Derek Markham discovered that the best way to learn Spanish is to learn it the same way a child does.
I just got schooled by Dr. Pimsleur. And I feel great.
When I was in high school, I studied two very different languages, Spanish and German, but I studied them both in the same exact way: I sat in language class and repeated vocabulary words and memorized verb conjugation, I took home my textbook and read in that language, and I tested myself with flash cards. And the results, after a couple of years, were just ok – I had a decent grasp of the written language, and a basic understanding of the parts of speech. But if I were to have a conversation with an actual native speaker of either language, I would have sounded like a toddler, speaking in broken sentences, with poor pronunciation and a pretty limited vocabulary.
So I understand how challenging it is to learn a foreign language, and I’m leery of any product which promises to be able teach me how to speak another language in a couple of weeks. But after spending some time with a Spanish program from Pimsleur, I’m not so sure that it’s as difficult as I first thought.
The Pimsleur language programs were developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur, who is considered to be one of the world’s leading experts in applied linguistics. His extensive research into the psychology of language learning led Pimsleur to come up with the two key principles which make up the ‘Pimsleur Method’. The first principle is called the “Principle of Anticipation”, which requires the student to anticipate the correct answer (as opposed to just repeating it), and the second is “Graduated Interval Recall”, which works to expose the student to new information at intervals specifically designed to increase the retention of that information.
The lessons began with listening to a simple conversation in Spanish, followed by a translation, and then we immediately began working to learn the first sentence – the words were spoken in Spanish and English, with longer words broken down into syllables to help hear and pronounce them correctly, and then we were asked to either repeat the words afterward or to say a certain word or reply to a question. Each word and phrase was repeated throughout the entire lesson, so that even near the end of the lesson, we were asked to respond using the first words we learned. And by the end of the lesson, we could participate in that same simple conversation, only now we knew exactly what each word meant and how to use it.
The lessons also build on the information learned previously, so it’s harder than you think to forget what you’ve learned – in the middle of lesson four, for example, you’re asked about words from the very first lesson – and the fact that there were both male and female native speakers made it simple to mimic their accents and the rhythms of their speech. Another aspect of the program that I found intriguing was that sometimes we were asked to try to put a phrase together out of words we knew, but that we hadn’t heard yet.
To my mind, this method of learning a foreign language is not only loads more fun than learning strictly by repetition and memorization, but it also seems to mimic how we learn language as a child, by copying our parents over and over, in the correct context. We didn’t sit down every day and learn English by memorizing vocabulary, but we learned it through hearing and repeating what our parents said, and we learned it in its everyday conversational usage.
Another beauty of this method, which doesn’t require knowing how to read in order to learn the language, is that kids will pick up on this very quickly. My two year old son sat by me and played with his Legos through several lessons, and was repeating the phrases to himself by the end of each one. It’s both hilarious and a pretty amazing proof of concept when your little one turns to you and busts out a line of Spanish after fifteen minutes of the first lesson.
The biggest weakness in this method (as opposed to taking a class or getting private lessons) is that there is nobody except you to hold yourself accountable for listening to the lessons. But because the lessons are just digital audio files, that same weakness is also one of its biggest strengths – you can load them up on your iPod or smartphone and have them at your fingertips all the time, compared with a book or weekly class session.
The language program CDs came with just a small booklet – not the thick textbook I remembered from school – and just a brief overview of how to use the program, so there’s no lengthy reading sessions to do for each one. Each lesson is just under half an hour long, which I found to be helpful (if it was any longer, I would probably find myself having to split each lesson into two sessions, whereas I could easily fit 30 minutes into one session).
If you’d like a free presentation of how the program works, it’s worth checking out.
I’m not so sure I can say that I now speak Spanish after just two weeks of the Pimsleur method, but I can say that the lessons are effective and compelling, and that I’m going to continue to learn the language with these lessons. I’d also recommend the Pimsleur method for anyone wanting to quickly learn some conversational language before traveling, and believe they’d also be a great way to expose children to a foreign language.
As my son says, “Entiendo un poco de Español.”
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