Overview of Pimsleur Japanese
Pimsleur Japanese is an audio course great for listening while commuting; the length of its lessons – 30 mins – is just right, and we get to listen to native speakers talking at natural speed. Pimsleur could easily be a part of a beginner’s program, for when we are commuting, until we outgrow it and start listening to Japanese radio shows.
Each level of the course consists of 30 lessons; as of 2019, Pimsleur has published 5 levels. A rough estimate is that if we can listen comfortably to the first 3 or 4 levels, we would be at a beginner level of listening proficiency, while levels 4 and 5 would be at a low-intermediate level. Part of the reason for this estimate is that it is difficult to believe that we could listen comfortable to levels 4 and 5 without having wetted our appetite about the Japanese language in general, and learned the kanas, some Kanjis, and some grammar using means other than Pimsleur. The levels build on each other, e.g., level II starts where level I ends, so we should listen to the levels in order. Part on this continuity aspect is the spiral method of the course: latter lessons often review material heard in previous lessons and levels.
Pimsleur uses the formal Japanese speech form, respectful in any encounter, and the dialogs are about situations that adults would find while traveling in Japan as tourists, or as new arrivals. The course uses the ‘standard’ Japanese spoken in the Tokyo region (e.g., Tokyo, Yokohama), which we would also hear in a news broadcast; this differs – sometimes by a lot – from the dialects spoken in the Kansai region (e.g., Kyoto, Osaka), in Okinawa, in Hokkaido, and many other places.
The course is a good practice for the listening sections of the JLPT, i.e., the official Japanese proficiency test. Similar to most textbooks, Pimsleur leaps among topics likely to be useful in conversation, from the ubiquitous introductions, asking for directions, ordering at a restaurant, visiting parks, talking about the family, and using the train, to small-talk about hobbies, books, and movies.
Pimsleur is not aligned with the JLPT, though. Material that is considered for absolute beginners, i.e., JLPT N5, is spread among all the Pimsleur levels. For example, the level 2 introduces the names of the days and the seasons, and counting up to a 1,000; level 3 introduces last/this/next month and above/below/behind/etc.; and level 4 introduces elementary words like ‘yama’ (mountain), ‘ike’ (pond), and ‘sensei’ (teacher), all of which is JLPT N5 material. However, equally true is that much more advanced material from JPLT, from N4 to N1, is also introduced gently; as an example, ‘dai’ (title, JLPT N3) is introduced in level 4, while ‘erai’ (admirable, JLPT N2) is introduced in level 3. Hence, although Pimsleur is geared to beginners, in no way it shies away from using advanced material when it needs to, i.e., it doesn’t dumb-down the material artificially restricting it to a given set of words. Although this might sound like the obvious thing to do, some language-learning material uses the opposite approach, which leads to incredibly unnatural language; in English, the most common example of this approach is the set of Dr. Seuss books, a great way to learn English words, but a poor way to learn English. Hence, they are great books for English-speaking kids that are learning to recognize words, but terrible books for foreigners trying to learn English using children books. A word to the wise: the concensus among students of Japanese is that the JPLT is fairly useless at measuring the level of Japanese proficiency, being an exclusively multiple-choice examination that lacks, for example, essay writing or interview sections so, passing, say, the JLPT 2, is no guarantee of mastery of Japanese. That said, Japan is a country that has rules for everything, and those rules state that certain working positions absolutely require passing the JLPT of a given level.
Useful as Pimsleur is, it needs supplementing in all the areas that make Japanese difficult:
- it only uses formal speech
- it does not deal with writing or reading
- Japanese grammar, difficult to distill from the limited set of phrases in the course
Formal vs. casual talking
Pimsleur focuses on fairly formal language, the Japanese that we would hear at the office, or we would use when talking to co-workers. This is also useful when we speak politely to strangers in the street. But… do we have any plans to travel to Japan anytime soon, or to work there?
