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Pimsleur language learning system

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Pimsleur language learning system is a language acquisition method developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur. It is based on four main principles: Anticipation, Graduated Interval Recall, Core Vocabulary, and Organic Learning.

The Pimsleur method works entirely through listening. The listener recalls and constructs phrases from memory, rather than repeating what they hear. The lessons are 30 minutes long and designed to be repeated until the student attains 70-80% comprehension, at which point he or she may move on to the next lesson. As the lessons repeat themselves and add new material, it is not necessary for the student to master each lesson perfectly before moving on to the next lesson. The learner is tested and retested on new material at varying intervals throughout the course to reinforce memory. 


The student listens to a recording on which a native speaker speaks culturally rich phrases in both the foreign language and the language used for teaching (usually English but the method is not tied to a specific language).

At precise intervals (graduated 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 a couple of times, the student is asked to repeat the previous phrase but borrowing from the words and meaning of the new one (recall and construction).

More new phrases are introduced, while old phrases are prompted at random. The random recall prompts the learner's mind to associate words with meanings.

Pimsleur Learning Principles

Language courses commonly require a student to repeat after an instructor, which Pimsleur believed was a passive way of learning. Pimsleur developed the "challenge and response" technique, where a student was asked to come up with the correct phrase in the target language, which was then confirmed. This technique developed an active way of learning, requiring the student to think before responding. Thus, Pimsleur thought the principle of anticipation reflects real life conversations where a speaker must recall a phrase quickly.

Graduated Interval Recall

Graduated Interval Recall is a method of reinforcing learned vocabulary by having students rapidly recall learned material and then gradually reviewing the material at longer 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. Thus, the word gradually moves from short term into longer 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. 

Core Vocabulary

Studies have shown that a relatively small core vocabulary accounts for the majority of words spoken in a particular language. 

Corpus linguistics compiled for various languages show what number of words is required to cover a certain percentage of the corpus. 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.[1]

A constructed language could be fully functional with about 2,000 words. The Pimsleur method works by teaching core vocabulary that tend to be most often used in everyday activities (i.e. to do, to say, to be, numbers, buying, eating and drinking). Pimsleur rarely teaches grammar, rather letting the student infer the grammar through common patterns in phrases.

Organic Learning

With the belief that language is primarily speech, Dr. Pimsleur created his language programs in audio format because he believed that students of languages would learn better with their ears, not their eyes. This is achieved through what Dr. Pimsleur called "organic learning," which entails learning grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation simultaneously. Learning by listening can also teach the proper accent, which cannot be heard in 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.


The Pimsleur system does not teach how to read and write a language. A gradual understanding of word etymologies and how words are related to each other(which is facilitated by literacy) is key in developing beyond the beginner level in a language. One might have difficulty in responding to any variation of the phrases taught. Pimsleur does not teach grammar, and without grammar, it may be difficult to comprehend sentence structures that were not encountered in Pimsleur. Although children acquire their native languages without learning grammar, they are generally surrounded by their language and interacted with in it on a daily basis, as opposed to the "one-way" Pimsleur method. Furthermore, children do not learn how to speak their language properly until they reach a certain age(after having been immersed in this language for years previously); it might be argued that listening to audiotapes a couple of hours a day does not compare to the immersion and interaction that children experience daily when learning a particular language. Children learning languages experience many kinds of feedback as they grow; for example, a toddler might hear the word "orange" many times while watching people make orange juice, eating oranges, or reading a children's book. The Pimsleur system, however, only provides auditory feedback. As with any self-study program, the learner may have difficulty in learning proper pronunciation unless they have the feedback of a native speaker.


Basic Statistical Analysis of Corpus and Cross Comparison among Corpora Akshar Bharati, et al.

Nation, I. S. P. (Ed.) (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pimsleur, P. (1967). A memory schedule. Modern Language Journal, 51, 73-75.

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