German Audio Courses: Simple Doubts
You might have heard of Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, Rocketgerman. These are language audio courses that are – not to leave any doubt about it – very professionally designed and Michel Thomas courses are actually quite useful, but in my very own opinion they all suffer from the same fundamental flaw: They don‘t work the way their producers claim they do and I have serious doubts about the promised results. To be honest, there is no such thing as a clearly defined result, but more about this later on.
Click to find out about
German grammar course video
German grammar for beginners A1 online
I was lucky to have friends from America who would let me borrow their material which covered most parts of the products offered by the beforementioned companies. While most where German, I managed to get a grip on the Pimsleur Hebrew I course. I didn‘t check the online material and don‘t want to for reasons that will be explained in another post.
Let‘s take a look at the promises about the audio courses made by the language learning experts named above:
Thomas says that ,you’ll listen, absorb, then speak. It simply works like magic‘ and you‘ll ,pick up a new language naturally – just as you learned your own.‘ With them it‘ll take you ,hours, not years.‘ to learn a new language.
Pimsleur claim that their courses are ,purchased by the FBI‘ and that ,there was no struggling with grammar or worrying about the accent – you just spoke‘ when you were a child and learned your mothertongue. They also ,don‘t‘ want you to ,worry about Grammar‘, because ,grammar varies enormously from one language to another. So the grammar you absorbed as a child without thinking may not be much help.‘
Rocketlanguages ,reduces your learning time by up to 50%‘ and at the same time ,sound Like You ARE a Native German Speaker‘.
To summarize: Grammar is something to avoid – One can learn a language in half the time – We should learn like a child to speed things up. – Sounding like a native is a piece of cake.
Debunking the myths
None of the claims above stands a closer look. Some of them are even remnants of the late sixties, the age of superlearning and LSD. They‘ve got nothing to do with modern science. Let me take them apart for you.
Grammar is good
Grammar is never the sole purpose of any language class unless it‘s a grammar crash course. It is a description of recurring patterns, which, when understood, help you to create words and sentences on your very own without having learned them before. This is a great gain and most probably frees a lot of brain capacity compared to memorizing each sentence that is about to be spoken by you. Grammar doesn‘t have to be complicated but I admit that in most cases it is presented in a rather uncharming way. But that‘s what I am here for.
Well half the time of what? Neither of the above companies say what level you are reaching with any of their courses – or I just haven‘t digged deep enough into their webpages. There is internationally acclaimed reference criteria like the CEF (German: GER) and most probably they have something similar overseas. But why can‘t I find anything about that on their pages?
It takes 600 lessons in average to reach B1 in intensive classes. With private teachers that are able to respond individually to my strengths and weak spots it might be 300 only. German audio courses can‘t respond at all. Pimsleur claims to cover 120 half hour? lessons when you purchase levels I to IV but name no goal. Thomas sells about 30 hours of audio not naming the amount of lessons and Rocketlanguages sells 32 lessons of 25 mins adding up to 12 hours. By the way. These are ,interactive‘ lessons which means that you listen to them and speak after them (or before). Pretty ,interactive‘ right? Neihter of the last two names a clearly defined goal.
Why goals are so important
Well, no goal, no control. You‘ll speak fluent and in half the time. Half of what? How fluent? There are immense differences between the levels of fluency clearly defined by the CEF for example. If you know that standard classes take 600 lessons, why not measure the success of my clients with an official test which could be done online and then based on that claim to be faster than the norm.
Why oh Why?
Without knowing where it leads you, why would you buy such a thing? Would you buy a remedy prescribed by a self-proclaimed health-expert that claims to heal everybodys headache with an undefined dose?
Learn like a child
As mentioned in the introduction, this idea is still popular probably thanks to Berlitz and Inlingua who still base their lessons on this scientifically proven untrue claim.
We don‘t learn like children once we have ended our childhood. And children do not learn languages fast. Until they reach a level that can be compared to adult language they turn twelve years old. And they put a lot of effort into learning but they just judge it less as they are not yet ashamed to speaking falsely -until they come to school where they are punished for mistakes.
Adults have loads of knowledge and (cognitive) skills they haven‘t had as a child. Excluding grammar lessons e.g. means to ignore the intellectual capacities of the learner.
Last but not least: Is listening and anticipating or speaking after a taped voice in any way comparable to the way children learn a language? They learn because they truly interact and adopt, analyze and repeat real life situations. This is impossible to mimik with any such language course.
Speaking like a native
More or less until the age of 16 we are able to learn a language in such a way that our pronunciation resembles that of a native speaker. Of course there might be exceptions but one thing is sure: without a professional teacher who corrects you this aim is far from possible. While software at least records our voice when we speak what the program wants us to say and enables us to compare it to the original, it is ridiculous to assume that I could correct myself without this tool. But the main problem lies in our inability to recognize our own mistakes. Why do you think do authors let editors read their texts before publishing them? Are they too stupid to find mistakes? It’s about intention and unintentional mistakes happen. If you are older than 16 that also means that you can not hear the language you are about to learn like any native. You can at max imitate it very well but will always be identifiable as a foreign speaker if you just speak long enough. And a proper accent does certainly not come with ease or in fifty hours of listening and brabbling what I think I hear after a professional speaker, who also speaks quite a lot of English on those tapes.
No harm done?
That is said from other seamingly harmless things like homeopathy as well. But unlike the latter, learning a language unsupervised (there is no real teacher involved in any of the above German audio courses) can lead to serious language damage which is very hard to repair even by a professional and so cause even more cost than you intended in the first place. Also it gives you the illusion of learning German -one can not but learn even inspite of bad teaching- preventing you to search up a specialist.
My Personal Problem with Audio
I am a very visual person. I have to see how words are written. I have to write as well as it helps me to memorize a word or structure. Listening consciously for half an hour is hard enough but doing it WHILE I am doing something else like two of the above claim doesn‘t make any sense as the content smoothly passes by my attention and therefore doesn‘t find it‘s way into my memory. With Michel Thomas that‘s impossible. Also audio requires me to listen to a fixed sequence. But I am a fast learner and like to pick out the things that interest me at this moment without having to listen through several minutes of other stuff. I hated that at uni as well. Then to review a lesson I would have to go over everything again instead of just focussing on the elements which I haven‘t gotten yet. What a colossal waste of my time and energy.
Soothing the Wounds
Again, what I can say is, that all three have put serious effort in producing high quality material and for that the prices seem appropriate. There‘s nothing against using any of these German audio courses as supplemental material while you study with a private teacher or if you have to, in a class. But don‘t think you will learn proper German solely by listening or working with any of these courses.
But What‘s with the Proofs?
I can‘t proof that these are fakes and I wouldn‘t dare to go that far. But how could you find out if these people are real? And what exactly are they claiming? Mostly that they enjoyed taking the courses. But then, what are these people comparing their experience to? They might have enjoyed private lessons even more. Did they solely work with the courses or used other material or people to learn German? All these questions are unanswerable. Unless I meet someone in person who convinces me that he or she has gotten his or her skills with these courses mostly I allow myself to stay doubtful of any of these companies claims.
It‘s a vast topic but I will end here now. It can just be an inspiration to think twice before acquiring courses like these (or any other audio-based course).
K. Kannwischer: Bilingualismus in Der Frühen Kindheit