We might be interested in Japanese because we like the Japanese culture, music, and series and movies, anything from ‘Kagemusha’ to ‘Totoro’ to ‘Your name’. The issue with Pimsleur is that in music, animes, dramas, and movies, the spoken Japanese tends to be the casual type, not the formal one. Hence, Pimsleur helps us carrying out a business conversation, but it doesn’t help much understanding the lyrics of a song, or the dialog in most movies. Worse, the appeal of many movies and series is that they deal with conflict (e.g., under-world cultures) and change (e.g., young-adult culture), neither of which is concerned with formality; on the contrary, both reject formality as a way to either rebel against the establishment (e.g., criminals) or as an assertion of self-identity (e.g., teen-agers). Characters in movies and animes will most often speak something between a casual Japanese and a rude one. For example, in ‘Your name’, the characters refer to each other using the casual ‘ore’ and ‘kimi’ instead of the formal ‘watashi’ and ‘anata’ used in Pimsleur; likewise, many main-stream animes use street-talk so, for example, the ‘you’ form that the characters of ‘Bleach’ use varies from ‘anata’ (formal) to ‘kisama’ and ‘temee’ (rude). If we want to understand these productions, there is no option but to supplement Pimsleur.
On the other hand, we might, indeed, be traveling to Japan for an extended period of time, in which case we need the casual language to relate to people more closely. Japanese have the concept of ‘inside’ (uchi) and ‘outside’ (soto) circles of relationships. Strangers, acquaintances, and superiors are solidly in the ‘outside’ circle so we will use the formal style with them, but family and friends are in the ‘inside’ circle, so the expectation is that we will talk to them using the casual form. It might be difficult for a middle-age foreign employee to be accepted in the ‘inside’ circle of a Japanese acquaintance, but this might not be the case for a young person that is traveling to Japan to study. In this case, it is likely that this student will soon have Japanese friends that would expect him/her to talk to them casually.
Fortunately, the casual language is not that different from the formal language. Obviously, the grammar and writing of both are mostly the same. The main difference are the use of verbs in dictionary form instead of in ‘masu’ form, e.g., ‘taberu’ vs. ‘tabe-masu’; the omission of particles, e.g., ‘sushi taberu?’ vs. ‘o-sushi wo tabe-masu ka?’; and the use of casual words instead of formal ones, e.g., ‘boku’ and ‘kimi’ vs. ‘watashi’ and ‘anata’. Unfortunately, it is also true that casual speech comes in a gamut of degrees, from showing familiarity, to being friendly, to being rude, to being right down insulting; each of these has its own nuances. Plus we need to add the issue of slang that is common to every language; regardless of how well we might speak the casual Japanese of the Tokyo region, we would have a hard time understanding the local slang of many places.
There is a third form of Japanese talk that foreigners living in Japan are exposed to, but rarely will have to use: the honorific/humble form. This is the speech form that a Japanese employee, say, at a hotel or a restaurant, uses when addressing a customer; in this case, a lot of polite prefixes (‘o-‘ and ‘go-‘), suffixes (‘sama’ instead of ‘san’), and honorific verb forms (‘gozaru’ instead of ‘arimasu’ or ‘aru’) will be used. There are a few examples of this form in Pimsleur, e.g., the ubiquitous ‘irasshaimase’ (welcome) that we hear every time we enter a store, but by and large, this is something that we would not be exposed to unless we visit Japan, and Pimsleur mostly ignores it.
Each lesson of Pimsleur starts with a short 30-45 secs. dialog spoken at a natural speed. Then the lesson will span 30 mins of listening to short sentences, and repeating them, with sporadic explanations of the literal translation of something. The patterns are quite useful and patterns learned in a lesson are often repeated a number of lessons later, reinforcing their memorization. This is somewhat similar to the “Language transfer” or “Paul Noble” language learning methods, neither of which has Japanese, and the “Michel Thomas” method, which does have Japanese but whose reviews are quite mixed.
