Why Pimsleur Comprehensive is the Best Language Learning Product Available
Pimsleur produces all-audio language learning courses on cassette and cd. The lessons are one half-hour long, one lesson per day. Each lesson begins with a conversation between two native speakers of the target language and then an instructor begins to prompt the listener to learn and repeat the words and phrases you just heard. You then participate in the scripted conversation you heard at the beginning, playing each role in a variety of situations. Later in the course, the first minutes of each lesson are for review and then new material is introduced and worked with.
What makes Pimsleur so good is that it is so engaging. From the first minutes of lesson 1 you are involved in a conversation with native speakers. It may be a guided conversation and initially you are simply repeating the phrases and words as you heard them, but before long you will be prompted to say something in a new way, a way you haven't used or even heard yet. This is Pimsleurs Principle of Anticipation. You are unconsciously learning the rules of the new language - grammar, word order, verb conjugation etc. -and you are expected to try to infer the rule in your response. This creative use of the language is necessary to not only learn it, but become proficient at it. Rather than learn vocabulary and phrases by rote, you use them in context, creatively, the way we use our native language every day.
The beauty of Pimsleurs method is in its simplicity. We learn the new language just as we all learned our native language - by hearing it and imitating what we have heard. Pimsleur shows us how obvious it is that the focus should be on hearing and speaking the language, rather than learning boring grammar rules and verb conjugations, at least at first. Pimsleur shows us how learning a new language in a natural way is not only faster and easier, but the language stays with us for much longer. It is also a more fun and enjoyable experience.
Dr. Pimsleur developed a technique he called Graduated Interval Recall. It's a brilliant idea that makes the listener use a new word or phrase at increasingly longer intervals - 10 seconds later, 30 seconds later, 1 minute later, 10 minutes, 1 day, 1 week etc. This more effectively moves the newly learned information from short term memory into long term memory, particularly when its being used in context with material you already know. I remember learning a similar technique in a high school study skills class.
Another technique Pimsleur products employ is simply to focus on the most important function words in the language. Verbs like to be, to do, to have, to go, and words like but, and, for and also are among the most common words we use on a daily basis, and this holds true for many other languages as well as for English. Pimsleur makes sure that you are familiar with these function words and can use them in a variety of situations. Many language methods waste time and space teaching you how to say 'raspberry', but that's not a very useful word for most people when you're learning a new language. Pimsleur seems to feel, and rightly so in my opinion, that you are better served by learning how the language actually works so you can go and look up that word in a dictionary when you want or need to know it, and by then you'll know what to do with it in the new language.
By combining the techniques of the principle of anticipation, graduated interval recall, creative use of the language, focus on function words and phrases and putting them in an easy and enjoyable format, it creates a very simple but remarkably effective system for learning a language.
Pimsleur Instant Conversation. This course, like Quick and Simple, is also not a unique course under the Pimsleur name, but rather just the first 16 lessons of the Comprehensive course. Also like its Quick and Simple little brother, Instant Conversation just doesn't go far enough to use the Pimsleur system most effectively. It is a great introduction to a language, but is a little short on useful vocabulary. Pimsleurs focus on pronunciation and conversation is excellent, and I think this is where Instant Conversation is most valuable - as an audio supplement to a more in-depth textbook based method. It is not strong enough to stand on its own as a language learning method, but used as a supplement would benefit both systems, and the result would be a greatly improved language learning experience. Instant Conversation sells for less than $40 and is available for Arabic (Eastern), Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Greek (Modern), Italian, Japanese, Portuguese (Brazilian), Russian and Spanish.
Pimsleur Compact. These are the language courses for which Simon and Schuster have not developed a full Comprehensive course under the Pimsleur name. They are a mere 10 lessons with a reading section at the end of each lesson, with a small accompanying reading booklet. It makes an ok supplement to a more comprehensive method, or a decent audio supplement for a language with few other choices as far as commercially published methods. By itself, however, it is little more than an introduction to a language. The reading study at the end of each lesson takes away from time used to work on pronunciation and conversation, like in the other Pimsleur products. These shorter Pimsleur courses that Simon and Schuster release all suffer from the same problem - they aren't long enough to really take advantage of the Pimsleur learning system.
Why only to lesson 10? Why 100 lessons of Spanish and only 10 lessons for Swedish? Granted, far fewer people learn Swedish or Indonesian than Spanish or Chinese, but then why have a Swedish Compact at all. The additional cost of expanding to even 30 lessons would certainly be offset by the much higher price of a Comprehensive course. If it's cost effective to do a Compact Swedish then it is certainly cost effective to do a Swedish Comprehensive.
Compact is available in the following languages : Albanian, Armenian (East and West), Croatian, Danish, Dutch, Swiss German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Portuguese (Continental), Swahili, Swedish, Twi and Irish.
Update September 12th, 2011. In the past I've been critical of Simon and Schuster for updating their existing titles but not expanding on them or adding new ones using the Pimsleur method. Since I originally wrote this article, it seems that they have expanded some of their titles and are adding new ones, slowly but surely.
The following languages have been upgraded from Compact to Comprehensive courses : Thai, Farsi, Korean, Polish, Vietnamese, Czech, Hindi, Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish are all Comprehensive level courses now. Hungarian, Romanian, Urdu, Dari, Pashto, Haitian Creole and Indonesian have all been added as Comprehensive courses. Also, additional levels have been added for a number of languages, like Greek, Korean and Hebrew.
There are Basic courses available (the first 10 lessons from the Comprehensive course) for languages that now have a Comprehensive level course, but were available only as Compact courses before.
So, how much do you actually learn after 3 levels of Comprehensive? Are you fluent? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is - no. You can't buy fluency, and Simon and Schuster certainly doesn't claim that Pimsleur can provide it. The word I like is - proficiency. The 3 level Comprehensive set only uses about 500 words, but they are the real function words that you will use every day in your new language, along with some coincidental vocabulary used mostly as cannon fodder for those real function words and verbs. Armed with a dictionary and a verb book, you will have the experience and proficiency you need with the language to put those two books to work and begin to advance toward true fluency.
Obviously cost is a factor here. Pimsleur Comprehensive is notoriously expensive. Each level retails for $345, but you can get them from online booksellers and merchants of language learning products for about $200 per level. That's still a lot of money. For those willing to brave eBay, you can get them new for less, maybe $170, or used for even less than that.
The question I asked myself was - "Is spending $500 worth it if I can speak Spanish at the end of those 3 months?" My answer was "Yes" and I don't regret it, I love the Pimsleur method. Having said that, I also sold all three levels of Spanish on eBay recouping most of what I spent and saving someone else a little money for a fine product in the process.
However, I wish that I understood the Pimsleur method better before I began it. I would have benefitted greatly from using some supplementary products like a verb book, dictionary and some other vocabulary-building tools. I am doing that now, but I wonder how much further along I would be if I had known that. I am currently using an older version of French Comprehensive (Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential French) to brush up on my high school French. I am using some supplements now along with it. I like the results, but since I had 4 years of French many years ago, the results are tainted. I look forward to tackling Italian or German from scratch with Pimsleur Comprehensive providing the core of that study campaign.
The conclusion - I love the Pimsleur system. I've never tried a language learning method that was so effortless and actually fun to use, and the results are excellent, at least for me. I only use the shorter Pimsleur courses as audio supplements for another method when I have no choice (like Swedish). Pimsleur Comprehensive is, I believe, the single best language learning method.
Arabic, Eastern (to level 3)
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- Barry Farber