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January 11, 2012

Pimsleur Korean Language Program – review

As I mentioned earlier, I began my study of the Korean language with the Pimsleur system. Pimsleur is all by ear (no writing to “distract” you), and since I learn music that way, it sounded like just the thing.

In the Pimsleur method, you usually learn words in phrases. When a new phrase is introduced, you first listen to it pronounced several times (often by two different speakers, one of each gender). The phrase is broken down syllable by syllable, starting with the last syllable and working your way forward. Then the student repeats the phrase several times, going progressively faster. Although the meaning of each part of the phrase is identified in this process, little or no effort is made to connect those parts with previous lessons where they occurred in a different phrase.

I found I had to listen to the first few lessons over and over. I thought Korean was the most tongue-twisting language I’d ever heard, and was completely confused by varying pronunciations of the same material, not only between different speakers, but by the same speaker! The Pimsleur people seemed to be deliberately selecting the most similar-sounding phrases they could find, just to bedevil the poor student. I had a hard time remembering the material, and didn’t feel like I was making much progress.

A couple of things changed all this. First, I began to learn from other sources that Koreans found those tongue-twisting consonant combinations just as hard to pronounce as I did, and dropped many consonants that didn’t play well with their neighbors. In fact, they dropped whole syllables, and even relocated syllables in actual pronunciation. So I stopped trying to pronounce all the syllables and sounds. The Pimsleur method would be a lot more friendly to the new Korean-learner if they explained why the phrase spoken at full speed sounds so different from the syllable-at-a-time breakdown.

The other thing that helped was starting to learn Hangul (the Korean alphabet). Maybe I’m more visually-oriented than I thought, at least where words are concerned. Even though I wasn’t trying to pronounce everything, knowing the underlying architecture of the words and phrases helped me remember, and build a more connected body of information. This also helps with the transition from translating every sound into an English equivalent to conceiving the sounds directly in Korean.

Now that I’m using it in conjunction with other tools, I’ve made peace with the Pimsleur system, and am finding it to be more useful. The opportunity to hear and repeat the phrase a number of times, and the breakdown by syllables are especially valuable. However, I wish they’d start the syllable-by-syllable breakdown at the beginning of the word instead of the end, since I am not saying the words backwards! The frequent review of previously learned words and phrases is also very helpful.

You can load the lessons onto your mp3 player and carry them with you, but note that they are most effective when you can clearly hear the example speakers, and also do and hear your own repetitions, so it may not work to practice your Korean in a noisy environment, or where you (or others) will be uncomfortable if you talk out loud to yourself!

There’s promotion all over the web, claiming you can use the Pimsleur system to learn a language in 10 days. Anyone who has ever tried to learn a language knows this is ludicrous. I spend about a week on each 1/2 hour lesson, listening to it when I cook, clean, take walks, etc., perhaps 4 or 5 times before moving on to the next one. You could probably move on sooner if you were in a hurry, as there is a lot of review built into the system. I have also started putting together my own worksheets with the Hangul for the phrases used in each lesson. I’ll post these as I get them done.

Have you tried the Pimsleur system? Did it work for you?

6 comments to Pimsleur Korean Language Program – review

  • Chas

    Did you ever make those Vocabulary lists? I just started Lesson 1 yesterday (did it twice in the car…lucky for me my work commute is 30 minutes exactly!), and I’m going to do Lesson 1 again today, but having the Hangul vocab list will help me a lot so i know which sound i’m “aiming” for.

    • Mihansa

      I started to make a list for Chapter 1, but got stuck as I tried to figure out exactly which conjugation of which verbs they were using. I didn’t understand enough about Korean sentence structure at the time to undertake that project. I appreciate your post because it made me look at that worksheet for the first time in several months, and realize that I have actually learned a few things since then :)

      I also had some doubts about the accuracy of the Pimsleur translations, and whether the content of the lessons was really what I wanted to be learning (seems to be mostly dating phrases for young men). This, and the absence of a written component caused me to slack off for awhile in favor of other resources (such as the Talk to Me In Korean lessons).

      However, I missed the hear-and-repeat method, which was very effective for memorizing, so I recently returned to the Pimsleur lessons. I’m working on lessons 10-14 now. I listen to several consecutive lessons in rotation, instead of just the same one over and over. That keeps it interesting, and I learn faster.

      I’ve posted what I have for Pimsleur Lesson 1 here. It’s not complete. If anyone wants to post Hangul for the missing terms in these comments, I’ll be happy to add them to the worksheet for everyone to use.

  • Carlos

    I have used Pimsleur to learn Russian, Italian and Japanese, and it has been a great help. But when I tried to use the Korean version, it was a complete failure, I was completely lost and could not remember anything even from the first lesson. Your review has encouraged me to start over again, following your suggestions.
    Thanks a lot

    • Mihansa

      Hi Carlos – thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you were able to use Pimsleur for Japanese and Russian, which are generally considered to be in the difficult category (although I guess that depends on your native language. Do you mind if I ask whether English is your first language?). Did you find the lack of a visual component to be an issue? It was a huge drawback for me, although Pimsleur is still the best hear-and-say resource I’ve found.

