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How to Learn a Language Part 2

Paul Pimsleur’s forgotten wisdom part 2

Photo (C) 2012 Carl Beuke.

Part 1 of this article explains how the language learning secrets of the man who invented one of the world’s best-selling language series have been hidden for years. Unveiled in this article is the second installment of the forgotten wisdom of the man who studied Russian with a martini in his hand.

Where to start

Dr Pimsleur suggests starting by learning a few things that will be immediately useful, rather than with lengthy and complex grammatical theory. He adds that if you struggle with concentration, you should break up your study into short bursts of around twenty minutes. In my favourite quote, he suggests that “no rule forbids learning a language with a martini in your hand; in fact, it may lower your inhibitions”.

Underlying Dr Pimsleur’s suggested approach are some of the same key principles that are explained in more recent books on how to learn effectively (e.g. Your Memory and The Learning Revolution).  These principles include:

Practice recalling the information

Challenge yourself to answer questions.  This is much more effective than simple repetition or sitting and listening to a long explanation.

Get immediate feedback

When you self-test your recall of information, check whether you have recalled it correctly. If you remembered incorrectly or not at all, check the correct answer and then self-test yourself again immediately.

Practice recall in many contexts

For example, practice recalling an important word in many different types of sentences, and practice listening to many different voices speaking your new language.

Use graduated interval recall

If you want to learn information for the long term, space your recall practice over time.  An example might be to self-test: immediately, after two minutes, after six minutes, at the end of the study session, and then after a day, two days, four days, one week, three weeks, two months, and one year. Spreading out your recall practice over time is much more effective than doing it all at once.

Learn one thing at a time

Traditional academic courses typically present new information in large chunks. For example, a textbook might teach the Spanish for “I speak”, “You speak”, “He speaks”, “She speaks” and “They speak” all at once. The Pimsleur courses typically teach only one piece of new information at a time. That is, they start by teaching “I speak”, and provide the opportunity to practice saying this before moving on to new material.

How to practice pronunciation

Dr Pimsleur recommends learning pronunciation before learning to read in a language, since reading tends to conjure the English pronunciation. Instead, words should be learnt by mimicking a native model, generally in the context of whole sentences. In a trick borrowed from the FSI, he suggests breaking words down into syllables and then learning the word from back to front.  For example, the Spanish gracioso can be learnt in the sequence “-so; -cioso; gracioso”.

If you struggle to ‘hear’ the difference between two sounds, Dr Pimsleur advises that you invite a native-speaking friend to make fun of your difficulties. Having a native speaker repeat your error and contrast it with the correct native pronunciation will help you to ‘hear’ and understand the difference.

Dr Pimsleur confesses that he struggled to learn how to pronounce French (which is the language in which he held a PhD), which should provide great comfort to those students who find learning pronunciation difficult (most of us).

How to learn grammar

Dr Pimsleur recommends learning the grammar of a language mostly through verbal pattern drills. In these drills, a question is asked which prompts you to produce a response in the language you are learning. You then hear a native speaker give the correct response. In this way, you quickly develop an intuitive ‘feel’ for the correct grammar. The Pimsleur courses are based on this principle. Dr Pimsleur suggests that if you don’t have access to a course which provides these drills for you, you could make your own (asking a native speaker to record sentences which embody the elements of grammar you are seeking to master).

In many non-English languages, words are either male or female. Dr Pimsleur counsels that while you should attempt to remember word gender as best you can, there is no need to be overly worried, as in most cases you will be understood even if you get the gender wrong.

How to learn vocabulary

"Those who want to come out ahead must have success fixed in their minds". Photo (C) 2012 Carl Beuke.

Dr Pimsleur describes coming to grips with vocabulary as the most substantial challenge of learning a new language, since any language has far more words than it has distinct sounds to pronounce or grammatical rules to understand.  Still, learning vocabulary is not hard, it’s just a big job.

Dr Pimsleur provides a few key suggestions on how to learn vocabulary. First, start by learning the most common words (you can find these listed in a word frequency dictionary).  Second, learn things like numbers and days of the week in random order, and interspaced with other material. Third, use flash cards (cards with questions on one side and answers on the other). Fourth, learn words in context (i.e. as part of sentences). Fifth, read a lot in the language you are learning, starting with simple texts. Look up the meaning of only the words that interest you or that seem to keep tripping you up.

Mastering workplace knowledge

In a future article, I’ll describe how you can apply Dr Pimsleur´s principles for learning a new language to become much more effective at learning anything you need to know for work or study.  You can click on “Subscribe via RSS” toward the top right of this page if you’d like to be alerted when this and 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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