“Language Teachers hate him…”
“The secret to learning a language in only 10 days!!..”
“literally fools your brain into learning….”
Sensational claims made by The Pimsleur Approach’s advertisers have lurked awkwardly and often eerily on the sidelines of linguistics articles, blogs and other language related web pages for years. Appearing in much the same fashion as the advertisements for University of Phoenix, Christian Mingle, and Viagra, these astounding claims can seem like the miracle cure to some aspiring language learners, travelers of the world, international businessfolk and curious students seeking an ever easier method of procuring new languages.
But is it really the most effective? Is it any good at all?
A few years ago I was pondering my future as a grad student in linguistics. I spent a lot of time reading and writing, scouting potential schools and speaking to linguists, students and language enthusiasts in an attempt to do something, anything, in the intervening time between the completion of my undergraduate studies and the eventual (hopeful) continuation of my education. The Pimsleur Approach screamed scam with all the force of a constipated banshee; but I couldn’t help but be drawn into its self deprecating allure like a moth to a flame…
I decided that I would give it a shot, a trial by fire, and then write about how bad I knew it would inevitably be. Naturally I approached the software with a jaded mind, distrustful of any product that makes assertions in such a fashion, an assumption I now believe may have been a touch unfair.
I decided to go for Russian.
The reason for this decision was that I wanted to test this method truly. I desired a new language in which I had no background and no prior knowledge, but that was wide spoken enough that its use could be practical to my life and career and for which a supply of other material would be available for continued study after the program’s completion. I already had a fair amount of experience with Spanish and other Western European languages, but my exposure to Russian was minimal. In a manner of speaking; it was all Greek to me.
I decided to give it my all, following the rules as closely as possible, try to keep an open mind and learn as much as I could. Worst case scenario I learn at least a little bit of a language before I snap the disks and hurl the remnants across the room in a fit of rage, right?
How does it work?
Pimsleur works like this: It’s 100% audio based. The idea behind this is that it is supposed to be easy for anyone to use. No tedious studying, no boring lectures or books, nor teachers’ dirty looks. You can listen to it on your mobile device or iPod as you run, or while driving in the car, working at your desk or whenever or wherever else your heart desires.
You are instructed to listen to one lesson per day; and each lesson lasts a mere 26-30 minutes. Sounds easy enough right? Well, it is, and that bit at least is pretty cool.
The Pimsleur Approach uses four “revolutionary techniques” that it of course claims its mastermind, one Dr. Paul Pimsleur, (Author of How to Learn a Foreign Language, a pretty good read actually) single handedly developed. These techniques are organic learning, graduated repetition, core vocabulary and anticipated learning. Sounds pretty legit right?
This one is kind of a given. Anyone who has ever attempted to learn a language knows that you don’t start out using obscure words. The Pyramids weren’t built from the top down and neither will be your new lexicon.
I don’t however think that the Pimsleur Approach’s choice of what constitute “core words” will be the same for everyone interested in the language. From what I have observed, every language offered by Pimsleur offers almost the exact same curriculum and focuses on the same words; words that will change in necessity based on the individual.
As a former language educator, I dislike the rigid approach as it is applied to adults. While this is not true for all learners, I find that programs and educators have more luck with adults when they bend their own curricula to their learners’ interests and needs, rather than forcing their ideas of what “has to be learned” upon them. Pimsleur is often cited as lacking a lot of essential, core vocabulary, but if you want to know how to ask a girl out on a (very boring) date, Pimsleur is for you!
I still find it entertaining that the program sees fit to explain to you very thoroughly how to order copious amounts of alcohol very early on, yet neglects to teach you how to ask for a restroom until much later.
These issues are hardly unique to Pimsleur though.
In this, many serious language learners and polyglots do not seem to view Pimsleur as positively as those looking for a more casual, less academic program. See the review of Pimsleur by professional language hacker and polyglot Benny Lewis here.
Organic learning, however, is where I start to really disagree with the Pimsleur approach. The concept of learning organically implies that a learner should learn their 2nd languages the same way they learned their first; with little to no serious training but by naturally absorbing the language due to exposure (which is sort of contradictory since Pimsleur learners tend to be sitting at home in their native countries, not struggling to buy sugared dates in an Istanbul bazaar).
It took me a lot longer than three months to learn my first language, and I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. It was learn English, or scream incoherently for the rest of my life every time I was hungry. The very nature of L2 learning is profoundly different from that of L1 acquisition and the mind of the learner vastly more developed so we’re really looking at a case of apples vs oranges here.
Or maybe apples vs submarines.
Pimsleur is hardly the first program to profess that you can learn a language like an infant just by exposing yourself to it. The thing to remember here is that Pimsleur isn’t passive learning! It actually does take time and energy and a bit of effort to make this work. You’re actively studying this new language, and you already speak (at least) one.
While Pimsleur (and indeed other companies) loves to tell you that this “organic” learning is how it’s gonna be, it isn’t. It doesn’t work that way. It’s just a marketing tactic to make you think there’s some “science” going on or something.
That’s not to say Pimsleur is a bad product, it isn’t, this point is just kind of benign and mildly misleading.
On the other hand; graduated recall works wonderfully. Dr. Pimsleur didn’t invent it, but he was absolutely right in his assertions that it is one of the best strategies for learning.
Graduated recall starts out by teaching you certain words, and repeats them at steadily widening intervals throughout the lessons. Even during the 2nd and 3rd levels of the course, most of the core words are repeated with a frequency that is highly conducive to retention and automatic recall. This allows the learner to maintain her base vocabulary without losing too much in the meantime. This works very well and is employed by other systems such as Memrise and Duolingo.
