I’ve been using the Pimsleur CDs for a while now, to learn Japanese.
OK, I’ve only used the actual CDs once, to rip to iTunes, but it amounts to the same thing. And it’s a lot easier to carry an iPod about than a stack of 45 CDs. Yep, 45. Each of the three levels of Pimsleur Japanese contain 30 half-hour lessons. Fifteen CDs per level means 45 CDs. Which means 45 hours of pure, solid Japanese learning.
You might think I’d be nearly fluent by now, but you’d be disappointed.
There are pros and cons to this method of learning. One of the pros is that I can listen to the lesson on my way to work. The driving part of my brain seems to be nearly completely separate from the translating part of my brain. It’s only when having to deal with a tricky traffic situation that I need to hit pause — much like when listening to the radio is normally not distracting, except when you’re trying to concentrate on a particular task.
I’d drive to work and do a lesson at the same time. My commute is a bit shorter than a half hour, so I’d sit in my car for a few minutes after parking, and finish up. It worked out rather well.
Another ‘pro’ is that the way the vocabulary and grammar are taught (the ‘Pimsleur’ method) seems to work pretty well for me. I’d have to listen to a lesson two or three times, but it would eventually sink in. And getting things 100% right isn’t necessary, as the next lesson would review what was taught in the previous.
Now come the ‘cons’. Are there enough pros to outweigh the cons?
The first is that the way the lessons are constructed, they mostly teach you how to translate English into Japanese on the fly. This is certainly a useful skill, but it’s pretty much the only skill that’s taught. There are short segments where the lesson switches to ‘now we’ll have a conversation in Japanese’, but these are few and far between. The vast majority of the learning comes from the (native English-speaking) narrator saying things like “Tell her the weather is nice” (Ii otenki desu ne) or “Order a beer” (Biru ippon onegaishimasu) or “Invite him in” (Douzo ohaidi kudasai).
I became very good at going from English to Japanese, flipping the word order on the fly, as in Japanese the verb comes last. For example, ‘I live in Kyoto’ becomes ‘Kyoto at live-exist’ (Kyoto ni sunde imasu), with the ‘I’ implied. Or ‘I have three children’ becomes ‘three people children exist’ (San nin kodomo ga imasu), with the possessive implied. I actually do have three children, so this lesson was perfect! Hitori otokono to futari onnanoko ga imasu. Mada chiisai desu. See? I thought of what I wanted to say in English, translated into Japanese, and romaji-ified the result. Piece o’ cake. Of course, it would be better if I could think in Japanese first, without going through the English step. But perhaps I’m asking too much.
At the beginning of each lesson, they present a short conversation that both tested your knowledge of the previous lesson and sometimes introduced new vocabulary. This, for the most part, was the extent of the work done to help your brain understand spoken Japanese. Like any beginner, I would first translate the Japanese into English in my head, and then translate the English into concepts that I grokked. The second translation was automatic, of course, but the fact that I still need, after 90 lessons, to go through the intermediate English step is disappointing.
That brings us to the next ‘con’, which is lack of Japanese direction — by which I mean spoken instructions as to what to do, say, or learn next. Partway through the first level, probably around lesson 14 or 15, the narrator – and I call him that for lack of a better term – stated that, as the lessons progressed, more and more instructions and directions will be given in Japanese. Oh would that were true. Instead, a couple of commonly-used phrases (e.g. ‘listen and repeat please’) were used, but nearly all the rest of the direction was in English. Some half-hearted attempts were made to increase the amount, but were eventually abandoned.
Another ‘con’ is the sliding-window nature of the vocabulary. They might spend three or four lessons introducing, reinforcing, and reviewing a topic, but once the topic was covered, it was never used again. Certainly some of the knowledge is used throughout, and some basic vocabulary (conjunctions, common verbs, and so on) is ubiquitous by necessity, but much of the vocabulary is abandoned once it’s considered ‘mastered’. The fault lies with the format, of course. Each lesson lasts 30 minutes, which provides just enough time for a bit of review, introducing some new vocabulary or grammar, and then working on that. There is no way to fit everything learned in every previous lesson. With a human teacher, you’d be able to work on parts you’re struggling with, and set aside parts that come naturally to you.
One other problem is that the later lessons (mostly levels 2 and 3) are geared towards business needs. “Where’s the overhead projector?” / “I need a copier.” / “Is Mr Ito available for a meeting?” / “I need more time to prepare the presentation.” Of course, this is great if you’re going to Japan for business, but less helpful when you’re studying the language for my reasons.
Yeah, Mark, why are you learning Japanese anyway?
Two words: Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi. Er, I mean “Spirited Away”. The Japanese title is complicated. ‘Sen’ and ‘Chichiro’ are names; ‘to’ means ‘and’; ‘no’ indicates possessive. “Sen and Chichiro’s …” And then we’re left with kamikakushi, which means abduction by spirits. Googling for more information resulted in this quote: “The core definition of kamikakushi is the sudden and mysterious disappearance of individuals attributed to their abduction by some supernatural being.” Yow.
Sen and Chichiro’s Ghostly Abduction? Sen and Chichiro’s Mysterious Disappearance? Yeah, ‘Spirited Away’ is much better, given its dual meaning.
Anyway, back to my main point: I am learning Japanese so that I can watch this film in Japanese. I’ve seen it many times already. Once with the English dub, and the rest in Japanese with English subtitles. I’ve seen it enough times now that I could watch it without the subtitles and still know what’s going on. But I want to watch it and listen to the Japanese and understand it. Pimsleur Japanese isn’t doing that for me.
To answer the question I posed earlier: do the pros outweigh the cons? Despite all I said, the answer is yes. The ability to listen to the lessons on my way to work and the ability to translate English into Japanese – even though it’s pretty simple grammar and vocabulary – is a great step forward in learning the language. I do feel as if I could “get by” in Japan were I to visit. And I would like very much to visit.
Until I can, I’ll be watching Spirited Away and re-listening to all my language CDs.