Paul Pimsleur’s method explained

When I say “Pimsleur” you probably think of their original Spaced Repetition system, their 30-minute lessons and their prices that differ from the “second world” and developed countries. But not many know that the name Pimsleur comes from Paul Pimsleur (1927-1976), a linguist from New York City.

Graduated-interval recall is a type of spaced repetition published by Paul Pimsleur in 1967. It is used in the Pimsleur language learning system and is particularly suited to programmed audio instruction due to the very short times (measured in seconds or minutes) between the first few repetitions, as compared to other forms of spaced repetition which may not require such precise timings.

The intervals published in Pimsleur’s paper were: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years. (via Wikipedia)

In 1966, he discovered three key factors which determine the language learning aptitude:

verbal intelligence, the ability to analyze information and solve problems by reading or listening to words, conversing and writing.

auditory ability, is the ability to perceive sounds by detecting vibrations, changes in the pressure of the surrounding medium

motivation, an ability that we can develop the easy and fast

Pimsleur was the primary author of the Pimsleur Language Aptitude Battery (PLAB) based on these three factors to assess language aptitude. He concluded that low auditory ability was a major factor in underachievement. Pimsleur was one of the first foreign language educators to show an interest in students who have difficulty in learning a foreign language while doing well in other subjects. Today, the PLAB is used to determine foreign language-learning aptitude, or even a foreign language-learning disability, among secondary-school students. (via Wikipedia)

What is the difference between Paul Pimsleur’s “original” method and today’s Pimsleur courses?

The first and most important difference is, of course, how often the expression / word is repeated.  Paul argued that in order for a word / expression to reach long-term memory, it should be repeated every 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years. Pimsleur courses repeat the words only 3 times in the original lesson, 2 times in the next lesson and only once after two lessons. The reason? Although Paul Pimsleur’s research is certainly impressive, it is not sustainable for a course, especially an audio one. In other words, a good theory, but the practice may prove to be harder to implement. If you want to simulate an environment similar to the one described by Paul, you can try Anki plus some add-ons.

At the end of the day, Pimsleur is a company that produces good audio courses. When I start learning a foreign language, I always start with Pimsleur.

Fun fact:

Pimsleur’s business partner, Charles Heinle, continued to develop the Pimsleur courses after Paul’s death until he sold the company to Simon & Schuster Audio in 1997. (via Wikipedia)

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