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How to Learn a Language

Paul Pimsleur’s forgotten wisdom

Trujillo, Peru. Photo (C) Carl Beuke 2012.
Dr Paul Pimsleur was a psychologist who devised the Pimsleur ‘speak and read’ series of language lessons. He died in 1976, but lessons using his system (including some of the original recordings) remain among the best-selling language series in the world. Many people have remarked that they learnt to speak another language using the Pimsleur system, when all their previous efforts failed. In 1980, Dr Pimsleur’s book, How to Learn a Foreign Language, was published posthumously. The book lays out Dr Pimsleur’s principles of language learning and instruction, which of course underlie his series of language lessons. His book has long been out of print and very difficult to obtain (at the time of writing, Amazon lists one used copy as available, priced at $2475.00).  (Update: In early September 2013, a few months after this article was written, Amazon made Dr Pimsleur's book available via Kindle - great news).

Here are a few of the key lessons from Dr Pimsleur’s book. They were based on his extensive language teaching experience and the best research available at the time, and for the most part they have withstood the test of further research over the 35 years since he wrote. Many of these principles are applicable to learning anything, not just another language.

Why learn another language?

Dr Pimsleur argues that anyone can learn a foreign language, but that for most of us it takes considerable effort and the right circumstances and support. Contrary to the ‘learn a language effortlessly in only a few hours’ marketing hype (which unfortunately has occasionally been used to promote the Pimsleur courses themselves), Dr Pimsleur stated that the effort and difficulty of learning a language to a good standard is part of what makes it so rewarding:

“I think the best answer to ‘Why learn a foreign language’ is that it may make one’s life richer. Not only after one knows it, but even during the learning.... Viewed as a decision to fill a stretch of time with stimulating, purposeful activity, the undertaking of learning a foreign language can be a delightful voyage full of new expressions and ideas.  One is glad to go slowly and savor the trip.”

How long does it take to learn another language?

Some people have purchased the 45 hour ‘comprehensive’ Pimsleur course with the impression that after completing it, they should able to speak a language ‘fluently’. They have universally been disappointed.

In his book, Dr Pimsleur describes the level that the comprehensive courses teach as the “Courtesy and necessity” speaking level. (He also describes the length of these courses as “under 60 hours”, which in my experience is more realistic than the 45 hours it says on the box). He comments,

“If your objective is to master the language fully in speech and writing, then you may have to devote at least a year and a half, most of it spent in the foreign country, to reaching this objective. A good plan would be to study the language for three to six months at home, and then go to the foreign country for at least a year, during which time you must speak only the foreign language.”

Dr Pimsleur emphasises the value of even the most basic level of language knowledge, which “can transform a person from an ‘ugly American’ into one who is obviously attempting to meet others halfway. It is certain to make any trip you take more rewarding”.

Which language should you learn?

Huanchaco, Peru. Photo (C) Carl Beuke 2012.
Different languages require different amounts of time to learn.  Referencing research at the Foreign Language Institute (FSI), Dr Pimsleur lists Spanish and French (unsurprisingly) and Indonesian and Swahili (oddly) as amongst the easiest languages to learn. Arabic and Japanese are amongst the hardest.

Dr Pimsleur describes the highlights and lowlights of learning a variety of popular languages. The tough part of French is the pronunciation, whereas the good thing about learning German is that “the Germans are nice about trying to understand what you say, no matter how you massacre their language”. Spanish is valuable because it is spoken in so many varied countries, whereas Russian is “difficult but rewarding, provided you have a compelling purpose for learning it”. Having seen many try and fail, Dr Pimsleur counsels against learning an obscure, difficult language just because it seems like a cool thing to do.

Ultimately, Dr Pimsleur concludes that the best language to study is one that you have a compelling reason to learn. This might be because you plan to spend a long time in the country, you want to enjoy a country’s literature in its original language, or because you have an abiding attraction to a particular culture, language and people.

In Part 2 of this article, I describe some of Dr Pimsleur’s suggestions for learning pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary in your new language.  You can also click on “Subscribe via RSS” toward the top right of this page, or add me to your "Following" circle in Google Plus, if you’d like to be alerted when other articles in this series are published.

Carl Beuke, Ph.D., is a psychologist working in management and leadership. He works with the New Zealand Prisons Service and Ministry for the Environment, among others.

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