Posted by: Steve Vitek | October 16, 2012

If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days You Deserve To Be Ripped Off

I am talking of course about the advertisements for the “Pimsleur Approach” language course which pop up on my computer monitor every now and then when I read a European newspaper online. The advertisements say among other things that our brains are “wired to learn a language in 10 days” and all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain”, which is something that somebody called Dr. Pimsleur figured out years ago to come up with a revolutionary new method to learn a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying.

All you have to do is listen to a CD. “You’ll absorb your new language effortlessly without any reading, writing or computer use. The Pimsleur Approach has a 100 percent guarantee: Speak in 10 days or you don’t pay.”

How can you lose when all you have to do is pay 10 dollars and listen to a CD? If the method does not work, you can return the CD for a full refund according to the advertisement.

Well, that’s not exactly how this particular scam really works. After I Googled “Pimsleur approach”, I found out on Ripoffreport.com that once you order your CD for $9.95 for a 30 days free trial, you are automatically enrolled in a sneaky upgrade for $240 per class without even ordering it or receiving an invoice. According to many complaints found on this website, people who fall for this scam are forced to spend $480 for CDs for a course that they have enrolled themselves in without realizing it and since it is basically impossible to receive a refund, most people will eventually give up trying to do claim it.

Children do have an amazing ability to absorb foreign language that most adults lack. But there is no magic center in our brain that is “wired” for this function so that all we have to do is activate it to absorb a language, any language, in 10 days without really trying.

Children learn new languages easily because unlike the brains of adults, children’s brains are ready to accept new linguistic information in other languages because the part of their brain where this information is stored is not yet fully formed. That is why their brain can absorb a foreign language without any resistance. It is just new information that they are able to store and access just like any other information.

If you are interested in this subject, I describe how amazed I was that my son understood Chinese at the age of 2 and half when he had a Chinese babysitter in San Francisco in this post.

But adults are not children. We can pretend to be like children, but we can never have the innocence that small children naturally possess, and our brains are different too because the part of our brain in which our native language or in some cases languages are stored is already fully formed. It works sort of like a computer memory cache – we adults can access linguistic information in the native language part of our brain very quickly and almost effortlessly, but a new language must be stored in a different part of the brain, and storing and accessing this information is a much slower process.

This is also why children who started learning a foreign language before puberty usually speak a new language without a trace of a foreign accent, while most “young adults”, namely people who started speaking a foreign language after about the age of 16, speak another language with a very noticeable accent (think Arnold Schwarzenegger or Henry Kissinger).

On the other hand, it is true that anybody can learn the basics of a new language, and often only in a few weeks if the language is not particularly difficult, which is to say if it is somewhat related to one’s native language.

*******

When I was in Prague two weeks ago, I noticed a young man in McDonalds uniform who was walking around the tables at the McDonalds on Václavské námĕstí (Wenceslas Square) striking up conversations with people in different languages. He had a tag pinned to his uniform jacket which said “Hostess”. When I pointed out to him that “hostess” is always a female in English, he said that the sign originally said “hostesse”, but then the McDonalds management decide to drop the “e” at the end so that now the sign is sufficiently masculine as far as the management is concerned, which I thought was really funny.

He told me that his original job was to flip burgers on the hot stoves in the kitchen, but since he has a passion for foreign languages, the management promoted him to his present position in which his main responsibility is now to talk to and answer questions from foreigners at this particular fast food restaurant. He said that he went through “teach yourself textbooks” for several languages, including German, English, French, Italian and Spanish.

He actually said “I speak German, French, Italian and Spanish”. Of course, he does not really speak those languages, but he can function in each of these languages well enough to answer questions that foreigners might ask him because these questions will tend to be rather repetitive.

This dude was able to learn the basics of 5 foreign languages in a few months not because he “activated the particular center of his brain that is wired for this ability”, but because he enjoys learning foreign languages.

