Welcome to the second part of my post on the “best” self-study language method! You might remember from the previous post that I told you that the best way to find the right match for you when it comes to a language method is to know your personal learning style.
Do you like grammar? Do you like lengthy explanations in your native tongue? Do you prefer a focus on listening, speaking, or reading skills? Do you like colorful pictures? These are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself to help you choose what will be the right fit for you.
If you are a first time language learner, don’t worry. At this stage, the best thing to do is to go through a process of trial and error, and the reason I’m writing reviews of language methods here is to help you make that choice and reduce the number of “errors” in the process. Have a quick glance at all of the methods I’ve written about, and think about what sounds like a good match. Nothing bad will come out of it!
Method #3: Pimsleur
Average cost of the method: around $35 for sixteen 30 minutes-long audio lessons. Around $200 for the “comprehensive series”, which includes thirty 30 minute-long audio lessons and one hour of reading instruction.
Available in: Over 50 languages
Type of method: Audio-only method (in 30 minute-long lessons). Listen to words and dialogues in the target language and repeat.
Chances are you might know Pimsleur from the amount of spam their affiliate marketers tend to send in your email inbox, with catchy titles such as “Learn a New Language in Only 10 Days!” This rather disappointing fact has somewhat, in my eyes anyway, tainted the reputation of this method. Anyone who makes a statement as bold and ridiculous as saying that you can learn to “speak” a language in 10 days probably has no idea what they’re talking about, or, just perhaps, they really want your money badly.
Now, before we delve into the pros and cons of the method, though, let’s take a look at what Pimsleur actually is. Pimsleur is almost exclusively an audio-only method, offered in over 50 languages (including English for native speakers of various other languages), and the method was developed by Paul Pimsleur (1927–1976), who was a scholar in the field of applied linguistics.
Pimsleur comes in a variety of programs, which you can have a quick glance at here. The programs are as follow: Quick & Simple, go Pimsleur, Basic, Compact, Conversational, and Comprehensive. The 4 first programs are really quite short, and do not cover more than a handful of lessons (10 at most, or 5 hours of audio). The comprehensive program, depending on the language, can be offered in as many as 4 levels, each level comprising 16 hours (16 CDs) of spoken language instruction.
The way Pimsleur works is rather simple. At the beginning of each lesson, you get to hear a short dialogue (~2mn) in the foreign language you’re studying. At the beginning you do not usually understand much of it. However, after having listened to that dialogue, the next 25 or so minutes are spent covering the words and phrases that you heard in that conversation, plus some more. You are strongly encouraged to listen to the speakers and repeat after them.
If you’d like to listen to a free lesson, click here to see their list of languages and simple follow the “free lesson” link.
Now for the good part: Pimsleur is undoubtedly an easy and convenient way to start learning a language, especially if you want to focus on listening and speaking skills. What I especially like about it is that it’s a great method to work on while commuting to school or work. For example, if you drive every day to work, and it takes you 30 minutes to commute, you’ll be able to go through one lesson each time you get to work. The speakers are also very professional, with a clear, neutral pronunciation, and you really do feel like you progress quickly while going through the lessons.
The other good thing is that it’s really easy to follow through. Many beginner language learners are kind of afraid of books and grammars and boring concepts. Pimsleur says adios to all that. Really, all you have to do is listen comfortably to the speakers and try your best to repeat after them. New words are also repeated many times, so chances are they will end up sticking in your long-term memory without too much effort on your part. Finally, the lessons progress at a reasonable pace, not too fast, and not too slow either (although I’ve heard some complaints from people who feel the lessons progress too slowly, but I’ve found the pace to be good enough, since new words and phrases really stick in your memory).
Now for the bad part: well, let’s not lie to ourselves, Pimsleur is an expensive method. For most of us, this is a strong influencing factor when it comes to making the decision to purchase a language method. If money is not an issue, I’d say sure, give it a try. But before spending $200 on thirty 30 minute-long audio lessons, shop around to see if this money couldn’t be spent in a better way (i.e. any of the other methods in this post and the previous one).
