Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Got Me Learning Japanese

Posted by Neal on September 22, 2004

A guy by the name of Big Ben left an interesting comment on my last post, talking about the Japanese word nurui ‘warm’, whose semantics are parallel to the unusual semantics my son has for the English word. The Japanese datum reminded me that I’ve been meaning to post a review of the Pimsleur introductory Japanese course I recently finished working through. And as if to encourage me further, I was alerted to this new linguistics blog, which has a discussion of Japanese /r/ in this post, just the phoneme I had planned to mention in my review. So…

I became aware of the Pimsleur language courses because of the strong recommendedation for them in this book by Barry Farber, and the first one I tried was for Mandarin Chinese. (I won’t review that one here, since the comments I’ll make for the Japanese course are for the most part applicable to the Chinese course, too.) I found it easy enough and fun enough that when I saw the Japanese course in the library, I checked it out on impulse. It contained four cassettes, for eight 30-minute lessons; it took me about six weeks to work through them in the car during trips to the grocery store or post office.

One of the two things I liked most about the Pimsleur language course is that when they give you a phrase to repeat, they say it first all together, and then break it down, having you repeat just the last syllable, then the last two syllables, until you’re saying the whole phrase. This alone gives these courses an edge over many learn-in-your-car type courses. For example, I tried a Mandarin Chinese cassette course from a company called Language30, and trying to repeat all the phrases they threw at me, said once each and not broken down, was like trying to drink from a firehose: Too much information was coming at me and I could hardly take in any of it at the speed they were sending it. To get anything, I’d’ve had to spend most of the time rewinding again and again to try to catch the syllables I’d missed. Pimsleur’s approach saves you this trouble, and removes one barrier to learning the language.

The second thing I like most about the Pimsleur courses is actually a hallmark of their approach, as I learned from the Farber book. After they’ve broken down a phrase and you’ve been properly introduced to it, they don’t just move on. They have you repeat the phrase a couple of times, and then continue to have you work it into your responses throughout the rest of the lessons, at wider- and wider-spaced intervals. So, for example, Lesson 1 of Japanese teaches you the phrase for “Excuse me”: [smi masεn]. After you’ve gone from [sεn] to [masεn] and ultimately to [smi masεn], the first thing they ask you is, “How do you say ‘excuse me’ in Japanese?” Your reaction will probably be, “I just told you that, for crying out loud!”, but better that than, “I don’t know yet, let me just rewind and hear it one more time.” By Lesson 8, “Excuse me” doesn’t show up that often, but once or twice it does, as part of a longer answer that by this point you’re able to put together.

There are a couple of bonus features of the Pimsleur courses that aren’t specifically intended as selling points (as far as I know). One is that the conversations are mostly parallel in the different courses. In the Chinese and Japanese lessons (and so far, in the Russian course I’m working through), the conversations progress from asking if someone understands English and saying that you’re American and understand a little bit of the target language, to asking if someone wants to eat, and if so where, in Lesson 8. Consequently, you can build parallel vocabularies in the different languages. I know how to say beer in Chinese and Japanese now, and I predict I’ll learn how to say it in Russian in the current set of tapes.

The other bonus is that the syllable-by-syllable breakdown can reveal phonological patterns for those interested. Well, OK, that only happened once, on the Japanese tapes. But I was pleased to identify it. The pattern concerned the Japanese phoneme, mentioned above, that is the closest thing they have to an [r]. In words borrowed from English, the /r/ would sometimes sound like a flap (a sound discussed here), which I will write as [D], and sometimes as [l]. So for example, restaurant in Japanese is [lεstoDan]. At first I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing [D] or [l], since in fact I was hearing both. But when the word was broken down, all became clear. The progression went like this:

  • [lan]
  • [toDan]
  • [lεstoDan]

Aha! Based on just this data, it looks like the Japanese /r/ is realized as [l] at the beginning of a word (or maybe at the beginning of a stressed syllable), and as [D] elsewhere. I’m sure this is well-explained in Japanese grammars, or given as a phonology problem in linguistics textbooks, but I found it as an Easter egg in an audiocassette course on Japanese.

The only drawback to the Pimsleur courses that I’ve seen so far is that there’s only so much you can fit into eight lessons, given the degree of repetition in them. Though you probably retain more of the information presented, there’s still less information than on other audio courses. And the advanced courses cost a helluva lot more than the introductory ones–like, at least a couple hundred dollars. And that’s why I’m here talking about three introductory Pimsleur courses, instead of one comprehensive one.


10 Responses to “Got Me Learning Japanese”

  1. testypea said

    I tried the pimsleur french, never got beyond lesson nine. i hate the fact that it doesn’t have the audio transcribed – yeah yeah they have this in japanese and chinese, i saw that, but not in french, so since i’m a visual person i quickly lost interest. if you want the full class of pimsleur mandarin one , that’s 30 lessons i think, let me know, i can send it to you, i have it in a zip file. I’m not sure if I have the part 2 of it though… maybe i’ve deleted it…
    So leave me a note on my blog 🙂

  2. Big Ben said

    Wow, I’m honored.

