The Pimsleur language learning system is a language acquisition method developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur. The system is centered around four main ideas: Anticipation, Graduated Interval Recall, Core Vocabulary, and Organic Learning.
The Pimsleur method is an audio-based system, in which the listener constructs phrases or repeats from memory out loud along with a recording. The system is made up of 30 minute lessons, which are repeated until 70-80% comprehension is attained, at which point he or she may continue to the next lesson. As the lessons repeat themselves and add new material, the system does not demand complete mastery of the material, since the material is reviewed at varying intervals throughout the course.
- The student listens to a recording on which a native speaker speaks phrases in both the foreign language and the language used for teaching (usually English).
- At varying intervals, the student is prompted to repeat a phrase after the speaker finishes it
- The student is then introduced to a new phrase and the meaning is explained
- After repeating several times, the student is asked to repeat a previous phrase, but integrating vocabulary from the new one.
- More new phrases are introduced, while old phrases are prompted at random. The random recall is intended to associate words with meanings.
Pimsleur Learning Principles
Dr. Paul Pimsleur developed his system using four principles he regarded as important to forming memory associations and language recall.
Language courses commonly require a student to repeat after an instructor, which Pimsleur believed 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 was thought to be a more active way of learning, requiring the student to think before responding. Pimsleur thought that the principle of anticipation reflected real life conversations where a speaker must recall a phrase quickly.
Graduated Interval Recall
Graduated Interval Recall is a method of reviewing learned vocabulary by having students rapidly recall learned material and then gradually reviewing the material at increasing intervals. It is a version of retention through spaced repetition. For example, if a student learns the word deux (French for two), then it 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 to move vocabulary from short-term 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.
The Pimsleur method focuses on teaching commonly used words in hopes that this will lead to a comprehensive understanding of a “core vocabulary”, but leaving the students breadth of vocabulary somewhat limited. 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.
The number of words needed to comprehend varies from language to language. For example, data for Indian languages in the CIIL corpus show the number of words required for 50% coverage varies from 199 words in Hindi to 7,699 in Malayalam, while 80% coverage for those languages is 2,874 and 126,344 respectively.
The Pimsleur method teaches almost no grammar, instead leaving the student to infer the grammar through common patterns and phrases.
The program uses an audio format because Dr. Pimsleur believed that students of languages would learn better with their ears, as opposed to traditional written formats. Dr. Pimsleur called this “organic learning,” which entails studying grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation simultaneously. Learning by listening is also intended to teach the proper accent, which cannot be learned through written material.
Paul Nation’s comprehensive review of vocabulary learning, Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, concluded that Pimsleur’s “memory schedule” has been validated by research subsequent to Pimsleur’s seminal paper. According to Nation’s summary of the research, “effective retention of vocabulary requires a certain amount of repetition over spaced intervals”.