      If I had it to do again, I’d do it differently. In addition to the things I mentioned in my Pimsleur review, it’s very useful to know that ending consonants are largely silent in Korean words, unless they are followed by a word that begins with a vowel.

      Also, consonants at the ends of syllables and words can transform dramatically into completely different sounds. I learned Hangeul using several of the many games available to do so, but I didn’t pay enough attention to the transformations, so I wasn’t able to visualize how a word might be spelled by hearing it at all. There’s a concise printable chart with the transformations here, and another good transformation chart here. Unless you plan to learn one or more of the Romanization systems (which I recommend skipping – see my rant), shield your eyes from the vowel chart on the same page – it will only confuse you!

      I do have one vowel note, though. Seoulians tend to pronounce oh sounds as oo, especially at the end of words and sentences. If one speaker pronounces something as oh, and another as oo, oh is probably correct.

      To build an understanding of Korean sentence structure and get your feet wet with thinking in Hangeul instead of Romanization. I highly recommend the Talk to Me in Korean audio lessons. I found the order of them to be somewhat random, and had a hard time retaining the information for the first few months that I listened to them. Also the instructors tend to race through pronunciation without giving the listener time to repeat (in the first couple of levels, at least), so they are weak where Pimsleur is strong.

      Once I started exchanging email with a native Korean speaker, however, I figured out a much better way to use TTMIK. I created a pdf of the Tables of Contents for all the levels (you won’t have to go to the trouble, as they have posted this on one page now). This allowed me to do a keyword search for the lesson I needed to form particular sentences. Listening to lessons and then immediately putting what I learned into practice was much more memorable.

      There is a printed pdf for each TTMIK lesson, which is a huge plus. I downloaded all of these. Although the audio lessons are typically under 10 minutes, the pdfs are the way to go if you just need to look something up to write it. Using these, you can start making the connection to Hangeul in your mind from the very beginning as you listen to Pimsleur lessons, which I really wish I had done.

      I’d recommend listening to the TTMIK lessons on present, past and future tense before even starting with Pimsleur.

      Also, listen to the one on hada verbs. Pimsleur uses hada conjugations a lot in the first level, which can be really confusing when you are seeing completely different verbs used for “to speak” in Korean phrase lists. Also, hada changes a lot in different conjugations so it’s hard to even identify which part of the sentence it is unless you can see the conjugation list (Verbix and Dongsa.net are great for this. The default verb is hada for both of them, which gives you some idea of how important it is).

      The lessons on subject/topic marking particles and location marking particles are a good introduction to how Korean particles are used. The TTMIK location-marking particle lesson includes “where.” All of this comes up in the first level of Pimsleur. Pimsleur introduces particles without really explaining them at all. I find them to be somewhat intuitive, but it helps to hear more examples, which you can get in the TTMIK lessons.

      The TTMIK lessons and pdfs are free, but they have really put together an incredible resource for people, which they are continuing to build and improve, so throw some money their way if you can afford it.

      I haven’t had much time for language study lately, so I can’t suggest companion TTMIK lessons for Pimsleur above level 1, but if anyone else wants to post those here, I think the two systems can work really well together.

      Happy studies, and please come back and let us know how it’s going.

  • Daz

    Hi just found your posts and I agree 100%! I too struggle with the lack of written matterial with Pimlseur and the use of so much formal language. TTMIK is great but as you said very mixed up and way to fast for a learner to remember anything.
    Did you find any other resources since this article was written? 5 years is a long time! I have been learning for about 12 months and any help would be appreciated.

    • 5 years IS a long time – how they flew! If I’d been studying and practicing all that time, I’d definitely know some Korean by now :) However, I discovered early on that I really need a native speaker to practice with and give me feedback, or I just don’t retain what I’ve learned.

      It’s been very difficult to find one. I tried joining Korean meetup groups, but most members were Korean-Americans with limited Korean language skills. Several visiting Korean Koreans who attended these groups suggested an intensive and frequent exchange, and then I never heard from them again – not sure what’s up with that, though I have heard that Koreans are very shy about using their English in front of English-speakers. I also tried some penpal/chat organizations, but found most of the participants were young people looking for someone to date. Then I got busy with other things and put learning Korean on the back burner.

      That said, I have continued to update this page with new resources as I come across them. One thing I haven’t added, but that might be useful, is the many smartphone apps that have sprung up. Some (such as Memrise) are based on most-frequently-used word lists. These would probably be most helpful if you were having frequent contacts with Korean speakers and could put the words to use.

      Other apps offer lists by topic, which are usually geared towards tourists. But there are some more sophisticated apps now (for Android at least) that make things more interesting than just memorization and repetition. Some can check your pronunciation, which is handy. The first one of these I tried wasn’t very good, but they may have improved since then. The demand for Korean language tools continues to rise (see my recent Facebook post about Kdrama fans in Africa), so options have become better and better.

      Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but if you find something that you think is great, please come back and share it with other people. My language links continue to be very popular, so there are a lot of people out there looking for good tools.

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