The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #1 January / February 2013
Language Learning Methods
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2013 | 

When we talk about learning a language, the most common idea is probably of taking a course, perhaps in a local university. However, there are many other methods of picking up a new language that don't require long classes with total strangers and high fees. A popular alternative is an audio course. With the increase in popularity of digital players and podcasts, these have increasingly become the method of choice.

Audio lessons were first recorded on LPs

Audio courses are not a new idea, however. Ever since the first audio playback devices was invented, they have been used as teaching tools for languages. A student could obtain a "long playing" (LP) with relative ease. Over time, these became replaced by cassettes, then CDs, and now digital files. The contents of these different mediums have not evolved as much. Since an audio recording isn't truly "interactive" - one can only listen and respond but no one actually hears your response - it is up to the learner to gauge their own progress. Most of the time, if only achieving the ability to be understood is desired, then this is fine. But for true fluency to be achieved, some kind of feedback from another person is required.

The methods used in these recordings vary. Courses from Pimsleur, Berlitz, Barron's and Michel Thomas are all popular, and invoke different ways of presenting their material. The oldest method is to have the announcer on the audio tell you a word in your native language, like English, then have a native speaker say the equivalent word, leaving then a pause while the student repeats it. For example, an Italian course would have the announcer say "Hello", then a native Italian would say "Ciao". There would be a pause (sometime preceded by the announcer encouraging the student to repeat it) in which the learner is given the chance to respond with "Ciao". This might be, at least at beginner levels, repeated a few times, having the word repeated alternately by the native speaker then the student. Finally, the announcer announces the next word, and the process is repeated.

A great many of the people using these courses were doing so not to become fluent so much as prepare for a vacation or business trip to another country.

As you can imagine, learning a single word this way will take some time, and therefore the vocabulary you can obtain from a single recording is severely limited. Also, this method depends entirely on rote memorization. As the student progresses, the words become phrases, the phrases become longer and the number of repetitions is reduced as the student becomes more familiar with the language's sounds and patterns. A great many of the people using these courses were doing so not to become fluent so much as prepare for a vacation or business trip to another country. To that end, the words and phrases taught were specialized to what might need in those situations. "Where is the train station?" and "How much does that cost?" would be preferred to something like "I like red balloons" or "Would you like to play chess, Boris?" (that last phrase was actually found in an old cassette course for Russian).

The Pimsleur Method

Paul Pimsleur developed another method that focuses on active participation instead of rote memorization. In these lessons, the student repeats the words and phrases spoken by the native, as in the old courses. However, the student is also made to create new phrases by inference, thus making them actually think about the language. For example, if they have learned how to say "Where is the museum?", then the word for "hotel" might be given, and the student would be asked to "imagine" a situation in which they had to ask "Where is the hotel?".

Woman listening to her MP3 player

Another part of the Pimsleur method is to learn a long word in parts, starting from the end. This is not completely unlike how children are taught to read - by sounding out each part of the word before saying it all at once. The benefit from this is that in previous methods, a long word or phrase can come out as a jumble that is too fast for a student to properly even hear before being told to repeat it exactly.

The real breakthrough in the Pimsleur method, if you can call it that, would most like be the "spaced repetition". Once a person has learned a word in the more conventional method, they are unlikely to use that word many more times during the course. However, if they are expected to reuse the word a few minutes after they have learned it, then at other intervals along the way, they are keeping that knowledge at the front of their thoughts and thus more likely to retain it. Spaced repetition systems (SRS), while having been first developed in 1932 by Professor C. A. Mace, have become very popular in recent years and we will look at them more completely in another article.


With the older courses mainly being used to teach common phrases for traveling, the newer courses are more likely to employ two native speakers who are having a conversation. In this way, the student has a more natural way of hearing how someone might respond to what they say. Just because you may learn how to ask "Where is the museum?", there is no way to guarantee you will understand all or even part of the answer you are given ("Over there.", "On 23rd street.", "Go three blocks that way then turn left at the statue of Garibaldi.", etc). Conversations are also used in most other learning methods, since they go to the heart of why you are learning the language.. to speak with others. But the problem of understanding the response is always the same. It is a common joke in films to show a tourist stumbling over a phrase from a book to ask directions of a native, only to have the native then respond rapidly in a long stream of sentences to which the poor tourist can only stare in complete confusion. Memorizing one or two possible short replies just won't be enough.

12All pages
Language Learning Methods - Audio
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Matúš Petrila: CD on table (top)
Chris Chidsey: girl listening to mp3 player
Aldert Grey: iPod 4G
Petey: shortwave radio, record player

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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