Memory Forum

The Pimsleur Language Method

by Josh Cohen on January 5, 2011

Lately, I’ve been really busy with work, and haven’t done as much with memory as I wish I were doing.  I’m about to leave to Hawaii for a week, though I’m not sure how much free time I will have.

Though I haven’t had time to work on memorizing Portuguese vocabulary, I’ve been listening to the Pimsleur Brazilian Portuguese CDs. The Pimsleur System is very interesting. I think they have the best audio materials for learning languages that I’ve come across so far.

One of the interesting concepts is Pimsleur’s schedule of how often information should be repeated in order to keep it in memory: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, 2 years.  The CDs are designed so that you listen to one lesson per day, and vocabulary is repeated along certain intervals.

Here are some of the concepts of the Pimsleur System, copied from Wikipedia under Creative Commons License:

Pimsleur developed his system using four principles he regarded as important to forming memory associations and language recall.

  1. Anticipation — Language courses commonly require a student to repeat after an instructor, which Pimsleur argued was a passive way of learning. Pimsleur developed a “challenge and response” technique, where a student was prompted to translate a phrase into the target language, which was then confirmed. This technique is intended to be a more active way of learning, requiring the student to think before responding. Pimsleur said the principle of anticipation reflected real-life conversations in which a speaker must recall a phrase quickly.
  2. Graduated-interval recall — Graduated interval recall is a method of reviewing learned vocabulary at increasingly longer intervals. It is a version of retention through spaced repetition. For example, if a student learns the word deux (French for two), then deux is tested every few seconds in the beginning, then every few minutes, then every few hours, and then every few days. The goal of this spaced recall is to help the student move vocabulary into long-term memory. Pimsleur’s 1967 memory schedule was as follows: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, 2 years.
  3. Core vocabulary — The Pimsleur method focuses on teaching commonly used words in order to build up understanding of a “core vocabulary”. In the typical Simon & Schuster 60 cassette/CD course (four modules of 15 cassette/CDs each) this does not provide a large breadth of vocabulary. Word-frequency text analyses indicate that a relatively small core vocabulary accounts for the majority of words spoken in a particular language. For example, in English, a set of 2000 words composes about 80% of the total printed words. In other words, an understanding of these 2000 words would lead to approximately an 80% word comprehension rate. Even the most advanced Pimsleur courses fall well short of this, with an average of around 600 words. The Pimsleur method never teaches grammar explicitly, instead leaving the student to infer the grammar through common patterns and phrases repeated over and over. Pimsleur claimed this inductive method is precisely how native speakers learn grammar when they are children; only in schools is it “taught” on the blackboard.
  4. Organic learning — The program uses an audio format because Pimsleur argued that the majority of students wanted first and foremost to learn to speak and understand. He suggested that this auditory skill, learned through their ears and mouths, is a very different skill to the visual one of reading and writing and believed that audition and vision should not be confused. He referred to his auditory system as “organic learning,” which entails studying grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation simultaneously. Learning by listening is also intended to teach the proper accent.
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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 Dan January 11, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    Pimsleur is good because its core vocabulary focuses on spoken language acquisition. I understand 95% of all language usage is spoken. There is an interesting piece on language learning on Timothy Ferriss’s blog (Ferriss wrote the bestseller “The Four-Hour Work Week”). He says it takes 3 months to get to a 95% proficiency learning a foreign language. It takes another 10 years to get to a 98% proficiency. So, is the extra 9.75 years to improve 3% worth it? The Ferriss blog can be read at: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2009/01/20/learning-language/

    2 Josh January 12, 2011 at 1:30 am

    I just checked out the post and read some of his other posts on language too. Interesting stuff…

    3 Rick April 22, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    Sorry for the multiple posts. Didn’t know they’d all show up on a single page. Sorry also for the LARGE paragraph. But the system did that. I had the post separated into easily readable paragraphs but the post brought them all together.

    4 gisel July 12, 2011 at 8:52 am

    I want to buy Pimsleur Method on CD, do you recomend it? Is it really goingo to work?
    ando also is it safe to buy it their web page?

    5 Josh July 12, 2011 at 11:34 am

    I liked it, but you need more than just Pimsleur. It’s good to also have a workbook.

    Which website do you mean?

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