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Who was Paul Pimsleur?

19 Jul

“Probably no aspect of learning a foreign language is more important than memory. A student must remember several thousand words and a considerable number of processes for adapting and combining them to attain even a minimal proficiency” –  Paul Pimsleur 

You may have heard of the popular Pimsleur language programs. Paul Pimsleur was a professor of education and romance languages who designed the first computerized language laboratory.

Pimsleur argued that memory was the most important part of language learning. According to Pimsleur :

“to become a fairly fluent speaker of a language, with 5,000 words at his command, a person would have to learn ten new words a day, day in and day out, for a year and a half”.

Pimsleur blamed poor language teaching for the fact:

“that an overwhelming majority of language students do quit at the earliest possible moment.”

Pimsleur  tried to harness insights from memory science to improve language instruction. He realized that curve of forgetting must apply to language learning. Most new material is forgotten soon after the first presentation. Thus, new material should be studied again soon after initial learning. As memories consolidate the space between repetitions could be increased.

By presenting students with frequent reviews of material spaced over time he could alter the slope of the forgetting curve. One can see this principle at work by listening to one of Pimsleur’s language program. Pimsleur presented material according to an exponential scale. A vocabulary word might be repeated 5 seconds after first being introduced. The term would then presented again at 5^2 (25 seconds), and then at 5^3 seconds (125 seconds) and so on. By the fourth repetition the interval has expended to 10 minutes and by the eight the repetition the interval is 5 days.

Pimsleur noted noted that attempts to teach vocabulary words in a specific order would suffer from the serial position effect. Students would have better memory for the first and last words and be more likely to forget words in the middle of the list. To overcome this he argued that there must be some degree of randomization in the repeated presentation of words.

I highly recommend the Pimsleur program, it is easy to use and easily adaptable to your life style. While the lessons are 30 minutes longs I usually cover only 15 minutes a day while walking on my treadmill. I also never hesitate to repeat a lesson or to return to previous lessons for review.

For a critical review of the Pimsleur program see Language 101. I definitely agree with his point that Pimsleur should not be used while driving (too great a demand on attention) and that the program is too expensive (however, I have been able to find Pimsleur programs for free at the public library and used, for very reasonable prices at Half Priced Books)

Big learning in small doses

26 Jun

I am an advocate of taking on big learning projects. While I enjoy Sudoku puzzles, they may not be challenging enough to have a large effect on our cognitive function. Big learning, that is trying to learn a  challenging new skill or master some body of information, is our best bet for long term memory improvement. Examples of big learning would include studying a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, or, finally, mastering calculus.

These things are hard, but I believe they are in the reach of  most adults. People often respond to this advice by saying that they don’t have the time or that the goal is so distant that it is not even worth trying.

My approach is that big learning tasks can be taken in small doses. My inspiration is a book,  Small Change: It’s the Little Things in Life That Make a Big Difference, by Susan and Larry Terkel. [Full disclosure, Susan and Larry are friends and my wife and I were married by Larry.  How many people can claim to be married by their yoga teacher?]

The message of Small Change is that we can make our lives better by small incremental changes in our daily behavior. I have come to see this as one of the most powerful ideas in my life. Imagine you want to learn a foreign language. This seems so difficult to most of us as to be beyond possibility, but imagine you dedicated just 15 minutes a day to listening to a Pimsleur language program. That would mean an hour of language study every four days. That would be over 90 hours of language study every year. Would this alone make you fluent in your target language? Probably not, but I guarantee you would know and remember a lot more than if you had done nothing.

My suggestions: 1) take up a big learning project, 2) break it down into small daily does, and 3) begin!

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