With a Little Help from Miss Lo: Pimsleur Mandarin (review)

My daily trip to China

As I begin writing this blog post, the American narrator with a serious voice demands to know when it is exactly that my colleague at the Bank of China, Mr. Wong, ate his breakfast.

“Pretend you are Dan Carter, a businessman,” he says. “Ask Mr. Wong, ‘When did you eat breakfast?'”

Sure, breakfast, I can ask about that: literally translated it’s “You is what time eat the morning meal did?” I garble something resembling Mandarin:

“Um, nin shoo jidiang chew zhao fan!?”

Close, I think, but I may have offended Mr. Wong. Four seconds of awkward silence. Then a young woman with a perfect Beijing accent, the beautiful-sounding Miss Lo, bails me out:

Nǐn shì shénme shihou chī zǎofàn de?

I quickly repeat after Miss Lo: “Nin shoo shammy shahow chew zow fandle! Neen sho shemma shehow shuh zow fang duh!”

Close enough?

But the narrator is never satisfied. He doesn’t wait for Mr. Wong’s response. He doesn’t actually care who ate breakfast or when. He’s a dictator, not a listener. I feel he and Miss Lo are teasing me. The voice rephrases the question in English, “Ask him again, When did you eat breakfast yesterday morning?”

Nǐn zuótiān zǎoshang shì shénme shihou chī zǎofàn de?

It’s a pretty long sentence. I hit my iPhone playback button to repeat the last 15 seconds. Distracted by all this typing, I can’t keep up. I’ll have to repeat the thirty-minute lesson on my walk home.

Have you seen this Pimsleur ad?

Have you seen this Pimsleur ad?

The Pimsleur Method

The Pimsleur method demands a lot of concentration. It says so at the start of every level: Not to be Accompanied by Any Other Activity. I often disobey the instructions. Now that I’m on Level 3, I bend the rules. I listen to my Pimsleur while I’m out for a walk, while running on the treadmill, while riding my bike, while out driving or even on the subway. I mumble to myself in Mandarin on the TTC and people think I’m crazy.

Pimsleur is all about role playing, and the roles are very tiny. I am businessman Dan Carter, I have important meetings, I would like to exchange American dollars, and Mr. Wong’s eating habits are foremost on my mind. Today I’m on my 89th of 90 lessons, encompassing three 30-lesson sets of Pimsleur Mandarin, 45 hours of instruction, and I’m dying for it to end so I can listen to something else. Like maybe 45 hours of Hindi lessons. Jaba dōpahara kā bhōjana hai?

Learning through Cultural Immersion – not really

Many linguophiles quote the truism you can’t really learn a language unless you immerse yourself in the culture. So to learn Mandarin I have to move to China, right? Watch nothing but Asian news? Throw out my cutlery?

It’s not that I disagree—who wouldn’t love a two-month trip to Shanghai—but I find the well-meaning advice of cultural immersion to be impractical for most people, who for universal lack of money or time, simply cannot uproot and go to China—and besides that I don’t care for martial arts movies, and prefer to eat with a fork. Sure, that may be the wrong attitude. But why should I let my cultural isolation stop me from speaking Chinese? Doesn’t the ability to speak Chinese lie within me? It shouldn’t depend on my proximity to Chinatown.

Pimsleur’s target market?

Language tapes and software can be crutches for the stuck, the shy, and the stubborn among us who due to practical constraints want to glean the pure nuggets of languages themselves, on our own terms, apart from any messy cultural experience. If you are a Pimsleur user you may be such a language ninja: a lonely but determined learner operating under less than ideal conditions, isolated but linguistically unbowed. It’s great way to bone up on the basics before you take that cultural plunge and purchase a plane ticket.