An issue is that sometimes it is difficult to understand the Pimsleur dialogs at the beginning of each lesson, specially when we are absolute beginners; often the sentences of the dialog are repeated and dissected during the lesson itself, though. However, sometimes it is difficult to understand what they were saying even after going over the lesson many times; we keep rewinding and playing the same portions of the dialogs over and over. It is not a matter of disagreeing with the listening-only Pimsleur method – actually, I quite like it, but having a transcript would be useful, and apparently many other people think so too. Without understanding the dialog, we might finish a lesson with a sense of ‘not quite getting it’, even if we put a lot of effort in it; a simple look at the transcript of the dialog would have made it clear.
The lack of transcripts is often cited as a problem with the Pimselur courses, so having them around would solve this issue. Unfortunately, people that have written transcripts for other Pimsleur courses have received notices of copyright infringement (e.g., thydzik.com) and, regardless of whether the transcipts actually add value to the course, in the end, it’s Pimsleur’s right to do whatever they want with the material they created. Hence, folks that listen to Pimsleur are destined to make the best they can from their ears alone, unless they supplement the course.
It’s difficult to introduce writing in a Japanese audio course. Japanese writing permeates the culture and it has its own appeal, though. The writing system – a mix of original and foreign systems – is the main factor that makes Japanese so challenging. The written language is a mess, but it is a mess that is respected and highly regarded; its learning reflects a love for tradition, beauty, and hard work. And well… that is worth learning too! Maybe we won’t ever be able to read classic Japanese, but it would be great to read a manga, or signs on the street, or a newspaper, and Pimsleur is just not the way to even get our feet wet with writing.
Basic Japanese writing, with kanas, is not more difficult than learning the alphabet. Granted, learning the alphabet is not necessarily trivial since it took us several months to learn it when we were kids, at a time when our brains were like sponges, able to acquire new knowledge easily. Still, hiragana is about as simple as the roman alphabet; katakana, although equally simple, tends to be more difficult to learn because Japanese has less words in katakana than hiragana, so there is less opportunity to practice it.
Kanjis, which were borrowed from Chinese, are another story but… baby steps. Ideally, as beginners, we might find material that is written simultaneously in some of these:
- the translation in English
- the romaji version – the Japanese sounds as written in English
- the kana version – Japanese writing using only hiragana and katakana
- the kanji version – the normal Japanese writing, i.e., kanjis and kanas
Let’s see an example:
1: Mr. Mori; 2: Mrs. Ueda
2: Mr. Mori, good morning.
1: Ah, Mrs. Ueda. Good morning.
Is everything good?
2: Yes, everything’s good. Thank you.
1: Yes, I am fine too.
1: mori san; 2: ueda san
2: mori san, ohayou gozai-masu.
1: aa, ueda san. ohayou gozai-masu.
o-genki desu ka?
2: hai, genki desu. o-kage-sama de.
mori san wa?
1: ee, watashi mo genki desu.
1: もり さん; 2: うえだ さん
2: もり さん、おはようございます。
1: ああ、うえだ さん。おはようございます。
2: はい、げんき です。おかげさまで。
1: ええ、わたしも げんき です。
1: 森さん; 2: 上田さん
1: ええ、私も 元気 です。
Let’s use the words highlighted in the previous dialog to make a point. If we are total beginners, we can use the English translation and the romaji versions, and ignore the kana and kanji versions:
With a small effort, we can memorize the kanas – the hiragana and katakana syllabaries – and be able to actually write in Japanese:
This is a half-baked solution because any Japanese would understand what we are writing, but no Japanese would write using only kanas, unless s/he is writing a children’s book; we can write anything in Japanese using kanas, but we would still be far from being able to read Japanese.
Finally, we can learn kanjis – a life-long effort but… every journey starts with one step:
Reading is a great way to improve our skills in many languages. There are a lot of sources to learn the kanas alone, but unfortunately, there is little reading material geared to total beginners that would help us with the writing system. Material like NHK for kids or Hiragana times is for beginners in the sense that they use mostly kanas and easy kanjis, but of course, this does not help unless we already have a hefty vocabulary, in which case we are not total beginners. These resources tend to be geared to beginner native Japanese readers, i.e., Japanese children, who already have the hefty vocabulary, so all they need the book for is to learn how to write down what they already know.
