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The Pimsleur method (sometimes billed as the Pimsleur Language Learning System) is an audio-based language learning method developed by Paul Pimsleur that stresses active participation over rote memorization. During lessons, the listener repeats words and phrases given by native speakers and constructs new phrases by inference. As new phrases are introduced, the listener is prompted to recall older phrases. The prompts for any given phrase are gradually spaced out in ever-increasing intervals. Between 1963 and 1971, Pimsleur created Greek, French, Spanish, German, and Twi courses while teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The Pimsleur method focuses on proficiency in speaking, as well as proficiency in reading. These two aspects are honed through thirty-minute lessons, which are repeated until a score of at least 80% comprehension is achieved before proceeding to the next lesson. During the lessons, students listen to native speakers of the target language as they speak phrases in both the foreign language, as well as the student’s main language. At graduated intervals, learners are prompted to repeat a phrase after listening to the speaker. As the student progresses through the program, the interval increases, as does the size of the vocabulary. The courses are made up of 30-minute daily sessions and shorter reading lessons. They are published and sold by Pimsleur Language Programs (Simon & Schuster).
Pimsleur developed his system using four principles he regarded as important to forming memory associations and language recall.
Language courses commonly require a student to repeat after an instructor, which Pimsleur argued was not an aggressive way of learning. Pimsleur developed a "challenge and response" technique, where a student was prompted to translate a phrase into the target language. This technique is intended to be a more active way of learning, requiring the student to think before responding. Pimsleur held that the principle of anticipation reflected real-life conversations in which a speaker must recall a phrase quickly.
Graduated interval recall is a method of reviewing learned vocabulary at increasingly longer intervals. It is a version of retention through spaced repetition. For example, if a student is introduced to the word deux (French for two), then deux is tested every few seconds, then every few minutes, then every few hours, and then every few days. The goal of this spaced recall is to help the student move vocabulary into long-term memory.
The Pimsleur method focuses on teaching commonly used words in order to build up a "core vocabulary". Word-frequency text analyses indicate that a relatively small core vocabulary accounts for the majority of words spoken in a particular language. For example, in English, a specific set of 2000 words composes about 80% of the total printed words. Pimsleur courses average 500 words per level (30-lessons). Some languages have up to 5 levels, while some languages only have one level.
The Pimsleur method never teaches grammar explicitly. Instead, grammar is presented as common patterns and phrases that are repeated at intervals throughout the course. Pimsleur claimed this is how native speakers learn grammar as children.
The program is strictly auditory. Pimsleur suggested auditory skill, learned through hearing and speech, is different from reading and writing skill. He referred to his auditory system as "organic learning," which entails studying grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation simultaneously. Pimsleur asserted that learning by listening also enjoins the proper accent.