It’s not to say I’ve been learning in a vacuum. I’ve very much on a mission. Back at the end of May 2013, we decided to put on some free Diskuto events in Mandarin. It was simple: we would wait outside on the sidewalk to talk to people in Chinese. Teach us Mandarin, we asked. Learn some Mandarin, we promised. Eat some watermelon, it’s free! (see the pictures.) I decided I need to speak a few words of Mandarin to keep up with my more worldly colleagues. Brendan is a big fan of Chinese culture and the Mandarin language. Khady who helps organize many of our events, has also lived in China. How would I keep up with these legit ‘immersionistas’ without basic training? I just wanted to say a few words. “Hello! How is it going? Have you had your breakfast?” And to sound as convincing as a Beijinger whenever I opened my mouth—however briefly. Pimsleur is just fine for this purpose. Practising what I learned at events like our Mandarin corners, of course, made it all worthwhile.

Pimsleur Pros and Cons

The Pimsleur method relies on listening and speaking, through graduated and variated repetition. New vocabulary and phrases, syntax and grammar rules are introduced slowly, reinforced with the help of the narrators and the cast of locals, the Miss Los and Mr. Wongs heard throughout the lessons. The material is tweaked and then repeated at increasingly lengthy intervals. Exposure to material is supposed to match how the brain reinforces new knowledge: There is no cramming or drilling per se, but a long-term series of ever less frequent reminders that are eventually no longer needed—because you have finally mastered the material, right?

Pimsleur Pros:

  • It covers the basics well: If your expectations are low, you will be pleasantly surprised.
  • Syntax: Pimsleur strips out a lot of distracting vocabulary and trivia, and ensures you have a firm grasp on the syntax
  • Authentic input: You are exposed to authentic accents. In fact when I speak Mandarin people think I studied in Beijing. But really this is because Miss Lo and Mr. Wong are from Beijing, and I’ve learned to mimic their way of speaking.
  • Pronunciation help: the system introduces new words deliberately, repeating each syllable multiple times and giving instruction on the tone; starting from the last syllable (if it is multisyllabic–most Mandarin words have at most two), and moving to the first. This is an ingenious and effective technique to get you to remember how a word or word phrase sounds.

Pimsleur Cons

  • Lack of vocabulary: Due to the methodology of repetition, it takes a long time to learn new words. For example even really basic verbs like the Mandarin for ‘sleep’ were not introduced until the end of the third course.
  • Outdated content: I have now learned how to cash traveller’s cheques, give directions to the post office, and ask where the nearest telephone is.

Verdict:

After 89 lessons, can I actually speak Mandarin? Sort of. I can harrass people on the sidewalk at Diskuto events. I can even ask them if they’ve eaten breakfast. When exactly they ate it is another matter entirely.

Review: 4 out of 5 Diskuto bubbles.

4 out of 5 Diskuto Bubbles

P.S. How to pay for Pimsleur on the cheap

Pimsleur is expensive if you buy it directly through the publisher, Simon and Schuster. But there is a cheaper way that is totally legal: get a membership to Audible.com. Upon joining you get free audiobook credits annually. I got the gold membership for $220 dollars per year, which gives me 30 individual book credits (meaning I can use them to redeem 30 free books). A full set of Pimsleur lessons, including 30 half-hour lessons per level, costs about $120 if you buy it directly through Audible (and even more if you get the compact discs from Pimsleur – around $340). But you can get the same amount of material using just 5 credits, or equivalent to around $35 dollars worth of your membership. That works out to a cost of only $2/hr and is a hassle-free download. In this way I’ve almost completed three entire levels of Pimsleur for just about $100.

About

Pat founded Diskuto so he could keep meeting amazing people and keep speaking new languages he learned. He was born and grew up in Toronto, the most multilingual city on Earth. He speaks one language well (English), two languages passably (French, Italian), three languages badly (German, Spanish, Russian), and six languages hardly at all (Latin, Ancient Greek, Arabic; Mandarin, Japanese, Portuguese). He can read HTML, CSS and PHP but it’s hard to have a conversation in those. He is also the editor of torontolanguages.com.

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