The Pimsleur Method

Summary: The Pimsleur Method is heavily advertised on the internet at the moment, but is it all it's touted to be?

The Pimsleur Method is heavily advertised on the internet at the moment. Many of the sites seem to have exactly the same information about the method and, while it may be an effective way of learning, many of the claims being made are suspect and or plain ridiculous. The history of language learning is littered with miracle ways of learning, none of which has ever amounted to much.

If the claims for the speed are confined to the basic travel and tourism requirements, then most could be achieved within the time limits established, though this could be achieved by pretty much any method:

Upon completion of the Pimsleur Comprehensive Level I Program (30 lessons), the learner will have achieved spoken-language communication skills at the Intermediate-Low Level. This level is characterized by the ability to participate in simple, direct conversations on everyday topics, in everyday situations; by being able to satisfy immediate needs, such as ordering food and making simple purchases; and by being able to establish rapport with strangers in a foreign country.
(Pimsleur Direct Spoken Programs)

Learning a few names of dishes, the odd item, numbers and currency, plus a greeting and thanks in fifteen hours of dedicated study doesn't actually sound like a miracle method, though some claim that this is a major breakthrough. They term it Intermediate- Low Level, yet the ability to ask for a newspaper and offer a rapport-building banality to the vendor doesn't fit any description of any Intermediate level in my book. has a page on the Pimsleur Method- Five Key Techniques which is worth looking closely at. The text kicks off with the claim that 'Nine out of ten Pimsleur users report they have acquired specific, measurable spoken foreign-language communication skills when they have completed the first thirty lessons of a Level I Comprehensive Program.' The presentation of the page, with an inverted pyramid diagram of knowledge levels, looks like a rudimentary page from an academic book, but the claim would not be allowed in any such work. There is no supporting reference to show where the claim comes from; we have no idea how many people were sampled, so cannot say whether this is truly a representative sample; it quite simply is a claim that can be given no credence, even though when we look at the rest, the sheer flimsiness of the claim renders it utterly meaningless. 'specific, measurable spoken foreign-language communication skills'. The obvious implication of these undefined skills and their measurement is that they were set at a pitifully low level in order to show that this progress had been made. If they measured the ability to count to five, then they'd probably get close to 100% specific, measurable progress.

They then claim that after 15 hours of Pimsleur training, 90% can 'converse comfortably with native speakers'. Mind you, converse comfortably does not mean have a conversation about current affairs- it means being able to go into a newsagent's, say hello, ask for a paper, understand the price and say goodbye, possibly with a comment about the weather thrown in for rapport's sake. In all honesty, I am surprised that this takes so long.

The Five Key Techniques:

1- Graduated Interval Recall

According to Pimsleur Direct, 'No aspect of learning a foreign language is more important than memory, yet before Dr. Pimsleur's work, no one had explored more effective ways for building language memory.' This type of unsubstantiated claim is typical for methods promising the earth- so often there is a claim of a breakthrough that revolutionises language learning, conveniently ignoring the fact that there has been much work in this area both before and since Dr Pimsleur. explain the principle at greater length, explaining that 'Research came up with the concept that the time between reviewing a word can increase geometrically.' Naturally, there is no indication as to what that this research was, nor how the research went through the process of peer review to gain acceptance, etc. Apparently, if the first interval between hearing a word and having it reviewed is 5 seconds, then this should be squared to produce the time interview for the third review, etc, then cubed, etc, until the power ten is reached (9,765,625). The logic of this is that the interval is not important, merely the mathematical process, failing to take into account the complexities of the learning process, ignoring factors like age, motivation, mood, etc.

Speaking Portuguese, I find learning words from Latin languages far easier than learning Khmer words, which I am trying to do at the moment, because I can recognise many and file them away straight away. Yet, these sites are claiming that all is the same and fits into their scientific formula. One of the more bizarre claims of Suggestopedia was that their lessons fitted the 'golden proportion' found in the Pyramids in Egypt, which was held up as 'proof' of the science behind their extravagant claims, just like these claims about Pimsleur- if you follow the formula, learning will take place because it's scientific. Any one-size-fits-all approach to learning that promises universal progress regardless of any factors, yet claims to have science backing it up, worries me.

2- Principle of Anticipation

Here, they claim that Pimsleur was the first person to come up with the idea that 'you must retrieve the answer from your own memory before it is confirmed in the lesson'. They reinforce it with the view that all other methods were based on nothing other than repetition. They are also conveniently ignoring the huge changes since Dr Pimsleur leapt forwards to brighten the world and save humanity. This is not a new method, despite the surge in popularity, so the failure to look at what has happened since weakens these, while presenting a cartoon and inaccurate version of what went before. It is true that much teaching was dire and that many language course books, especially the Army Method or Direct Method, were deathly dull, but they are generalising about the past and ignoring the present.

3- Core Vocabulary

Here, Pimsleur is credited with the idea that concentrating on grammatical words rather than lexical items would enable learners to put their learning to use. An idea so widely held, that is a bit of a cheek to claim that it is a distinctive feature of the Pimsleur courses.

4- Organic Learning

Another unoriginal idea- the idea of learning on 'several fronts' at once.

5- Short Daily Practice

Well, I never!

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