He developed his own method for learning a foreign language that works best for him, and he is putting his newly gained knowledge to work now. I don’t know whether the management gave him a raise, I seriously doubt it, but it must be much more fun to walk around a restaurant and talk to people practicing your languages than flipping burgers in a hot kitchen. Incidentally, after the management heard him talking to me for a while in Czech, he was called back into the kitchen to help with meal preparation.

There is a magic method for learning a new language: you have to like what you’re doing. If you enjoy the process during which a foreign language is learned, you will be able to learn it quite well, although it will take much longer than 10 days. I have been trying to learn Japanese, for example, since 1975. That’s 37 long years, and after all this time, I am really just a fairly advanced beginner.

But every time when I need to access a half forgotten Japanese character in a part of my brain where it has been stored for a couple of decades as I did not need it at all (for instance characters representing animals are almost never used in Japanese patents, which is now my main reading material), I experience a joy similar to what people experience when they meet an old, nearly forgotten friend.

Although there is no magic method that will make you learn a new language in 10 days, it is not really that difficult to learn a new language at some level of fluency, but only if you work at it and if you like what you’re doing.

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Responses

  1. Nice post, as always.

    Actually, I don’t believe that children “absorb” a new language easier than adults do (well, ok, maybe a little). I think the main reason why they seem to learn faster is by sheer exposure and openmindedness. Adults usually have jobs and various other commitments and oftentimes overly rely on their first language (or keep translating back and forth). They also tend to hang with their own crowd i.e. adults from their own native language group, and read books and newspapers/watch movies/listen to music in their native language. Kids have no such hang-ups or time constraints. They also don’t worry about making mistakes.

    I read somewhere that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything. As long as you put the time in, you will come out an expert. When it comes to learning languages, how long does it take the average person to master your own (native) language? About six years, right? If you put that same effort of 24/7 in, then I strongly believe any adult can “absorb” a new language in about 2-6 years. Of course, you might never lose your accent. But if I look at Arnold Schwarzenegger or Adrianna Huffington, who cares? (6 years are actually 52,560 hours, more than enough to become an expert)

    • helho

    • On the contrary. In our brains our memory is hooked up to only remember a certain percentage of what we say, do, and think. This is why as we grow older time appears to pass quicker while actually we just don’t remember most of it. So, children have all this extra memory space and this allows them to do things like learn new languages, play instruments, and memorize facts much quicker and much more easily then adults would.

  2. I believe that everything you say in your comment is true, in addition to what I said in my post about partitioning of human brain into native and foreign language partitions, which is completed once the brain has been fully formed, i.e. in adults but not in children.

  3. Language acquisition has been fascinating me for my whole life. Yet, it is still a mystery to me, though I’ve learned the basics of several languages beside my native tongue.

    Kids do “absorb” languages much easily than adults. The reason why may be as Babellon accounted above: sheer exposure and openmindedness. In contrast to kids, adults have much more difficulties learning another language. Beside the possible reasons given by Babellon above, there is the so-called linguistic interference which refers to speakers or writers applying knowledge from their native language to a second language. This happens to me all the time.

    My 2 kids were born and grew up in South America where Spanish prevails. Since their mother and I speak German, they pick up German, too. People would believe that they are bilingual, but in fact they are not. They think primarily in Spanish, so that you can notice that most of the part of their speech in German is “translated” from Spanish. That is, they don’t really think in German and there is the linguistic intereference when they speak German.

    When I stay in Taiwan for a longer time and come back home in South America or meet my family in Germany, my wife would notice that start “translating,” not really speaking or writing in German. It would take me several days to recover the linguistic competence in German that I used to be at home with. This happens as well when I come back to Taiwan. It takes several days to gain the command in speaking and writing in Chinese. During those several days, people who used to know me would ask me why I speak slower than ever.

    Yes, it is possible that adults learn a foreign language in 2 to 6 years, i.e., about 10,000 hours exposure in the right linguistic environment, instead of 24/7 only 8/7. We usually notice that the levels of their competence in the specific foreign language may vary widely. Steve and I are about the same age and our exposure to English could be of about the same length in hours, but his command of English is definitely better than mine. So, there must be some other factors other than exposure and openmindedness.