Not being able to read and write Japanese makes the language challenging to learn for two reasons. First, if we are learning, say, Spanish, Sweedish or Romanian, we could pick up any book in those languages and start making sense of a lot of the material; after all, all these languages use the same alphabet as English, and there might be a lot of cognates, i.e., words with common origins, like ‘police’ in English, ‘policia’ in Spanish, ‘polis’ in Sweedish, and ‘politie’ in Romanian, and their grammar is similar; we cannot do this easily in Japanese even with a children’s book, much less with an average book or a newspaper. Japanese does have many English cognates – about 10% of the Japanese words are English cognates, e.g., ‘piano’, ‘gorilla’, and ‘computer’ are ‘piano’, ‘gorira’, and ‘conpyuutaa’ in Japanese; the problem is that we will not find these cognates in romaji, as we just wrote them, but in katana, as ピアノ (piano), ゴリラ (gorira), and コンピューター (conpyuutaa); in addition, cognates are restricted to katakana; there won’t be any cognates written in kanji or hiragana.
The second reason Japanese books are initially innacessible as learning material is that they use both kanas and kanjis, and kanjis are quite time-consuming to learn. The task is not hopeless, though; although there are around 75,000 kanjis, the vast majority of them are not used often, and many words that have a kanji, are actually commonly written in kanas. In 2010, the Japanese government designated 2,136 kanjis – ‘the Jouyou Kanjis‘ – as a literary baseline that high-school graduates are supposed to know. Thus, learning the Jouyou kanjis is enough to recognize most of the characters that we are likely to encounter on a daily basis, e.g., newspapers, many textbooks, and novels. Still, we should expect to put a large amount of effort to learn even these ‘few’ Jouyou kanjis.
A series that provides a gentle introduction to reading for non-Japanese beginners is Japanese Graded Readers, with the big downside that the product has little competition so it is expensive; their prices are seldom low, regardless of whether we buy them new or used.
There is a manga specifically designed as a graded reader for non-Japanese learners: the crystal hunter series. This is a series of books that starts with a tiny set of words in kana and kanjis; no romaji. The Japanese in the first book is not natural but is correct; as the story progresses, the set of words expands and the language becomes more natural. All the books have a free companion language guide. The idea is that as the series progresses, the reader gets access to a larger body of standard reading material. Book 1 is free (see links under the image) while the 2-to-4 e-books are inexpensive, or free under ‘kindle unlimited’. In the books, the learning component takes the passenger seat to the story that drives the process, so we learn without noticing it; we also get an early exposure to fairly advanced kanji, but we don’t notice it because it is pertinent to the story. In essence, it is easy to move along this series because all the books use the same characters, with the same goals, background, and speech patterns. For a beginner, being able to read these books, from front to back, is a huge motivator.
The final problem with the Pimsleur Japanese course is the issue of learning a language by studying its grammar, like adults do, vs. learning it by ear, like Japanese children do. Pimsleur uses the later approach, and probably it is the right method, but only if we are children totally immersed in the language, in which case we do not need Pimsleur; otherwise, expecting to learn a language by ear using a few lessons is unrealistic. Most foreigners not living in Japan that want to learn Japanese have a non-Japanese life, non-Japanese spouses and children, and co-workers, and clients, and friends: immersion is non-existent and the motivation is usually an attraction to the Japanese culture, which is a powerful motivation but also one that is not needed for day-to-day survival. So what can we do? Pimsleur just doesn’t cut it. It is really great that Pimsleur spoon-feed us tiny sentences that we can memorize and repeat, but to make up for our lack of immersion, we need a way to make sense of those spoon-fed bits, to generalize them, and that is grammar.
