Sunday, July 15, 2012

Pimsleur Conversational Swedish

I have gone through life convinced I am bad at language learning. I remember being in first grade, and excitedly finding language learning books at the library: "Learn French" and "Learn Italian". The books looked simple, cartoony, and fun. My parents dissuaded me from getting both: "It's hard enough just to learn one language." But I insisted. When I got home, my heart fell as I realized that reading and memorizing word after word was painfully difficult. I had fantasized that all I had to do was read the book, just as I'd read any book, and the knowledge would stay. Later, I took classes in French at school, and still later in Latin. The experience was mostly dismal. A difficult struggle all along, with lots of repetitive copying and tedious memorizing. And with very little payoff. In some ways it seemed strange to me -- I delight in learning arcane nooks and crannies of the English language, and I seem to have a natural gift for spelling words properly. In second grade, a fellow student was challenged with his spelling, and the teacher grew frustrated teaching him. "Richard," she growled, "for goodness sake, just sound it out! Jesse, that's what you do, right? Tell Richard how you do it." I became nervous, because her system of "sound it out" always seemed strange to me. And I tentatively explained, "Actually, I don't sound things out. I just... taste the words in my mouth, and I can see how to spell them." I believe it was the first time I saw an adult cry.

My frustrations at learning other languages, though, made me decide I must be one of those people for whom foreign language does not come naturally. When I learned of the research showing that toddler minds are specially wired for language learning, I nodded along with it. "Of course. No wonder it is hard for me to learn another language. My brain just isn't wired for it any longer." It seemed as impossible as learning to fly -- but that didn't make it any less fascinating to me, for I generally find the impossible challenges the most intriguing.

And when I stumbled across an ad for a "Revolutionary Method of Language Learning" (in skype of all places) it caught my interest. I watched a short video explaining the Pimsleur method, how it was based in speaking, not in reading and writing, and how it was a pure audio experience, I became intrigued. I know I am an "audio reader" (that is, I turn words into voices in my head, not pictures) and I prefer audio books to printed books in most cases, so I became curious about trying it out. I had an upcoming trip to Sweden for a conference, and my wife and I had taken a try at learning a little Swedish from "Complete Swedish" that we'd found at the bookstore, and it was going badly. "Complete Swedish" thought the best way to learn the language was to focus on learning the peculiar alphabet, and the subtle differences in vowel sounds. Then it hits you with a baffling array of tongue twisters in Swedish. We quickly decided that, wow, Swedish must be way too hard for us to learn. This video does a good job of capturing our bafflement. So, I figured, why not put the Pimsleur method to the test? And see if I can learn some Swedish from it?

I bought an 8 disk, 16 lesson package on Amazon, and I was blown away. NEVER have I found language learning so easy. The system is simple. You listen to the CDs, one lesson a day, half hour a day, and do what they say. They generally ask you to do three things:
1) Listen to a phrase, and repeat it. "The Swedish word for 'Hello' is 'Hej.' Say 'Hej.'"
2) Translate a phrase back into the foreign language. "Say 'Hello' in Swedish."
3) Take part in this Swedish conversation. "Hej .... Är du Amerikan? .... "
And really, that's pretty much it! The whole thing is paced in such a way that it challenges your memory, but doesn't overwhelm it. I was sure that when I went to the second lesson, I'd forget everything from the first, and quickly fall behind. But instead, the second lesson consisted of a lot of review and expansion of the first lesson, and quickly I felt my facility with the language growing. By the end of 16 lessons, I could confidently:
- Exchange simple greetings
- Ask for directions
- Count to 100
- Have simple conversations about money
- Order things from a restaurant
- Have simple hotel conversations
- Explain that I understood a little Swedish, but not much, and that I'm an American who speaks English

And the key word is *confidently*. I had NEVER had this feeling before, with any foreign language. Normally, when I would try to remember words in another language, my mind would seize up. I was in Paris, last year, for example, and when I would try to make use of the two years of French instruction to speak, words would fly from my mind, and natives would just roll their eyes at my stammerings. But after going through the Pimsleur system of Swedish, where you speak and speak and speak, the speaking came naturally to me. I felt confident that if I kept going with the system, and spent time immersed in the language, that I could learn more and more. This was a liberating feeling for me -- I felt like I could fly.

So -- was it useful when I got to Sweden? Only a little, honestly. I think everyone we met could speak confident English, and I quickly learned that the question "Förstår du Engelska?" (Do you understand English?) was kind of insulting, since most educated people in Sweden speak English fairly well. It was enough to say "Hello," which communicated that I would prefer to speak in English. In fact, the natives often seemed excited to show off their English (I found the attitude in France was often the opposite). But still, my limited Swedish helped me to understand lots of little things, and Swedes I met were impressed that, as an American, I knew any Swedish at all. But for me, it really wasn't so much about practical necessity, it was much more about connecting and understanding, and exploring a culture.

So, in short, I'm thrilled with the Pimsleur system. I can't imagine it works for everyone, but for me, it works wonderfully. I'm learning Mandarin Chinese now, in preparation for a trip to Tianjin this September, and already, only four lessons in, I feel like I have a handle on the basics, and I'm thrilled to have some insight into a language that had always been a total mystery to me. After I finish the basic Mandarin (or 普通话, or "Putonghua"), I bought a complete set of Spanish -- over 100 lessons, since my wife speaks Spanish fluently, and my daughter is learning it in school, I figure if I catch up, we can all learn together. The "complete sets" are very pricey, especially the CD versions (the MP3 versions are much cheaper), but I found a used one on Ebay for a pretty reasonable price.

To my surprise, it is possible to learn to fly -- and as it turns out, I love flying!

Hej då! Zài jiàn! Goodbye!


  1. Hi Jesse, great post! I'm currently going through Hindi lessons using Mango Languages. It sounds fairly similar to Pimsleur. My account was free through the library here in Boston, but it also seems to be available through the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

    Mango has dozens of languages, so if you are frequently trying to pick up local languages, it might be worth looking in to.

  2. The information here is great. I will invite my friends here.


  3. I am currently working on learning Swedish. I'm using Hugo: Swedish in 3 months and Pimsleur's Basic Swedish, which is only 10 lessons. You are right; you don't get all that many words, but I've found both to be a good starting point. I also checked out LingQ and think it is excellent!  I signed up for the 5 free lessons and am planning to sign up for the next level after I am a little farther along. It looks like a good way to get close to fluency.
    Best Wishes-

  4. Would you feel if you took the full 16 disk one that you would have been better off ? I have lived in Sweden for 6 years and completed Level A and A+ Swedish and wanted to know how it works for conversational.

  5. It was plenty for my purposes of just being there for a week. I'm doing the 100 lesson Spanish right now, and I really like it. I don't always stick with it, but when I do, I find it helps me.

  6. Hi. I agree that Pimsleur Swedish is amazing, but has there anyone done Pimsleur Swedish level 2?

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