It’s also pretty cool to learn to pronounce (and remember) words starting from the end and working backwards. It really isn’t something I’ve encountered before and I find that this approach to memorization works very well. It’s one thing to just say a word, and repeat it over and over until you’ve got it, but that’s boring and time consuming. Many programs and teachers break words down into various parts, but until Pimsleur I hadn’t seen this done in reverse.
I’ve actually started doing this myself when helping English learners with their pronunciation. I’d recommend giving it a shot even if you don’t end up trying Pimsleur.
Anyway, as I progressed through the lessons I came to expect and even guess out loud the words that would inevitably follow. This is “anticipated learning” and is arguably Pimsleur’s most redeeming quality.
It’s an extremely satisfying and uplifting feeling to realize that you have in fact learned something well enough to know what the program is going to say before it says it. This, coupled with graduated recall, is what gives the Pimsleur method an edge over some of its competitors.
By the end of the first 30 Russian lessons, I was pleasantly surprised to realize that I had in fact learned more than I had expected! I was not fluent, it had been a month, so obviously the whole “ten days” thing was about as legitimate as one could expect. Nonetheless I was extremely excited with the progress I had made and at this point realized that I both loved Russian, and learning new languages.
The trouble I would begin to encounter as I went further into the program was that the pace at which I learned new words was no longer working for me. Some words were not repeated enough, and others were over emphasized to the point of total tedium. One of the less desirable points that Pimsleur attempts to sell is that you should only be using their system, not studying from books or other systems in tandem because they would somehow interfere with the flow of the Pimsleur Approach.
This is little more than a not-so-subtle scheme to keep you on the straight and narrow. It’s the marketing equivalent of a psychologically abusive significant other. You should definitely be diversifying your learning strategy!
The important thing that I would advise to anyone attempting to learn from Pimsleur is to take their guidelines and “rules” with a grain of salt.
Call what they suggest the bare minimum and do everything else you can to supplement your learning. For the serious learner, 30 minutes a day is not enough. I would complete a lesson, finding it very easy, and feel the urge to do more.
When I realized that I could breeze through two, three or sometimes even four lessons in a day, suddenly I found that I was learning more and at an accelerated pace. (I was also supplementing my learning with plenty of reading material, having taught myself to read Cyrillic by this point.) watching videos, music, trying to speak to people and just generally absorbing as much material as I could.
Do yourself a favor and don’t settle for the minimum if you are at all serious about learning your language. That goes for all products and strategies.
Pimsleur comes with a vocabulary list and super basic reading component. While not really a super significant part of the course (I usually skip it entirely), it does have its uses when it comes to learning languages that have pronunciation systems you are unfamiliar with and especially with different writing systems.
I haven’t really used it with my French or German projects, but it was useful for Russian back when I was still new enough to Cyrillic to need the visualizations.
At the end of some lessons you are directed to a brief vocab review session that will go over the new words you’ve learned.
Over all, I find it to be a relatively minor feature.
Unfortunately, the elation that I felt regarding the progress I was making would be fairly short lived. By the end of the 2nd level I was starting to lose steam.
The returns from the program were gradually beginning to taper off in favor of other learning techniques, and my interest began to wane. I began realizing that while the accents it emphasizes are actually pretty good, not enough emphasis is placed on real speech. That is, words, topics and phrases that normal people are likely to encounter in modern Russia.
In the end I didn’t end up finishing the entire thing. I ended up somewhere around the halfway point of the third level.
After seventy five or seventy six lessons I suppose I had simply had enough. It had become clear at this point that some very common, necessary words that I would never dream of omitting from a language course were not going to be covered. I had learned all that I cared to from this course, and after several weeks of telling myself I would pick it back up tomorrow, always tomorrow, I still have not done so.
Pimsleur was actually a lot better than I thought it would be. The marketing is annoying and a bit misleading, but at the end of the day it’s just marketing.
The biggest thing that it did for me was to inspire me to continue learning Russian, as well as give me a fairly decent handle on pronunciation, style and accent.
Despite the obvious shortcomings and the ludicrous claims of earth shattering success I would definitely recommend Pimsleur, at least as a starting point.
I would again caution potential users against the claims the company makes; the marketing that serves as little more than a scare tactic to make you think there is no other way.
Since this article was originally written, back in 2013, I have used Pimsleur for three separate major language projects as a springboard to get myself ahead and create a strong start for my new learning goals. I stand by what I’ve said about Pimsleur and its potency as a language learning product and my feelings towards it have actually increased with time.
It’s still not perfect – nothing is. What Pimsleur did for me that really goes above and beyond most other programs that I’ve used is to instill in me a real, genuine interest and familiarity with the language I’m pursuing. It may not have provided the bulk of my learning, or remained my primary method, and despite all of my misgivings I repeatedly find myself coming back to Pimsleur time and time again.
It works. It’s not the cheapest option out there, and over three different languages, Russian, French and German, I would definitely call it cost effective and recommend it to serious learners.
Pimsleur is available in both MP3 and Audio CD formats (MP3 is a little cheaper) in over 50 languages including some seriously impressive options such as Ojibwe, Urdu, Twi, Pashto and a variety of dialects of certain larger, more common languages, that you pretty much never see.
Not all of these language packages offer full courses though. Some of them are 10 lesson “starter courses”.
Larger languages such as Russian are available in three “levels” of 30 lessons each for a total of 90. Still the most popular languages, such as Spanish and German, sometimes offer a fourth or fifth level for considerably more advanced learners. Users can buy each level individually or in sets. Learners on a tighter budget can also purchase 5 lessons at a time.
If you’re interested in checking out Pimsleur, go here and check out Amazon’s selection of Pimsleur courses.
Have you used Pimsleur? What are your thoughts?
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