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An ear for language

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On a typical day on Saipan you can hear a half-dozen languages spoken. It’s not surprising, then, that many Saipan Tribune readers are familiar with the audio-based language courses from a brand called Pimsleur, a name widely recognized among the international set. Pimsleur has been expanding its inventory of courses lately. I contacted the New York headquarters so I could get an update on their activity.

I’ll start with this item: On March 8, Pimsleur released a new “level” of its Mandarin Chinese course, Level 5. I know a few people who have been waiting for the release, so, well, it’s finally here. I’ll take a closer look at it in a future column.

As for the broader picture, Pimleur’s basic structure remains unchanged. Each Pimsleur level is built around a core of 30 audio lessons. Each lesson is about 30 minutes long. The levels also include various supplemental learning materials.

Pimsleur has offerings in over 50 languages, but only their five most popular languages have been developed into five levels.

Which languages are the most popular with Pimsleur customers? Spanish gets top status. It’s followed by French, Italian, German, and Mandarin. So, despite Asia’s long-running economic boom, there’s only one Asian language, Mandarin, on the top-five list, and it’s running behind four others. In this sense, we can say that East and West remain far apart.

I asked Pimsleur to describe the demographic of its Mandarin course customers. “Our demographic for Mandarin is similar to that for our other languages,” I was told, “which ranges from business and pleasure travelers to those learning for career development, to high school and college students, and of course, heritage learners.”

Hey, they didn’t mention lazy guys in beach chairs. Maybe they lost my file or something.

In addition to individual customers, the company advises me that the Pimsleur method has been used by U.S. government agencies, diplomats, and corporations; the roster includes the military, Department of State, IBM, and Alcoa.

As for the Pimselur method, it is the brainchild of Paul Pimsleur, Ph.D., a linguist who pioneered a technique of using audio lessons to teach foreign languages. Among his professional credits was a stint teaching at UCLA.

The Pimsleur courses are now under the aegis of publishing powerhouse Simon & Schuster, which also is behind the website Pimsleur.com.

Back in the day I used to buy Pimsleur CDs from a few sources, usually book stores. Once I found that I could download courses directly from Pimsleur.com, though, I had all the zeal of a convert. The downloads are in MP3 (for audio) and PDF (for documents) formats. Downloading the courses is far cheaper than ordering the CDs, and, of course, there’s no concern about shipping.

Speaking of expenses, I’ll mention some costs for the downloaded courses. As of this writing, the typical price for a level is $119.95. Levels that are bundled together shave the per-level price down a little bit; for example, the price for Level 1 through Level 5 in Mandarin is $550. For those who just want to test the waters first, Pimsleur also offers courses in small, bite-sized chunks of five lessons, which are typically priced at $21.95 for the bunch.

There are also free sample lessons available on the website for downloading.

Meanwhile, I’ll note that Pimsleur has been adding a computer-based, multi-media dimension to some of its courses. Pimsleur calls this enhanced offering the “Unlimited” line. It’s essentially an add-on to the legacy audio lessons, providing flash cards, quizzes, and written material that meshes with some of the audio fare as students follow along and interact.

Pimsleur says that the Unlimited line currently has offerings in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Mandarin, Brazilian Portuguese, and Russian. It’s also under development for Japanese. The software is sold via a DVD. I don’t have any experience with the Unlimited line, but I’d welcome any insights from anyone who has tried it.

Well, as you can see, those Pimsleur wizards in New York have been mighty busy lately. Me, I haven’t done much of anything lately, so I’m glad they’re taking up the slack.

So I’ll just slouch down in my beach chair, spark up a Mandarin lesson on my MP3 player, and ease back into the Pacific flow of things.

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Note: This article was updated to correct an error in a product name.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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