The way advertisers are able to target you on the internet is both really cool and kind of annoying. I heard about one of my favorite bands coming to my city through an online ad, but after writing a post for Tofugu about Hawai’i, I saw ads for longboard accessories for months afterwards, despite that fact that I’ve never ridden a longboard in my life.
If the ad gods of the internet think that you’re interested in learning a language, then you’ve probably seen your share of language learning ads. One ad in particular has been showing up over and over for me, and probably a bunch of you too: the stupid “Language Professors HATE Him!” ads.
According to these ads, we’re all missing out on some amazing secret method to learning languages that The Man has been keeping down. The truth is that this secret method isn’t actually all that secret, and won’t be able to teach you Japanese in 10 days.
The Pimsleur Method
Paul Pimsleur was an American who taught French in the 60s. Over the years, he came up with his own method to teach language, something we now call the Pimsleur Method.
The Pimsleur Method is actually pretty modern and effective, when you get down to it. Even though it doesn’t teach writing at all, it incorporates a ton of language-learning methods that are still used a lot to this day. Pimsleur used spaced repetition (like WaniKani or Anki), and focused on teaching the “core” words of a language that are used most often (like the core Anki decks you see).
There’s really nothing wrong with the Pimsleur Method itself, but the way it’s sold nowadays can be pretty sketchy. Companies do things like tell you you can learn Japanese in only 10 days (lol), or start charging you for lessons you didn’t even know you’d ordered. If you decide to try the Pimsleur method, be careful about where you get it from.
Fortunately though, Pimsleur is remembered for more than the teaching method that online ads spam you with. One of my favorite podcasts, Lexicon Valley, just ran an episode about Pimsleur. The podcast talked a bit about the Pimsleur method and stuff like that, but what I hadn’t heard before was how he studied how quickly people speak.
Apparently, Pimsleur thought one of the big problems people had when learning a language is not being able to keep up when hearing the language spoken aloud. I know that I’ve definitely sat by completely befuddled as somebody speaks Japanese way too quickly for me to keep up.
A few months ago, we had a post about why Japanese people talk so fast (it’s because Japanese conveys information slowly), but it looks like we were only scratching the surface.
When Lexicon Valley talked about how Pimsleur studied how quickly people talk, I realized that measuring how fast or slow an language is is actually really really hard. How do you measure speed?
You could look at the number of words used in a sentence, but that seems hard. You can say the same thing using different words in every language, so how do you decide which is the normal or average way to say something? I really don’t know.
One thing that really blew my mind was when Lexicon Valley pointed out how a syllable can be a really misleading form of measurement. The example they used was that “strengths” is just one syllable in English, even though it’s kind of a long, complex word. In other languages (like Japanese), one syllable is a lot more restrictive
You could break it down another level from syllables and measure phonemes, the most basic unit of sound in languages, but that still doesn’t really solve any of the problems we’ve run into earlier.
Maybe there’s not one, objective way to measure how “fast” a language is. It seems like everybody thinks that foreign languages sound really fast anyway. Lexicon Valley points out that in a study of Japanese and American college students, both groups said that foreign languages sound faster.
Pimsleur did what he could in studying how quickly people talk, but obviously there’s a lot more to explore. He never got a chance to completely finish his work, but at the very least Pimsleur’s legacy will live on as long as there are mice to click on banner ads.