Some years ago I came across advertisements for Pimsleur language products. They contained pictures of the late American linguist, Paul Pimsleur, stating “language teachers hate this man.” They implied that this method was so revolutionary that language teachers were going out of business. I remember my brother and I making fun of these advertisements, as well as others that made claims of teaching you to speak a language in ridiculously short amounts of time.
Learning a language takes significant time and effort. Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something. That said, I am using a couple of language products, Pimsleur included, to brush up on my Russian. My ideal situation to study Russian would of course be in Russia, mixing with native Russian speakers. Since I can’t do that at the moment though, I am trialing a couple of self-study options.
I am now three weeks into my Russian language study, early enough that I still feel the enthusiasm of starting a new venture, late enough that I am beginning to feel some progress.
With a bit of research, I have chosen two audio based products to help me. I’ve chosen audio based resources for several reasons. Firstly, they fit well into my commute to and from work. My main aim in returning to Russian study is to improve my conversational ability, and audio programmes have strengths in this area. Audio is also easier to fit into a busy, child-filled lifestyle than textbooks or computer based resources would be. And finally, I really don’t need more screen time in my life at the moment.
I am primarily using the following two resources, so will briefly review them below:
My first experience with Pimsleur came a few years after laughing at their advertisements. I was given some Pimsleur Pashto CD’s by a friend, and after trying them out I was much more impressed than I expected.
Pimsleur tends to be a fairly well-known resource and has numerous reviews online and on language learning blogs. People seem to either love or hate it. Most of what I have read however has the following positives and negatives:
Positives: Pimsleur is very good for building conversational fluency,. It prompts users to recall what was learned through a spaced repetition system which really seems to work well. It also helps to develop good pronunciation skills.
Negatives: Pimsleur is expensive. Very expensive. The vocabulary it builds is fairly limited. Learners may develop a good ability to converse on certain topics, but limited exposure to vocabulary will limit comprehension in areas beyond these . Some people find it boring. It does not do a good job of teaching reading/writing. It does not even try to teach grammar.
For me, the positives outweigh the negatives, especially since it is primarily an audio-based resource. Good pronunciation and more fluent conversation is exactly what I am looking for. To overcome some of the negatives though, I have tried the following:
The expense: It is almost prohibitively expensive to buy. However, you can sometimes find Pimsleur in the library or find used copies on Ebay. Significantly cheaper access can also be found through the relatively new subscription option that Pimsleur offers (paying a monthly fee) or by buying it at discounted rates through Audible. I am using a combination of the above.
Little Reading or Writing: Pimsleur programmes do have some reading lessons, but these are definitely not their main focus. This could be a serious problem for some learners. I already have the basics from my University days, and I primarily want to focus on conversational skills at the moment anyway. In the future I may try to find some other ways to improve my skills in reading and writing.
Lack of grammar: Pimsleur does not explicitly teach grammar. I actually think this is a good thing. Even when I was in university and had grammar-heavy, written tests, my go-to method of studying was to listen to audio recordings. When it came to writing the test, I relied less on the grammatical structures we had learned in class, and more on something “sounding right” based on the sentences that I had listened to. This method of learning works for me. I know it doesn’t work for everyone, and I have good friends who need to know why you should or shouldn’t say something a certain way. For me though, it is enough to know that this is how local people say it. I don’t need to understand why.
Limited Vocabulary: While I understand Pimsleur’s aim of teaching the structures of a language well rather than focusing an large amounts of vocabulary, I take seriously the criticism that Pimsleur does not build adequate comprehension to converse easily outside of the practice scripts. Because of this, I am also adding a second programme to my toolkit, one called Glossika.
I was given a bunch of Glossika Russian recordings by a friend. Glossika is now a language learning app with an impressive amount of languages available. I don’t know much about the app though. What I am using is an older set of audio recordings that accompanies a book. There are recordings to accompany reading and writing, but also a set of standalone, listening only recordings. This is what I am using.
Glossika, like Pimsleur, uses a spaced repetition system to aid memorization. Glossika’s approach however is to flood you with mass amounts of full sentences, spoken at natural speed. I feel like I am drinking from a fire hose while listening to the recordings, but it seems to work surprisingly well in the long run. I eventually do remember much, if not most of what is covered in the recordings.
There is a school of thought that individual words carry little meaning on their own. Rather, meaning is given through the context in which the words are used. Glossika seems to agree with this approach in that all of the content is given in full sentences. You learn through patterns and context rather than through grammar and vocabulary lists.
And how about you? Do you have any self study language learning methods (especially audio-based) that you like? Please let me know in the comments section below.