“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
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)