Yes, Rosetta Stone is all the rage, making language learning so easy a caveman can do it. Or was that something else? Anyway, Pimsleur is what gets me actually using a new language. The all-audio program sears a conversational framework in my brain that I can then draw upon to produce language. Many programs these days claim to teach conversational language, but few drill the structures thoroughly enough that you actually remember them in the heat of the moment when you are standing at the ticket window wanting to buy a train ticket. Critics will say that Pimsleur is just memorization. Well, yes and no. Despite what they say on the Rosetta Stone commercials language learning does involve memorization. In fact, in the beginning all language learning is memorization, but as our minds adapt to the new language we become productive language learners, using what we have learned to build new phrases not specifically taught. And this is what Pimsleur teaches, language chunks of increasingly greater length that can be infinitely recombined to fit various situations.
The second thing I love about Pimsleur is that the conversations taught are generally useful. True they are most useful for those seeking “companionship”, with phrases such as “Let’s have dinner together” or “Come over to my place.” David Sedaris wrote a great piece on this in a recent New Yorker article. But seriously, the language Pimsleur focuses on is the type of language that we actually use in everyday conversation. We make plans, order drinks, shop and discuss the weather. If you are learning language in order to talk to people this is exactly the type of language you should be practicing.
Personal experience. I first started using Pimsleur Chinese about five years ago when I was half way through Rosetta Stone Chinese II. At the time Rosetta Stone taught vocabulary and sentences in a multiple choice format, matching pictures with words or phrases.* Although with Rosetta Stone I learned language, meaning I knew words and sentences, I had great difficulty using them in conversation. After I started using Pimsleur I began to feel the language and could use it when I traveled in China. Now, after a long break, I’m working on Chinese again. This year I’ve gone back through levels 2 and 3 multiple times in preparation for an in-country study trip coming up later this month. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Is Pimsleur right for you? No one system fits everyone’s needs. People’s aptitudes and learning styles are different. The key is finding the program that gets YOU learning language and that you will work with every day, or at least most days. If you are naturally talkative and practice new structures without much prompting then you probably don’t need Pimsleur. If, however, you are the quiet type that hesitates using a new language Pimsleur will give you the practice you need to get your speaking and listening skills up to speed. Lessons are just 30 minutes a day giving you a framework that is easy to fit into your schedule.
Drawbacks. To be fair, no program is perfect and in reality a combination of programs works best. Pimsleur relies on translation from English to the target language. Immersion would be better but in an all-audio program there really isn’t a good alternative. Also, being audio only there is little written material. I consider this a positive and a negative. Certainly there is much to be learned from written language, but too often visual learners, such as myself, focus on written language instead of pushing themselves to develop their speaking and listening skills. You can do it if you keep practicing!
*Rosetta Stone has updated their program since I was using it in 2005, although they have kept the multiple choice format. I have not had the opportunity to try out their new features. If you have, I’d love to hear from you.