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 Rippofreport.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 so.
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 like 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.