How does the Pimsleur Method mirror this?
The way language is naturally acquired—in real-life second language learning situations—is by listening to the language itself. And analyzing it yourself. The people who learn second languages most successfully, are not those who go to language schools. If you go to a language school, you tend to go somewhere where they have a special theory about how language should be learned, and they impose that theory upon you. But actually, the human mind is constructed to learn language. That’s one of the basic things. Just as a spider spins its web, so too do people acquire language. It’s just as natural as that. If you try to constrain that process by imposing some regime that you’ve thought, theoretically, that ought to work, it really doesn’t help. The Pimsleur Method success lies in its ability to mimic natural language acquisition insofar as any teaching method can.
What is they key to language learning?
You have to ask yourself, why is it that so many people try to learn foreign languages and fail abysmally. I think there’s 2 reasons why they fail: they’re not motivated enough and they don’t have sufficient exposure to the real thing. The key to language learning is a combination of these two things. As regards motivation, a lot of that’s got to come from the learner. But given the learner has a reasonable amount of motivation, then the burden lies upon the course to hold the learner’s attention and continually present them with material that is both interesting in itself, and relevant to the kinds of things the learner will have to do when he’s using the language. That will keep up the motivation.
Now, as for the material, if you have material produced by a native speaker of that language, and a sufficient amount of that material is provided, then language learn learning takes place. Since we are equipped to learn languages, the brain does the rest of the job for us. All it needs is sufficient motivation and sufficient first-class, first-language speaker material from which to learn.
Explain this concept that Pimsleur uses, from a linguist’s standpoint.
From a linguist’s standpoint, Pimsleur Language Programs work in a very natural manner. Lots of people try to learn foreign languages—it’s rather like people trying to lose weight. Lots of people try to lose weight and very few do. Lots of people try to learn foreign languages, but they get bored, they get discouraged, they find that it’s too hard for them. By presenting the learner with material in the target language, the Pimsleur programs expose the learner—from the earliest stage—to real-life dialogue in real-life situations. So, it’s going to keep the learner interested and teach the learner language that can be used immediately. There’s a payoff right away.
Briefly explain the fundamentals that make up any given language.
Our brain is automatically programmed to take words and put them together. It differs from language to language, but not as much as you’d think. Every language is cut to so close a pattern, that some linguists regard them basically as dialects of one language. So, in other words, you already have in your brain a machine that is ready and waiting for language.
What do you have to do?
You have to learn the sound system of the language, which may different from yours. Then, you have to learn the words. And when you’ve done that, you have to learn what the particular properties of the words are, because the properties will tell you how to put them together in a sentence. You do this by hearing them used correctly in sentences, preferably, by a native speaker of that language. That’s all you need to know. You don’t have to be given a lot of elaborate grammatical rules, because your brain’s already equipped to figure them out for you.
How does the brain acquire new information?
When you hear anything at all, it is stored in your short term memory. The short-term memory will hold it, but unless it is repeated and re-emphasized, it is not going to hold on to it. Many things pass, so to speak, through your memory. In order to make long-term memories, the information must be transferred. This occurs through repetition, but if they’re repeated exactly as they were the first time, that becomes monotonous. So, the best way to do it is to take the same information, or similar information, and present it in a slightly varied so you see the same situation from different angles.
Why do you think the Pimsleur Method works?
I think what makes Pimsleur most effective is that it engages the learner from the very first stage and presents him with situations that hold his interest and attention—and it’s been carefully prepared to do so. Let’s face it, lot of foreign language work can be terribly boring. And one of the key elements in language learning is motivation. If the learner is not motivated and gets presented with mechanical, repetitive kinds of exercise, then it becomes a chore. To find a language program that holds the learner’s interest is really something quite rare. And I think the Pimsleur method certainly does that.
ABOUT DEREK BICKERTON, PHD
A graduate from the University of Cambridge, England in 1949, Derek Bickerton entered academic life in the 1960s, first as a lecturer in English Literature at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, and then, after a year’s postgraduate work in linguistics at the University of Leeds, as Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at the University of Guyana (1967-71). For twenty-four years he was a Professor of Linguistics at the University of Hawaii, having meanwhile received a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Cambridge (1976).
Known the world over for his work on the evolution of language, he is the author of many books, including Language and Species, Derek Bickerton’s most recent book, Lingua ex Machina: Reconciling Darwin and Chomsky with the Human Brain, was co-written with William H. Calvin and published by MIT Press.