I finished the 30th lesson of Pimsleur Thai a couple weeks ago, so here is my promised review. Before I begin, I want to make sure that it’s clear that I’m looking at the pros and cons of Pimsleur from the point of view of an absolute beginner. I think Pimsleur would be fairly useless to someone who has three or more months of study under his or her belt. I also want to dispel any misconceptions that Pimsleur can make someone fluent. After 30 lessons (half an hour each, and I repeated several of them — I would say I put in about 30 hours), I can order beer (or several beers), get directions, introduce myself and my husband/wife/children, count and do basic math, buy things (though largely by pointing), say what I’m planning to do (as long as what I’m planning to do involves eating or going to the airport) and a few other basic exchanges. I think it’s an excellent starting place, especially for tourists. It is not, in any way, a one-stop program to fluency, nor does it claim to be with only 15 hours of material. I have read some reviews, however, that critique Pimsleur for not making users fluent speakers and listeners. I think that’s rather absurd.
Here we go:
1. The program gets you speaking and thinking right away (as opposed to just repeating after the speaker as in most audio resources available, like those by Becker). For example, in a few of the lessons that involve how to shop, instead of just counting, you have to do simple math. It also forces you to use material previously learned in new ways. You might be working through a section on introductions, and it will have you say, “I have three children” even though you haven’t done anything with numbers for an episode or two. Too often, I think, textbooks focus so much on new words and new grammatical structures, that they forget to review. There’s nothing stopping a good student or teacher from reviewing, of course, but I like that Pimsleur includes the review as part of the program and forces you to use what you’ve learned previously in new situations.
2. Although it doesn’t give you much vocabulary (a complaint I read from both Benny Lewis and Steve Kaufmann), it does give you plenty of practice with the vocabulary it introduces, and, more importantly, the vocabulary is introduced in a variety of sentence structures, all of which builds a decent foundation for simple and compound sentence construction. It’s the syntax practice that I think is most valuable, but I do appreciate that the vocabulary selected tends to be high-frequency vocabulary (question words, go, to be, to be located, etc.). About 80% of what I understand as I watch Lakorns I understand because of the syntax and basic vocabulary I learned from Pimsleur. That’s pretty dang good considering I’ve also studied all the vocabulary from Becker’s Thai for Beginners. You just don’t have many conversations about the pen being on the table. You do, however, have plenty that involve things like, “I have to go to…” or “You don’t have to…” or “I’m planning on…” etc.
3. The dialogues are often unintentionally hilarious (or, possibly, disturbing). Take the following exchange:
Male speaker (the learner): How much do I have to pay?
Female speaker: How much money do you have?
or the many conversations that sound like the male speaker is trying to get the female speaker drunk against her will.
1. Most Pimsleur language courses have three levels for a total of 45 hours or more. Thai only has one level for a total of 15 hours. This is hardly sufficient. I wrote to Pimsleur and they said they have no plans to create intermediate or advanced Thai courses.
2. There’s really no literacy support. This probably wouldn’t be a problem with a language like Spanish where there are rarely unpronounced sounds, but Thai generally swallows the last consonant in a word, and for a beginner especially, it can be hard to tell the difference between words that end in an /n/ or/ng/, /k/ or /t/, or sometimes an ending sound or no ending sound at all. I had to look up words sometimes to see how they are pronounced, especially regarding those end sounds and occasionally for the initial sound. There is a little booklet for reading support, but it’s not any better than anything you can find for free on the internet (in fact, it’s much less impressive). It would have been helpful if there had been written transcripts for each of the Thai conversations and phrases taught.
3. Tones are often misidentified. This is a BIG DEAL. When it first happened, I second-guessed myself. I was sure I was hearing a rising tone, but the announcer said it was a high tone, so I repeated the word in a high tone despite my ear’s protests. Then when I got near a dictionary, I double checked and found my ear was correct after all. After this happened about five times, I stopped doubting myself and just trusted my ear. That’s proved to be fine. On the one hand, it boosted my confidence that I could spot the errors, but that’s a bad mistake to have repeatedly in such an expensive course. Also, it could prove detrimental to someone who isn’t as able to hear the tones (I don’t think I’m particularly gifted at hearing tones at all, but I do think my music background has been helpful in identifying them correctly).
4. Speaking of expensive… the course ends up being about $20/hour. I pay my private tutor $30/hour (which is why I’m only taking a lesson once a week!), but I’m getting personalized instruction for that. These are well-compiled recordings that I’m sure took a lot of work and research, but I still think $10/hour would be a more reasonable price for all Pimsleur products since they are recordings and not teachers.
Learning a language takes a lot more than 15 hours (or 30 hours if you repeat a lot like I did), but this certainly was not time wasted. I constantly hear words and phrases from this program as I watch Thai television, listen to Thai music, and listen to my in-laws. That said, it’s not enough for me to completely understand any of those things. It does help me understand the structure of the sentences I’m listening to, though, and that’s helping my listening practice be more valuable overall. I’m glad I did the program, and it’s likely I’ll go back and listen to some episodes here and there as a refresher.
Now my job is to learn an obscene amount of vocabulary. I’ve got a plan in place, which I’ll be revealing next time.