    My Mom used the Pimsleur Japanese tapes, and was able to get by surprisingly well when she came to visit. I was impressed by her pronunciation and intonation, and I think this is largely because of Pimsleur’s repetition.

    Regarding Japanese r/l, I’m not a phonologist, but I’m pretty sure that the position of the tongue and such doesn’t change based on where it is in the word. I think having a low vowel before it just makes it sound that way to anglophone ears.
    I agree that for an American trying to pronounce it, you’re likely to come closer to the correct flap if you think of it as “kind of a d-ish l” rather than as l or r.

  3. Anonymous said

    As a bit of an armchair linguist, a native english speaker, and someone relatively fluent in Japanese… The “R” sound you talk about is always considered the same sound, in any position, and followed by any vowel. It also always sounds actually the same to me (Between and English R and an English L). If you want something more interesting look into:

    a.) how “Hitostu” ends up sounding like “Shitotsu”, etc. from some speakers.
    b.) how “g” sounds more like “ng” (from “siNGer”) in some dialects.
    c.) “Palletization”, where “soft” sounds become “hard” sounds in the middle of a word. For example “hitoBito” or “mezimashiDokei”. This is very common, occures in all the dialects, and “officially” occures (that is, spelling is changed to account for it).

  4. Nick Brawn said

    Hi there. I stumbled across this posting after searching for reviews of pimsleur. Today I received my Pimsleur Cantonese course, and started with the first lesson. I really enjoyed it, and now a few hours afterwards, I think I can recall most of it still.

    I’m secretly learning it so I can speak to my girlfriend in cantonese, and her mother who barely speaks english.

    The lesson seemed very well explained and broken down in easily digestible chunks. Where a phrase initially scared me because they were saying it too fast, by the time the lesson was over, I was saying it with little difficulty.

  5. Anonymous said

    The Pimsleur tapes are the best I’ve seen and I’ve seen a lot. I did all three courses but stopped for six months (that’s how long I’ve been back in the US after my visit) and I’m now using them for review.

    People were able to understand me pretty well in Japan despite the fact that I had never spoken to anyone in Japanese before going there. While Japanese is pretty easy to pronounce if you put effort into it, most people have trouble at first. Pimsleur helps get you over the hump by going so slowly at first. But I wished they would have picked up the pace a little and eventually included more real dialoges. I can always repeat a lesson several times if it contains too much information.

    The biggest problem with the other tapes is that usually their formats are too rigid and it is easy to get bored and stop listening when you are driving. (They are also too dense though with an iPod shuffle and some editing software, they could be repaired somewhat). Pimsleur varies things up enough that I can easily listen to it twice as long before I day-dream (or fall asleep if I’m listening before bed). One of the keys is that they take time out of learning to set up context. (Imagine that you are sitting next to a Japanese woman that you met at work…) Of course the repetition in Pimsleur as you point out is another valuable key but without some of the other features, it wouldn’t work.

    The big criticism that I have (this is mostly issues with the Japanese version) is that they only cover polite speech and otherwise ignore equivalent but common patterns of saying the same thing (having to do with different ways of dealing with adjective negation and the negation of desu). I wish they would have covered “impolite” verb forms from the very begining (so that I would know the so called dictionary form). They also could have done a better job of explaining some of the grammar they were teaching you. Sometimes they’d do this by compare and contrast, but not always.

    The big disappointment I had after finishing all three series was that my vocubulary is still pretty dismal. Maybe I became too dependent on Pimsleur for learning and find it difficult to do word lists on my own. I made my own flashcard program to learn more words but this mostly helped me to read Hiragana and Katakana faster. I may try recording my own Pimsleur style MP3s. I’ve got plenty of sample sentences from a bunch of books I could record.

    Has anyone tried the Rosetta programs for PCs?

  6. Hard Gay Desu said

    Restuarant is Restoran

  7. todd said


    I’ve found an interesting site for learning Japanese. You are able to choose your own tutor from anywhere in the world and have a live conversation with them using Skype. I’ve found it really good fun and it has really helped with my pronunciation.

  8. Globalakif said

    There are about 120 million people in the world who speak the Japanese language, located mostly in Japan, Taiwan and Guam. In a world that is no more secretive and protective about trade and business but on the contrary has opened up its doors for people from all over to come into different countries for business and interaction otherwise, the importance of knowing foreign languages has grown tremendously.

  9. Hi,

    I have heard mixed opinions about Pimsleur, never used it myself but I do speak Japanese and have used other courses, may well check out Pimlseur too though,

    Thanks for the post.

  10. naruto said

    It is hard to learn Japanese. I tried but failed. You need to have more spare time to do what and in my case I was a bit over planned this daily stuff.

    jeff @ l shaped desk site

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