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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.

Posted in Language learning, Phonetics and phonology, Reviews | 10 Comments »