arab Emirates. 🇦🇪 Depending on the country, people’s everyday speech may vary a little or a lot from MSA.
What has always been done, and I agree it is the sensible solution, is to acquire a good base of Modern Standard Arabic and then specialise in one or two dialects: for MSA, Assimil Arabic is your ally.
#5 It’s redundant
If there are details you have missed, don’t panic. Provided you have understood 80% of the lesson, you can go on because Assimil will show you the important stuff again later.
Besides, every six lessons you have a مُرَاجَعَةٌ 😏, in other words, a murahatun or review chapter. Thus, relax.
Assimil also created useful workbooks for improving your Arabic, but they aren’t available in English as source language.
#6 Content is relevant
Every ten years or so the publishing house overhauls its language methods: in truth, some are so good that you would want to see them in bookshops forever; all in all, you have to keep up with times though.
The issue is that there are nowadays plenty of language methods with appealing graphics but thin content: of the solid, serious ones, a fraction is stuck in the past. You can find conversations in which employees send faxes or people call each other from phone boxes: I love history but… some textbooks should be retired. 📠
Not long ago, I had to study a textbook in which the little cultural sections dealt with the newly created ECSC, the European Coal and Steel Community, from which the European Union sprang decades later.
Note for gen Z: the ECSC was created in 1951. 😶
In Assimil Arabic, content deals with contemporary Arab matters.
Assimil Arabic: some key points
#1 Avoid using other stuff simultaneously
I would focus on Assimil alone AND LATER use other tools, whichever they may be. Arabic is a language complicated enough: don’t make your life more miserable than what it already is. 😔
#2 No language for bums
Assimil makes the best effort to make complicated notions simple. Does it always work? It does, but not in all languages in the same fashion.
As an English native, you are certainly going to find French more intuitive than Arabic (no s**t): with Arabic, you have to make a longer, more intense effort even with Assimil. 😬
#3 Suited for the learning style of many
I struggle in common group teaching. It’s hard to find suitable courses, with committed teachers, in good schools… and at that point, all that’s left in that would be the social component of classrooms.
Butttt it turns out I prefer to socialize with fellow earthlings in other venues: for me, going to a language school would be a 100% commitment to learning the language only. 😑
On top of that, I have never been efficient in such settings: call it ADH, ADHD, ADD or whatever, focusing for me is an issue. Self-teaching tools work wonders with people like me: if I haven’t understood something, I can always go back. If a lesson isn’t clear, I can pick it up again from there the following session.
There is not the dread of having sat for 60 minutes somewhere and realize that I was there and then during no more than 15 mins. 🤕
Fair enough. Let’s now gloss over one of the damnation and the beauty of the Arabic language: the fact that there are plenty of Arabics. 😀
Assimil Arabic: the diglossia
In Arab countries, there is this peculiar linguistic phenomenon called diglossia: the coexistence of a language of culture, used in media and education, and a vernacular language, used by people in their daily lives.
With the Islamic expansion, Arabic spread between the Atlantic ocean and western Asia: inevitably, it percolated into the local languages. 💧
Earlier speeches such as Aramaic and Berber, and later addition brought by the European colonisation like French and English have left their traces in the linguistic fabric of all these countries, from Mauritania to Oman. 🇴🇲
In the West, dialects are rife with borrowings from French and Berber languages. In the East, it’s English that prevails. In the Sub-Saharan region, African languages have sprinkled the local parlance with various elements: it’s about loanwords but also phonetics, prosody, syntax, grammar.
For those willing to explore the fantastic diglossic dimension, there is awesome material around. Assimil offers some, but alas, in source languages other than English.
Anyway, if you have a decent level in Spanish or French, you may take a look at Assimil’s. Here you have a few:
Assimil Árabe Marroquí: it is merely an initiation. If you wish to expand your knowledge about Moroccan Arabic you have to go beyond Assimil. It’s evidently also available with French as source language.
These below are also valid if what you are after is just a smattering of these varieties:
Arabe Tunisien: one fascinating Maghrebi variety (those of the west).
Arabe Libanais: one of the most popular Mashriqi speeches (those of the east).
Assimil Arabic: Conclusions
That is it, dear Assimilophile. I hope this guide has shed some light on this, as I had plenty of doubts when I embarked on my Arabic learning journey. Summarizing:
⏩ Assimil Arabic is not going to turn you into a UN interpreter.
⏩ You would not feel comfortable reading Naguib Mahfouz without a dictionary and a big amount of patience.
Having said that, would I do it all over again? Without a doubt.
If you are a complete beginner and you have a deductive approach to learning, it’s the best method in the market, period. 👍 If you have already tried Assimil Arabic, what’s your take? How did you customize it to suit your needs?
I hope you liked this brief review about this fantastic tool for learning Arabic. Stick around, as I will be speaking about it again.
A big hug and إلى اللقاء 😉
Your personal arabist,