Essays & Articles
I’ve just completed the Pimsleur French II, III, and IV courses (35 hours) since I’m going to French-speaking cantons in Switzerland and Strasbourg soon. Though I studied French for a few years in college, the course was a good review. I skipped the first 30 lessons (French I) because I couldn’t bear to hear “Bonjour. Je m’appelle xxxxx” again.
But, since Pimsleur is cumulative, I heard it again anyway.
The Pimsleur method bets that you acquire language by listening to increasingly difficult native speaker sentences, and then repeating elements of those same sentences over and over again, at successively longer intervals (graduated interval recall). For the French program, it looks like this:
Day 1: > English narrator (E): Say, “My name is John.” > > French narrator (F): “Bonjour, je m’appelle John.”
Day 2: > E: How would you say, “My name is John?” > > (Waits 2 seconds for you to respond). > > F: “Je m’appelle John.”
Day 5: > E: Introduce yourself to the woman. Ask her name. > > (Waits 2 seconds for your response). > > F: “Bonjour, madame. Comment vous-appelez vous?”
Day 10: > E: Let’s say you’re at a cocktail party. Introduce yourself to M. LeChèvre. > > (Two second pause). > > F: Bonjour, M. LeChèvre. Je m’appelle John.
Of course the same inane conversation isn’t repeated for the entire 30-minute lesson. The lesson starts with the pronounced building blocks for a sentence (”appelle. m’appelle. m’app-. Je m’app-. Je m’appelle.”), and builds up to complex sentences. You’re even asked to repeat the ends of sentences (when your mind is most likely to wander).
You repeat sentences so many times, you’re able to recall memorized sentences fluidly. Is this useful? For polite, shallow conversations, yes. You’ll be able to quickly conjure rote phrases like “How are your children doing? How old are they?” and “My wife needs a doctor.” Essentially, you’ll have memorized a bit of phrasebook.
You’ll also learn to make up sentences you haven’t heard before, since you learn some grammar. You don’t learn grammar explicitly, mind you – the course never says, “In French, this word is feminine”. Instead, it introduces you to noun gender through adjective declension: “Say, la bonne mèthode. bonne mèthode. La bonne mèthode. Now say, le bon numéro. bon. le bon. le bon numéro.” However, you’ll have a harder time coming up with new sentences than repeating old ones.
Linguists debate whether hearing language over and over is useful: some think it suffices for acquisition, and some think you’ve got to hear language slightly beyond your level to get any good out of it. That is, if your French is at level n, you should be listening to level n+1 French to improve. Nobody really knows what grammar constructions make up level n and n+1, but you can take a stab at it. If you can understand level n sentences like “Je m’appelle Anton,” a level n+1 sentence might introduce the feminine subject pronoun “elle”: “El s’appelle Marie,” teaching you verb inflection and reflexivity.
Other linguists think it’s not enough to merely hear n+1 language; you have to struggle to reproduce it, and get feedback when it’s wrong. In the previous example, you’d start off knowing “Je m’appelle Anton.” Your teacher would tell you that “she” is “elle,” and then you’d be asked to try to say, “Her name is Marie.” You’d get it wrong, your teacher would correct you, and this fresh wound would be seared into your mind as French learned.
Pimsleur pauses after prompting you to say something, and after that pause tells you the right answer. In that sense, Pimsleur always uses correcting feedback. But, the course rarely asks you to come up with a novel sentence, so most of the program is still rote learning.
In French, liaison (the pronounced slurring between words, as in, “les” (ley) + adieux = lez-adieux) confuses learners because it’s only mandatory in a handful of cases and entirely at the speaker’s whim in most others. Pimsleur does a great job teaching you that it’s mostly your choice as a speaker. By varying the male and female French speakers, and by using liaison on a seemingly random basis, before you know it they’re teaching you liaison. At first, you’ll be damn confused because sometimes you’ll hear “Je vais (vay) au magasin” and sometimes “Je vais (vaiz) au magasin,” but eventually you’ll pick it up subconsciously, and you yourself will use and not use liaison randomly, like a native.
Pimsleur is an audio-focused course (there’s a reading section, too, but it’s not great), so your pronunciation coming out of it will be a bit slow, but excellent. Really, near-native. You’ll be clearly understood.
Your French vocabulary will be terrible after the course. As I pointed out in my Pimsleur German review, you’ll only know a saddening 20% of the top 1000 most frequently used French. I’m particularly angry that French IV uses the world of publishing as a language-learning setting. You learn uncommon words like “maison d’edition” (publishing house) but not learn the word for “face.” Lame.
Here’s a little test to see if Pimsleur’s good enough to help you understand the opening narration of the recent French movie, L’ordre et la morale (a good one!).
After 50 hours of Pimsleur, you’ll understand sentences 3, 5, 8, and 9. The sentences with rare verbs (basculer - to topple over, se preciser - to take shape), you understandably won’t get. But it’s the ones with simple verbs (sauver - to save, revenir - to come) and simple nouns (images - images, mémoire - memory, souvenirs - memories, métier - job) that bother me. You should be able to understand those. They’re some of the most common words in French. It’s sad that you won’t understand those after the course.
Since so much of Pimsleur is listening to rote sentences over and over, you’re not training yourself to come up with a sentence on-the-fly. If a French native asks you, “Excusez-moi. Est-ce que vous savez où est la gare?” you’ll have to pause for a moment to tell her where it is. Because you’ve heard the construction, “Où est xxxx (Where is xxxx)“, and how to say, “Le restaurant est Rue St. Benoît (The restaurant’s on St. Benoît street),” but not much practice scrapbooking these sentence shreds in your mind.
I don’t fault Pimsleur for the following omissions in their course because it’s only 50 hours long. Essentials only, right?
You won’t learn “She could have gone to the store.” Or, “they helped themselves to some potatoes.” “I used to climb trees in my youth”? Forget it. These sentences use complex tenses or idiomatic usage that are beyond an intro program.
Despite its failings, it’s still the best language course on the market. Yeah, you learn a castrated version of French. But what you learn, you learn well. It’s expensive, though: about $200 on Amazon for the first 30 lessons. Go to a library.