In Qatar, where I was living at the time, there were very few good bookshops. The ones that did exist catered almost exclusively for Modern Standard Arabic resources, which, thanks to this interview, I had decided not to learn.
Pimsleur Egyptian Arabic is one of the resources that quickly filled this gap, mainly because I was able to get the digital version online.
This post covers two things:
- A brief review of the product
- How to adapt the course so you learn more from it
Hopefully it will help you decide whether it’s right for you to start learning a new language.
The Pimsleur approach is, for want of a better term, a “phrasebook approach” to language learning.
They start you off with simple dialogues, breaking them down bit by bit into phrases, which you then practise… a lot of times.
And I mean a lot. A lot more than you probably expect!
This, however, is one of the strengths of the product. They focus on a small number of very useful phrases and get you to repeat them and use them in roleplay-type situations over and over again.
This is good.
Most textbooks cram 1-2 years’ worth of material into 200 pages, lay it on thick, but the onus is on you to go away and remember it all.
…which is where most people fall down. They don’t have a system for remembering so much language.
The approach that Pimsleur takes, on the other hand, is to say:
“Right, we’re going to give you a small number of words and phrases that you’re actually going to need when you go to Egypt, and you’re going to practise them till you’re blue in the face.”
In other words, as you listen to the audio lessons, they lead you step by step through the process of learning the stuff.
Their name for their approach is a rather unnecessarily grandiose term “Graduated Interval Recall”. This basically means a Spaced Repetition System (such as that used by flashcard software) for phrases.
You are prompted to remember set phrases over increasingly large intervals of time.
For example, you might learn the phrase: “Do you speak Arabic?” and hear it 20 times during one lesson. You’d then hear it 15 times in the next lesson, 10 times in the next, and so on.
But you know what? It works.
Just from having the audio on in the car on my way to work for a few weeks, I very quickly learnt all the phrases from memory, and was able to use them in conversation with native speakers during my iTalki tutoring sessions.
On the whole, I have to say that I appreciate their relatively non-BS claims on their website.
Now, if you’ve got a good product then you need to sell it. So it’s always going to be difficult for producers of language courses to balance effective selling with dubious claims.
I think they do a reasonable job, although I wish they wouldn’t try to make claims like these (taken from their website):
Thirty minutes a day is all it takes to develop a near native accent and become proficient in your new language.
Develop a near native accent without actually speaking to people? Become proficient in your new language by listening to CDs.
But would people buy it, and benefit from it, if they didn’t say that?
Who knows. Marketing is tough.
All good, right?
Well, yes… kind of.
Here’s the deal. Pimsleur make audio-only language courses. It goes without saying that there are huge limitations to this, and I’m not really sure these need to be pointed out.
Do they? Just to make sure, let me make the point briefly: You can’t learn a language by listening to CDs. Sorry. 🙂
So, what’s probably more useful that pointing out all the obvious drawbacks of an audio course, is to talk about how and where the product fell short in terms of the overall learning process, and what I had to do to make it work for me.
This is quite simple really.
I started using Pimsleur pretty much from day 1 of learning Arabic, and as I said above, the stuff I learnt from it was pretty useful.
To a certain extent, the repetition that’s built into the learning system is effective.
But it’s just not enough.
I quite quickly figured out that I could go through unit after unit of the course (whilst watching the price tag go up!) and only remember half of it.
Only in the first 3-4 units there is lots of useful, functional language:
- Do you speak Arabic?
- I understand a little Arabic
- Would you like to eat/drink something?
- Where is…
- I know/I don’t know
…and so on.
It’s good stuff, but it’s not easy. Verb forms in Arabic conjugate in quite difficult ways, depending on the gender of the person speaking, or being spoken to, and I found it too much to take in whilst just following the Pimsleur system of listen, repeat and prompt.
One of my principles of language learning is that you need to hear and see things in order to remember them, and so I began to write out what I was hearing:
These then ended up in my flashcard decks…
Back to my old tricks!
I also feel that, in trying to make the lessons as easily digestible as possible, they severely restrict the amount of exposure to new language that you get.
You won’t hear any unknown language that you don’t then go on to study as discrete items. This began to frustrate me.
Again, I don’t blame the system for that. It’s just a reality that you’re only going to get so much from an audio course.
So I simply began to supplement Pimsleur with other things right from the start. Other language materials where I could just read and listen to Arabic without needing to understand everything.
Overall, people considering Pimsleur are probably going to find the same limitations, namely:
- The system alone is not enough
- It needs to be supplemented with more active studying in order to remember things efficiently
- You need to use other resources at the same time in order to get more exposure to the Arabic language.
Units 1-30 of the Egyptian Arabic course on MP3 costs $149.44. Alternatively, you can buy 5 units at a time for $27.54.
The price doubles if you buy a CD copy.
Is it worth it?
My view on pricing is always the same: If it works, then it’s worth it.
I think opportunity cost is usually a bigger consideration. In other words, if buying an audio course like Pimsleur means you take action and get started learning today (as opposed to saving money on a text book that you never use and delay your learning by 6 months), then who’s to say what the real value is?
After all, I could tell you exactly how to learn a new language 100% free. But would you do it? Would you follow through?
If you don’t, then that advice is actually more harmful that helpful.
So I can’t tell you if Pimsleur is worth the money or not. Hopefully you’ll at least have a clear idea of what you’re buying after this review, so you can make the right call.
One thing I would say, though, is that at $149.44 you only save $15 by buying the complete package, so it probably makes sense to buy the individual packages instead. That way, if you really don’t get on with it you won’t have spent too much on it.
Pimsleur Egyptian Arabic is a well-made course that will help beginners to take their first steps in the language, providing they’re willing to put a bit of extra work in.
Here’s a summary list of pros and cons to help you make your decision:
- Covers very useful language that you will be able to use immediately
- …especially if you are travelling to Egypt
- Heavy repetition of words and phrases is quite effective
- Avoids getting into detailed description of grammar, which is good for getting started
- Covers essential pronunciation well, by an awareness-raising approach
- Is a “complete system”. You can literally listen to the lessons in the car and you will learn, providing you actively engage with it
- Great for people with commuting time to burn
- You need to be very actively engaged in order to benefit from it. I’ve put this as a con because I suspect many people buy audio courses as a “lazy” option and won’t be 100% present when listening to it
- If you’re looking to improve quickly, Pimsleur is not the “all in one” solution it makes out. You need to supplement it with more active studying.
- Limited overall exposure to Arabic. You need to find other resources for listening and reading.
- The phrasebook approach is not for everyone
- Avoids getting into detailed descriptions of grammar, which might not suit an independent learners
- There are other, more efficient study methods in which you can learn much more in the same amount of time (however, these are more advanced and inexperienced learners may end up ultimately benefiting more from a simple system that works, such as Pimsleur)
Have you used Pimsleur before? How have you adapted it to make it more useful? Leave me a comment below.
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This article was written by Olly Richards.
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