    To cut it short, it is obviously possible for an adult to learn a 2nd or other languages, but it can never be in 10 days by activating a certain wired part of our brains. We don’t even know exactly which part of our brains that directs our linguistic competence, not to say how to activate it.

  4. [...] I am talking of course about the advertisements for the “Pimsleur Approach” language course which pop up on my computer monitor every now and then when I read a European newspaper onlin…  [...]

  5. “Steve and I are about the same age and our exposure to English could be of about the same length in hours …. ”

    I disagree with you there. Our exposure to English is probably very different both because I studied English formally at university (I have a degree in English studies), and because I have been living in US for more than 30 years, which means that I think mostly in English (except in my dreams or when I swear – sometime I curse in English, sometime in Czech).

    Had I decided to stay in Germany 32 years ago, I would probably think mostly in German, especially if my wife were German and my kids spoke mostly or only German.

    But I wonder what would have happened had I stayed in Japan instead of returning to US in 1986. It is relatively easy for a speaker of a European language to start thinking in another European language because of the similarities, but I wonder whether one can switch to thinking in a completely different language such as Japanese or Chinese.

    It probably depends on the person, but I doubt that I would start integrating “counters” in my thinking or ignoring singular and plural, etc., although I would probably start saying things like “yoisho” because it’s so cool.

    • Ah, we do have very different backgrounds and experiences plus different dispositions. That’s why your English competence level is higher than mine.

      As to language acquisition, Deb Roy’s Ted talk shows us how his son came to mean “water” from saying “gaga” to “water” in months. (http://www.ted.com/speakers/deb_roy.html) I think kids need also some time to assimilate linguistic information in order to perform correctly not only in pronunciation, but also in syntaxes and meaning. All these take a lot of time. But adults have more difficulties becasue of linguistic interference and other distractions.

  6. No vida, po příjezdu z Prahy zase dobrej příspěvek, hezký…

  7. Wow, I’m really impressed with the kid that took it upon himself to learn just fundamental language concepts to engage with the customers. Maybe one of the hang ups to learning a new language is a certain amount of apprehension we have to taking this on.
    Not only am I impressed but I’m also motivated once again to tackle my German textbooks.
    Great article.

  8. You can drop your accent even after age 16 + but it will not go away by itself as it would in case of a child. With an adult, you need long and assiduous practice and it may take about a year or two of daily exercises. I have known people who have done it. There are courses that one can take. Most immigrants do not mind having an accent and do not take such courses. In Arnold’s or Kissinger’s csae, they could succeed in spite of those accents but in daily life in America/Canada/Nz/Aus, among common people, foreign accents are not taken kindly to and cause social and work discrimination ( unless they are gentle French or British).

  9. I don’t know where you live, but a foreign accent is generally not being frowned upon by the locals, or at least by most of them, in the United States, provided that you speak good English and your accent is not too strong.

    I think that things are different in this respect in European countries.

    Since there are many people here who speak with different accents, just because you have an accent is usually not a cause for discrimination.

  10. I speak English, and at age 13, trying to learn Japanese. It’s fairly easy and I’m doing great accept I never have time to practice! It’s always wake up, go to school, get home, do homework, do chores, eat dinner, and go to bed. I never have time to practice Japanese. Any advice?

  11. Ask your parents to help you find a Japanese teacher or a Japanese kid your age so you can practice conversation.

  12. I teach English to European adults (I’m doing this because it pays better than being a translator at a Zombie farm, as I mentioned in a comment to the zombie farm post). The company I work for uses a certain method for beginners that really does work – I’ve seen almost complete beginners speaking fluently and reading complicated business texts, in less than a year. Getting to a medium level of English, good enough to get around, can be achieved in a couple of months (when taking an average of 4 hours a week). So not all ads for quick language learning are scams…although I think my company takes a bit more than $10 for a course.
    BTW, I started learning my second language, the one I translate from and into, at the age of 19, and I have a very slight accent – on the phone, people often think I’m one of my native-language speaking kids. My English accent, though, has gone haywire (if it hadn’t, I probably couldn’t teach English – who understands cockney?)

