Product Review: Pimsleur French Level I Language Course

blgcoverI’ve never been great with foreign languages. There, I said it.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way, of course. I was raised in Miami, Florida, with a Portuguese/Cape Verdean mother who speaks English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, and a Dad who speaks English, French, Yiddish, and was extremely conversant in Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, and whatever other languages tickled his fancy that day. We even had a Spanish nanny — from Spain! — who helped raise us and spoke *zero* English, period. I grew up speaking Spanish alongside English, and lived in Spain for 6 weeks when I was 15. I was, at one point, COMPLETELY fluent in the language.

And… then I lost most of it. Somewhere. Oh, I’m still mostly conversant but at one point I was reading, writing, conjugating verbs and obeying proper grammatical forms, even writing poetry in the language. I spent much of the summer of 1992 reading El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha in its original Spanish, and utterly loving the experience. But nowadays, most foreign language skills have massively atrophied. Oh I’m conversant enough, but when I’m speaking Spanish, I make up for my grammatical deficiencies by assuming the affectations of a Telemundo announcer. “Esta es El Show de la Mañana!!”

Now French, on the other hand, that was something I never tried and always wanted to learn. I’ve always wanted to watch the films of Renoir, Cocteau, Goddard, Truffaut, and the like without subtitles. Because that wouldn’t make me insufferable enough, right? The biggest barrier to entry — at least for me, anyhow — was simply finding the time to do so. Oh you can always buy a “Learn French Fast” book with an accompanying CD, learn barely a few phrases and vocabulary words, and then… nothing. I’ve tried those methods. There’s no reinforcement, no intuitive grasp of the language.

Maybe it’s because of I’m really enjoying the experience of discovering the French language with the Pimsleur French I audio course. They’ve been in the language-learning game for over four decades now and have developed an approach that forgoes mindless repetition and goes right to the core “muscle memory” of linguistic adaption. You can read more about their methodologies on their website, but basically Pimsleur trains you to learn a language the same way you learned English as a child: through observation, intuitive understanding, and rational deduction.

First off, let’s take a look at the product itself:

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If nothing else, the packaging looks very sharp. At roughly the size of a hardcover book, it fits easily on any bookshelf. The folding cardboard sleeves hold 16 CDs with 30 lessons total. An insert directs you to the Pimsleur web site where you can download, in PDF form, any accompanying class materials.

The lessons themselves are about a half-hour each. They recommend you listen to only one a day, which is how I approached the material. My commute to work is about a half-hour long, so I listened to a lesson every morning on the way to work, and repeated the lesson on the way home. This seemed to work best for me. I found that I was retaining and comprehending the material much easier and more efficiently this way.

And let’s speak of the lessons themselves: after a brief introduction and a gradual introduction to the language with basic phrases like “I understand French a little” or “Pardon me Miss, where is St. Jacques street?”, the lessons settled into a gradual formula. You would start out listening to a conversation between two speakers that repeated much of what you learned earlier, but introducing new words and phrases as well. You’d then absorb the new material, while also being asked to repeat information you had previously learned. In other words, a general language foundation is established from which you add new material, reinforce the knowledge of existing language, and learn how to integrate both together.

After the listen-and-repeat portion is done, you end the lesson by engaging in a “conversation” with a French speaker. The instructor tells you what to say or ask (in English) and you do so in French. The French speaker then responds in kind, and the process repeats itself until the conversation finishes.

I found that I’m really enjoying the Pimsleur approach. As with any new endeavor, especially one that heavily involves communication skills, there was a bit of a learning curve, but not a particularly steep one. Once you get acquainted with the teaching style, you’re off to the races speaking simple, rudimentary phrases. I also discovered that a lot of my learning had to be supplemented by looking at a few online French language resources as well. Is that sort of outside study absolutely necessary? Perhaps not, but if you’re an obsessive learning sort like I am you might find it more than a big efficacious. I know I did.

As of this writing I’m two weeks and ten lessons into the course, and while I’m still barely a neophyte French language speaker, I’ve come a long way from where I was before. My pronunciation needs a lot of refining and I have a distinct tendency to slip into Spanish at times, but the basic phraseology and communicative skills I’ve developed are feeling intuitive and natural to me. There are still 20 lessons to go, and I’m more than a bit enthusiastic to take them on.

Retailing at around $115, the Pimsleur French Level I Language Course isn’t cheap, but I can easily testify to its effectiveness, as well as its generally enjoyable and easy-to-understand learning style. As with learning any new knowledge or skills, it will only provide the introduction. That practical application and ongoing development is entirely up to you, but this course will help start you on that path.

I received one or more of the products mentioned above for free using Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers.

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