Also, as you might know by now, Pimsleur is an audio-only method (although the “comprehensive” program does include a PDF or a booklet). This means that you will definitely not be developing your reading and writing skills through this method. That’s OK if this is what you’re looking after, or if you’re looking for a method specifically suitable for listening on your MP3 or while driving to work. However, if you do wish to focus on reading and/or writing practice early on in your language studies, consider purchasing another method.
Method #4: Michel Thomas
Average cost of the method: ~$75 for the Total Series, which includes 12 hours of audio on CD.
Available in: 12 languages.
Type of method: audio-only method. Listen to a live lesson given by a teacher with two additional students, and repeat after the teacher.
Michel Thomas was a polyglot linguist, language teacher, and decorated war veteran who developed a language-teaching system known as the Michel Thomas Method. He claimed his method would allow students to become conversationally proficient after only a few days’ study, and his clients included diplomats, industrialists, and celebrities. Michel Thomas passed away in 2005, so the newer products that came on the market since then have been developed and recorded by some of Michel’s former students who were trained to teach and pass down his technique.
The Michel Thomas method is a cheaper alternative to Pimsleur, but that doesn’t mean the quality suffers in any way; it’s simply a different method. While it’s also an audio-only language learning resource, it differs from Pimsleur on a few important points.
Basically, the way the method works is that Michel (or the teacher teaching the language) and two students are recorded in a live lesson. Words and sentences and introduced with explanations, and within one hour you are expected to be able to construct simple phrases. You will learn the language with the students, hearing both their successes and their mistakes to keep you motivated and involved throughout the course.
Because actual students are involved in the recording, the pace of progress is realistic, and you almost feel as if you were in class with Michel and his students. Moreover, the students, at times, also ask for clarifications, for example concerning a grammatical concept or the pronunciation of a certain word, which well might be questions you have yourself in mind.
The method also tends to work in a more “inductive” manner (they let you “understand” new grammatical concepts through examples, rather than tell them to you right away). So you are sometimes given several drills around a certain sentence to make you understand how the language works, and slowly by slowly sentences are getting longer and more complicated based on what you have previously learned.
For example, in the Michel Thomas Spanish series, they will tell you that “Pablo is sick today” is “Pablo está enfermo hoy” in Spanish, and that “Pablo is a sick person” is “Pablo es enfermo”. So you are supposed to infer here the difference between the verb “está” and “es”, both meaning “to be”, through such examples (of course, you will have been exposed to these verbs and vocabulary prior to hearing those example sentences).
Another peculiarity of the Michel Thomas method is its high use of so-called “mnemonics”, or “memory-aides” to help you acquire and remember effectively newly-introduced vocabulary. Some examples can be downright silly, but that’s the point of a mnemonic, to come up with a silly association to make it stick in your long-term memory. To give you a simple example, in the Chinese series the teacher introduces the word for “where” in Chinese, which is nǎr (哪儿). The teacher then says the following sentence: “The poor man was ‘nǎrwhere’ to be found. Where is he now?” As you can see, through this menmonic, you will quickly remember that “nǎr” means “where” (or at least it’s supposed to help!).
Michel Thomas is, overall, a great method that I would not hesitate to recommend. I think the strength of the method lies in its progressive building up of ready-to-use vocabulary, sentences, and expressions. They really try to give you all the tools necessary to enable you to make your own sentences as soon as possible, and to be ready to actually talk to real people. You do not get the kind of useless sentence such as “the elephant is behind the ball”.
The use of mnemonics is also something I personally find useful. It might not be to everyone’s liking, but I find that it really does help with the memorization of vocabulary, which is often something many students of foreign languages struggle with. Lastly, since real students are involved in the recordings, the pace is realistic, and useful questions that a normal language learner might have when going through the process of learning a particular foreign language are often asked.
