Do you know Dr. Pimsleur?

by Translation Guy on August 22, 2012

Dr. Pimsleur knows you. At least he knows you are interested in language.

I suspect that he’s been popping up all over your Web browser, just as he did on mine. Does this look familiar? His portrait shows a haunted man, “hated by language professors,” The ad include a link to a video to sell a language self-study program.

After seeing this Pimsleur all over my computer screen for so many months, it got so I hated him too. It occurred to me that the reason he was hated by language professors was probably not because he could out-teach them. The professors hate Pimsleur because they’ve been getting these same targeted ads too.

My blogging kindred spirit, Mr. Verb, was having the same problem, this time with countless skulled banners promising DOOM to all language professors.

“Have you been getting this ad constantly for months? I finally watched the video (actually more like an enhanced podcast). Language professors ARE doomed. (Who isn’t, really?)”

Thank you, Mr. Verb. That’s what I call negative advertising.

I eventually installed a Chrome add-in called Do Not Track Plus, and don’t see nearly as many of them as I used to, so the nightmares have stopped, mostly.

Language self-study programs like the Pimsleur approach abound. Which one to choose?  Or is the correct answer, “none of the above?

Gong! As the  temple bell sounds, I am completely present. Cherry blossom petals arabesque across the training ground, the pressure of the sword hilt on the heel of my hand,  my  fencing sensei speaking. “To know how to hold the katana sword you must know how to hold your chopsticks, Ken-san.” I nod, pretending to understand. “There are many different ways to hold chopsticks. But there is only one best way.” I nod again, and make a note to myself to practice chopsticks more often. Gong!

This Karate Kid moment demonstrate that what works for chopsticks works for all things, teaching included. There is a best way. Scientific American says teaching is a science, but Daniel T. Willingham suggests teachers have a lot to learn.

“How are educators supposed to know which practices to use? An institution that vets research and summarizes it for educators could solve the problem. Medicine provides a precedent. Practicing physicians do not have the time to keep up with the tens of thousands of research articles published annually that might suggest a change in treatment. Instead, they rely on reputable summaries of research, published annually, that draw conclusions as to whether the accumulated evidence merits a change in medical practice. Teachers have nothing like these authoritative reviews. They are on their own.

“Many teachers, for instance, need to be disabused of the notions children have different “learning styles” and that boys’ brains are hardwired to be better at spatial tasks than girls’.”

Whatever the content, I’ve always been skeptical of the value of any language self-study, perhaps because of my own slothful nature. But this too is testable, which is exactly what Katharine B. Nielson of U Maryland did.

“The most striking finding was severe participant attrition, which was likely due to a variety of technological problems as well as the lack of sufficient support for autonomous learning in the workplace. This lack of compliance with self-study suggests that despite the logistical ease of providing language learning software, more resource-intensive types of language training are more likely to be effective.”

Seems to me that the real purpose of these programs is to relieve language student wannabees of the need to seriously study the language. By paying serious money, they can get the same endorphin rush of an actual accomplishment, without all the time and trouble of actually doing their homework.

People waste a lot of time and energy and unproven and ineffective learning methods. I will return to this subject.


  1. polilingua says:

    The laziness in people and current consumerist capitalist world urges them to look for these cheep, super fast courses, techniques, programs, etc. The reality is that learning to speak a foreign language properly requires hard work and dedication.

    • Ken says:

      The same hard work and dedication is required to speak a language poorly also, as i can attest.

  2. That Scientific Americna piece is really interesting, thanks for the link.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Not sure I can support the fact there is a “best way” to teach things given the unique brain chemistry and genetic makeups of individual humans.

  4. He is a creepy looking fellow.

  5. Snake oil salesman

    • Saroj says:

      Ken Posted on Hey! i like it! Pretty sweet. I so wish I could do the voice over for you! I would love to do something like that one day! Ihope all is well!Ken

  6. Good article, worth a laugh and a few thoughts.

  7. Greg S. Reid says:

    Children do have different learning styles, years in the classroom have taught me that, if nothing else.

  8. Nazee Ranker says:

    A fool and his money are soon parted…

    • Ken says:

      Don’t I know it.

  9. Shirah Penn says:

    You actually pay attention to ads on the internet?

  10. Teresa Wolf says:

    Interesting piece, I’ll have to follow up the links when I have more time.

  11. Pam Ingram says:

    Not just ineffective learning methods, people waste money on tons of stuff, its the reason the Shopping Channel exists.

  12. He does have a dislikeable face.

  13. Tim Marlotty says:

    Never could handle self-study myself, too much of a procrastinator.

  14. Martha says:

    Not an ad I’ve run across, or just haven’t noticed, but sure it will follow me around now.

  15. Deanna says:

    Not saying its not possible to learn languages quite quickly, but memorization doesn’t work for everybody.

  16. Gaurav Kumar says:

    The idea of authorative reviews for teachers is actually a great one.

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