  13. […] go on, I really could, but I think we can safely say that nobody can say for sure, apart from the claims of people trying to flog you audio-lingual “listen and repeat” self study courses The general […]

  14. “So not all ads for quick language learning are scams…”

    No, but this is a particularly nasty one.

  15. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge would seem to contradict your above statements. The scientific community is beginning to come around to the idea of plasticity in adult brains. See the amazing things being done for people with severe learning disorders via “FastForWord” programs

  16. I’m a retired ESL teacher, and have observed language acquisition at many age levels (including my own children). Do we really need to use terms such as “children’s versus adult brains”, or “child open-mindedness versus adult closed/cluttered brains”, etc. We all know that a baby, over its first few years, is in a situation that will never be repeated in its life. Most importantly, it learns its language (or languages) from listening to directed and repeated sounds, facial language, body language from its intimate environment. Throughout this process constant eye contact is critical. Until the child develops a greater understanding of its language, any attempt at communication without eye contact is lost into space.
    As we know, adults learning to become fluent in a second language usually reverse the “from birth” model. This is due to the written language, sound/video tapes, classroom listening/speaking using texts, etc. Very little opportunity for the “parent-to-child” dynamics (except maybe in junior schools with good teacher/student ratios, where teachers can emulate a home atmosphere). As a consequence, a common feature of senior students who have been learning their second language, and can speak it from a prepared speech, have great difficulty in maintaining a conversation where constant eye contact is required.
    Thus, is it not safe to say that the quickest way for an adult to become a truly fluent speaker in a second language is simply to immerse himself/herself in the spoken environment of that language, without use of any interpreters or aids – just “listen-respond-repeat” as a baby does!
    Sounds impractical? It would be interesting to hear from those who have done it.

  17. Understanding a language is more difficult than just plain speaking. When you speak, you are in control. Having said that, I can (usually) understand Latvian (when my family speaks it), but do not claim that I can actually speak Latvian. Both of my parents spoke accent free German to me, and were both born in Latvia (Riga). I also lived in Austria and the University of Vienna is the oldest German speaking university. [I probably have a Salzburg accent =). Ainsi soit il. But, I nearly always dream in English, having come to the USA at a young age.

    I know that my two cats are totally fluent in German: I talk to them in German (usually) and they (nearly) always ignore me.

    Also, when one is holding a conversation with another, — at least to me — understanding is easier because one knows the topic.

    In high school I had Spanish and in college it was French — and that was more than a few days ago. I seem to have not to forgotten much of my language learning because I have the constant habit of mumbling to myself in French and Spanish. In no way am I a linguist — still trying to learn “cat language”. Dog language we all seem to know.

    My VERY uneducated guess is that exposure causes one to learn languages — like constantly seeing movies in other languages.

  18. […] Some of my posts are like the Zombies that I keep resurrecting in some of my posts – I thought they were dead a long time ago, but they simply refuse to die. When I look at the statistics, I see that people keep reading them. One of these posts that refuse to die is If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days You Deserve To Be Ripped Off. […]

  19. […]  Stats for: If You Believe That You Can Learn a Language in 10 Days You Deserve To Be Ripped Off […]

  20. Wow had no idea Pimsleur was so sheisty. I think you’re spot on, you have to enjoy what you’re doing to really learn the language… Which is why a lot of us never learned Spanish or French in school. The way I’m learning now is much more effective, with BRIC Language Systems.

  21. i’ve been in the middle east for nearly 7 years now.i can read arabic text but only understand 10 percent of the words. arabic is such a beast. of course, we have this expat’s colloquial common tongue to go around with.but native arabic?i doubt it.

  22. […] As I wrote in another post two years ago, there is a company advertising something called “Pim… a revolutionary new method to learn a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. The advertisements say among other things that our brains are “wired to learn a language in 10 days” and all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain”, which is something that somebody called Dr. Pimsleur figured out years ago to come up with a revolutionary new method to learn a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. Selling this miraculous language learning method must be a very profitable business because I see it advertised on the Internet constantly. […]


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