The most obvious bad side to the Michel Thomas method is its availability in only 12 different languages (13 if you include Hindi, which was made available recently in the “Start” package. So, for example, if you are looking into learning Korean, you’ll have to unfortunately look somewhere else.
Other than that, if you are a very fast learner or you have had prior exposure to the language you’re studying, you might feel that the pace of the method is a bit slow. As stated before, since real students are involved in the recordings and they themselves go through the method with the teacher, you are tied to their pace of learning. You might also not be that interested in actually listening to the attempts of the students at repeating and translating after the teacher.
Finally, just as with Pimsleur, because Michel Thomas is an audio-only method, you will definitely not be developing your reading and writing skills. However, it’s great for listening on your MP3 or while driving to work.
Method #5: Living Language
Average cost of the method: 1book + 3 audio CDs: ~$22. 3 books + 9 audio CDs package: $50
Available in: Main textbook in 12 languages; various other textbooks combined in over 30 languages
Type of method: all-encompassing method mostly available in print (+ online courses through their platinum program), which covers vocabulary, grammar, and more through dialogues and exercises.
The Living Language series comes in 3 products: Essential, Complete, and Platinum. The Essential courses are meant for beginners. The package has one book and 3 CDs that teach basic vocabulary and grammar. The Complete courses cover beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. The package has three books and 9 CDs that teach more complex grammatical structures and more vocabulary than the Essential course. Finally, the Platinum courses contain the same content as Complete but with the additional tools of a language specific mobile app, a web course, and e-Tutoring included.
The Living Language website has a page with free downloads for PDFs in over 7 languages, plus phrasebooks in 12 languages and more. Check it out if you’d like to get a quick overview of what their method looks like.
From the method’s website, here is how they describe themselves:
The Living Language Method™ is not a game of charades. It doesn’t force adult language learners to try to absorb a new language, like they could when they were babies. It makes use of all the tools that adults have at their disposal to learn efficiently and effectively, without clumsy guesswork or frustration, in order to really learn how to speak a new language. […]
It’s easiest to learn and remember a new language when you use more than one sense. The combination of audio and visual input, along with written, recorded, and interactive digital practice, creates a true multimedia learning experience that actively engages you in your new language right from the start. In addition, special recall exercises move your new language from short-term to long-term memory.
This particular method is a bit more “all-encompassing” than the other ones we have looked at so far, with vocabulary lists, dialogues, many more grammatical concepts and explanations, comprehension practice, plenty of exercises, culture topic, and so forth. If, as the description of the method taken from their website suggests, you do not like “guesswork”, or, shall we say, learning in a more inductive manner, this method might be the right one for you. In this respect, Living Language differs quite dramatically from Assimil (see previous post for a review of that method).
Below, you’ll see an example taken from their Korean series, to give you a quick idea of what the method looks like.
The Living Language method is extremely affordable and, on the whole, very thorough. If you have a look at the reviews on Amazon for their methods, you’ll see that most of them are 5 stars. From my personal experience using many different language methods, Living Language is definitely very professional, easy to go through, and affordable. I had been looking for a long time for a good Korean language method, and when I stumbled upon the Spoken World Korean series (made by Living Language), I was pleasantly surprised.
Depending on the type of learner you are, Living Language might not be the right fit for you, since it contains lots of explanations, grammatical concepts, and, as such, a lot of English. However, this is what a lot of people are exactly looking for. This is a more “traditional” type of method, and if you feel this is the right fit for you, go for it! Lastly, in the Korean series, I must say that I found the pace to be quite fast. From the very first chapter onwards, a lot of vocabulary and sentences are introduced. However, I do not think this particular book is representative of the whole method. In doubt, look for reviews or download their free PDFs, and make a decision based on your own observation!
Well, that’s it for my review of what I consider to be some of the best self-study language textbooks/methods out there. I hope this has been useful to you, and I’d love to hear your feedback in the comments section. Also, let all the community know what has worked for you in the past with which particular languages.
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