Preparation for a road trip down to New Orleans only meant one thing: 5 Pimsleur language learning courses checked out from our local library! To be clear, Pimsleur courses are not effective in the long run, but there’s input nonetheless. Still, how much input is there…really?
I’ve listened to the first 25min lesson of several different Pimsleur language courses, and know what to expect. Pimsleur is a “repeat-after-me,” Audio-Lingual-type method (ALM) with lots of English directions (e.g. “Now say, ‘excuse me,'” or “Repeat after the Portuguese speaker syllable by syllable,” etc.). Sadly, all the directions, repeating, and one-word utterances results in approx. half as much input has there could be if meaning were just established and messages provided. Also, Pimsleur thinks that everyone using their product is an American adult male trying to pick up a target-language-speaking adult woman. Time to update the scripts, eh? I also don’t subscribe to forced speech, which is a cornerstone of the course. So, during our road trip, I just refused to repeat after the speaker, taking in all the input I could while honoring my own silent period. Surprise, surprise! Later in the day, I was able to utter a few speech strings, all without any of the speaking practice. Still, this got me thinking about how ineffective this “most effective method” really is, how simple it’d be to move closer to that actual claim heard on the CDs, and what that could mean for teaching. Here’s some analysis on Pimsleur’s Japanese Lesson 1:
93 messages over 25min
This sounds pretty good, right? Well, it sounds good until you realize that’s like stating or asking just 3 to 4 things each minute, and it gets worse when you see how short, and restricted the 93 messages were…
67 one-word utterances
Aside from the 97 messages, an additional 67 one-word utterances included “America”—pronounced America—repeated a few times (as if English speakers needed to hear that word again!). Most single words were used in Pimsleur’s pointless practice of repeating words syllable by syllable starting from the end (e.g. “stand… derstand… under… understand”). This amounts to a LOT of reps of isolated words. In fact, the first 20 sounds of Japanese during this lesson were only one-word utterances, and only 2 that could be used during interaction (i.e. “excuse me” and “no”)! It took 7min until we heard the same number of messages with more, but not very much, meaning (i.e. 20 one-word utterances, and then 20 messages by 7min).
Many messages weren’t necessarily complete thoughts, or thoughts containing much meaning at all. For example, “I understand” was repeated a ton of times. Now, while this could exist on its own just fine, “I understand English” later emerged as the complete thought the language lesson intended the listener to be able to say. Still, after 10min, the only meaning was asking and answering whether someone understands English. Let’s look at the value of the messages…
By the time we heard those first 20 messages, vocab was sheltered in a way that built comprehension and confidence. This is good. However, the communicative value of those 20 messages was extremely low given the limited vocabulary (i.e. excuse me, English, understand, I, understand?, no). Not only that, but there was so little exposure to the structure of the target-language given the chosen words. Other words might give a lot more grammatical information so the learner begins to build mental representation of the language. While a major purpose of Pimsleur language courses is for interpersonal communication during travel, these are some of the worst choices of vocab given how restricted they are. There are only so many novel contexts using that vocab, which means the Pimsleur lesson can only provide a single context—guaranteed to go “off-script” in person, which is why no one can really “practice” conversations—which means there’s a low likelihood of the vocab being acquired.
After 25min, these are the words that comprised the 93 messages used to teach the listener a dialogue of just 6 sentences:
- I am/you are
- I understand/you understand
- don’t understand
- excuse me
- a little
- English, Japanese, American
As you can see, this makes for one of the most boring conversations in the history of language teaching. Not only that, but the number of “big content words” is almost nil.
How to make Pimsleur more effective? What does this mean for my teaching?
Let’s face it, Pimsleur should ditch the “practice” until about 5min until the end of the lesson, if that. Yes, students need to feeeeel the new language, especially with different muscles used in physically producing the sounds, but they need input way more than any sound-production practice! Without the English instructions and repeated single words, the message count could easily increase to twice the exposure, maybe more! Even if the vocab remained the same, there could be multiple dialogues between different people, or a group of people meeting each other so the learner could get more exposure. For example:
Woman: “Do you speak English? I don’t speak English.”
Woman’s Friend: “Paulo speaks English.”
Woman’s Other Friend: “Excuse me, Paulo, do you understand English?”
Paulo: “No, I don’t speak English. I speak Portuguese.”
Paulo’s Friend: “I understand a little English”
Still boring, but it would be a start. The next most important change would be to choose high frequency verbs & expressions that actually get someone interacting with target-language speakers, not words that could be self-evident if using other words (e.g. “do you speak English?”), or ones that could be used with non-verbal cues (e.g. shaking head for “no,” or pointing to one’s self for “I”).