Mind Your Language

Before the action (and the blisters) starts on the 1st April I thought I’d use this quiet time to talk about one of the most important aspects of my trip: language learning. Even a tiny, clumsy attempt to speak the local language is usually appreciated, but I’m going to try to do a bit more than that.

My language learning strategy is dual-pronged. First, I’ll make the most of a great, if flawed, off-the-peg solution and I’ll then paper over its cracks with something more homegrown. Used together I hope things will work out well.

Good ol’ Pimsleur

The off-the-peg solution is Pimsleur, creakingly old-fashioned as it is. If you want to get a feel for how crusty some of its recordings are, the one I listened to yesterday ago actually said, “And now turn over the tape.” Seriously.

Pimsleur is American and is a product of a time when the market for foreign language courses was pretty much limited to businessmen. And yes, I do mean “men” and not “people”.

Most of their courses start with you, an American man, in a bar, attempting to chat up a local woman. There’s one section where the narrator tells you to ask the woman for a drink at six o’clock. She refuses. So you ask if she wants to go out at seven o’clock. She refuses again. You try eight, nine, ten o’clock. Leave the poor girl alone! I know this is just an exercise in practisng the time, but it could have been done a bit less creepily.

Another drawback of Pimsleur is its over-formality, again a result of its original target audience. You’re a long way through the course before you learn there’s a familiar verb form (“tu” in French and Spanish, “du” in German, etc.) Still, that’s not a deal breaker. It’s better to be too formal and seem stuffy than be too familiar and seem rude. Better to be Prince Charles at a rave than Joey Essex at a UN summit.

But it ain’t all bad

So if it has all these flaws, why use it? Simply because it works and because it trains you to speak each language with a decent accent.

Each level has 30 half-hour lessons. You are supposed to do one, and only one, lesson a day. Less popular languages, like Croatian and Romanian, only have a single level, which would be enough to sort out hotel rooms and restaurant meals reasonably confidentally. The Big Languages (French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese) have five levels.

But even with five levels, or 75 hours of material, Pimsleur can’t cover everything that I, or you, or anyone, would need, because we all need different vocabulary. You might need the word for “motorbike ” whereas more useful for me would be “infected foot”.

Introducing…er…Primsleur

And it’s Pimsleur’s lack of flexibility that I’ll counter with my own solution. Google has a facility that allows you to have text spoken aloud in a variety of languages and accents. I’ve created one web page for each language I’m likely to come across. Within this file I can include all the words and phrases specific to me and then have it drill me, Pimsleur-style, until I’ve learnt them. I will be able to say “infected foot” in 25 languages.

Incidentally, these language pages are available in the Resources section of this site’s PATREON ZONE for you to use if you like. I’ve no idea if they’ll work with Apple devices or older Android (I’m using Android 11). You’ll probably have to install additional voices on your device, but they are all freely available.

A step too far?

Unfortunately, Pimsleur doesn’t cover all the languages that I will need. Bulgarian is one example. Slightly daringly, I typed up a collection of about 1,500 everyday English sentences, translated them using Google Translate (yes, I know) and will use my own language pages to teach me those languages from scratch. Or not. We’ll have to see. Asking my first Bulgarian question in real life is likely to be fun. Or broken-nose-inducing.

If my additional language tools work, then I’ll add them to the Resources section later. But if you’d like to be a guinea pig and try one out now, then please get in touch. But just remember: If it all goes wrong, I ain’t paying your medical bills.

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