Alternate Title: Why Repeating “I am going to eat” 40 times in 30 minutes will help you learn Japanese.
About two months into my Japanese 101 class in college, I had made it a habit of going to office hours to practice my Japanese. I was a bright-eyed freshman, and I was eager to show off the breadth of my Japanese vocabulary—all 10 words or so. Nonetheless, I dutifully showed up every week, and I recall at one point in conversation I used the phrase けっこうです (kekko-desu / That’s fine) in response to something my teacher said—a phrase we had not yet explicitly covered in class, but something I had picked up using Pimsleur.
Now, this is nothing to write home about, but my teacher responded positively, telling me she was impressed at how even with my limited vocabulary, I was able to effectively communicate my thoughts in Japanese compared to some of my peers. This turned out to be a very good thing in the end, as I was able to score a very good recommendation letter from this same teacher for an intensive Japanese program that summer—which I got into!
I attribute a lot of my success in Japanese 101 to having used Pimsleur outside of class, so it’s worth going over.
What is Pimsleur, and how does it work?
Pimsleur is a well-known audi0-based language learning course for beginners that’s available in a variety of languages, and I know I’m not the first person to write about it. Nonetheless, for Japanese consists of the following:
- Three levels with 30 audio-lessons in each level (for a total of 90 lessons). Each lesson is an audio track about 30 minutes long.
- When the lesson beings you listen to a dialogue. Then you repeat the words from the dialogue after a native speaker multiple times.
- Once you have the word down, the narrator will prompt you in English to either repeat a word, or use the correct phrase in response to some scenario.
- Do one lesson a day, making sure you successfully repeat about 80% of the time.
All of this takes place over the course of 30 minutes, and by the end of the lesson, you should be able to understand and use the phrases from the dialogue from the beginning of the lesson.
Pimsleur seems to offer free sample lessons on its website, so if you’re curious, I’d give one a try in the language of your choice. If you’re interested in what the Japanese lessons specifically will offer you, you can find unofficial transcripts for all 3 levels right here.
Why Pimsleur is worth your time
For the absolute beginner, this is a great program. You won’t be fluent by the end—after all, 90 lessons amounts to only 45 hours, less than amount of time you’ll spend on your average Final Fantasy game—and you may not be using the most natural Japanese either, but you’ll be able to communicate. In other words, you’ll have formed a powerful knowledge-base for future study.
By being forced to repeat certain tricky grammar constructions or particularly difficult-to-pronounce words over and over, you smooth out any language problems you might have had. Furthermore, actually speaking puts your language ability to the test: it’s all too easy to read over some Japanese and believe you understand it, but then when it comes to say it out loud, you get tongue-tied and confused.
I have seen people point out that Pimsleur is boring, but I’ve never found this to be the case for me. Figuring out the syntax and construction of sentences from pure audio is difficult, especially when the built-in pauses during the audio are short enough to keep you on your toes. Remember, you want resistance when you study, and as a complete language beginner, you will be challenged when using Pimsleur from scratch.
Plus, unlike shadowing, there are no prerequisites to using Pimsleur: it’s a self-contained course for the pure beginner, and can be used alone or in conjunction with your basic-level college course or textbook. With Pimsleur, you will memorize the heck out of a small number of words and sentences, and you will see a difference in your language ability.
Why this works over other study methods
Beyond the usual marketing-sounding stuff you’ll find about the “Pimsleur method” on the official website, it works because you spend 30 minutes a day, every day. That takes some serious commitment—I know I have trouble sticking to a daily schedule with regards to most things. When you self-study, it’s easy to put off for later; with Pimsleur, you’re forced to keep at it, and that’s what makes the difference.
In a future post I’ll be going over some ideas for reading and writing Japanese.