Grammar is the distillation of the rules of a language. For most of us, a combination of learning a language using both grammar and listening is probably a better approach that focusing on either of them. Fortunately, there is a lot of great Japanese grammar material. A couple of examples are the Genki series and the ‘A guide to Japanese Grammar’ by Tae Kim, that is available in its totality as a book and, online, at the website.
Listening to Pimsleur at the same time that we use a Japanese grammar text is effective because each method reinforces the other: Pimsleur gives realistic examples of what the grammar textbooks are teaching, while the grammar textbooks explain the apparent inconsistencies that show up when we try to distill rules from the audio lessons. An example would be the apparent inconsistency of the conjugations of adjectives, which makes sense as soon as we ‘read’ that there are two types of adjectives in Japanese – i-adjectives and na-adjectives, which we use in different ways. It is certainly possible to ‘infer’ this; after all, Japanese children learn to speak Japanese correctly before they can read it; however, to be able to do this from audio alone requires many exposures to examples and feedback correcting the child when s/he makes a mistake, i.e., a large carrot and a stick; Pimsleur does not provide neither the large number of samples, i.e., the immersion, nor the on-the-spot correction, i.e., a small carrot and no stick. On the contrary, Pimsleur suggest listening only a single 30 min. lesson a day.
There are some effective methods that advocate a much larger level of immersion, e.g. AJATT, Matt vs. Japan , and Organic Japanese. With these methods, we are likely to learn Japanese with a high level of proficiency but, to succeed at them, we need to have a firm commitment to learn Japanese and the time to spare; they are not for the casual visitor that needs to move around in Japan for a few weeks or months because of leisure travelling or temporary relocation as, say, a business consultant, an exchange student, or a temporary consulate employee.
In the end
Pimsleur is great if it fits our proficiency level and lifestyle: the material is useful if we are beginners, and if we can listen to it while we drive, at a leisurely pace, or in the subway, or bus, or while exercising. The quality of the recordings is great, and all the levels of the series are consistent with each other; each level is a smooth follow-up of the previous level. The quality of the recordings is also consistently high.
Among other courses, the Pimsleur lessons are particularly helpful to get us to start talking to a Japanese friend or teacher, since they give us confidence that if we repeat what we learned, we are not going to say something completely unintelligible or offensive; depending on our personality, we might or might not care whether we do so or not, though. Making mistakes is great for learning, but successes are the motivators, so trying to talk and utterly failing at it over and over is just going to be depressing and might even derail our efforts of learning the language.
In spite of this, Pimsleur has deficiencies: it would be great to learn some casual style that we could use right away to understand movies, or to be able to read and write some Japanese, or to understand the rules of the language. However, even if we are interested only in formal Japanese, and we are not interested in reading or writing it, Pimsleur just can’t make up for the fact that Japanese grammar is very different from English grammar, and thus ‘distilling’ patterns from its small set of audio samples might work well for languages similar to English, like Spanish, but doesn’t work well with Japanese; because of this grammar issue, Pimsleur might work best alongside a standard grammar course or text. Likewise, Pimsleur would definitely enhance a standard Japanese course that lacks a serious listening component.
Still, if our lifestyle is such that we only have time to study while commuting, or we want to use that commuting time learning Japanese, by all means get started with Pimsleur alone. If the cost of Pimsleur is an issue, we can always start with a copy from the library, which usually carries Level 1, and sometimes levels 2 or 3; usually libraries do not carry levels 4 and 5, though.
If we like the Pimsleur approach and we want to carry it further beyond the commuting, there is a similar method called Mango Languages. Unlike Pimsleur, Mango is highly interactive, so we can’t use it while driving but we can use it when we are passengers in a car, train, or airplane, or at home. Mango has two versions, one that runs in a browser, so it requires us to have a live internet connection, and an app version, for which we can download the lessons and run them off-line. Like Pimsleur, many libraries offer Mango as one of their e-media services, e.g., the Los Angeles public library, the Boston public library, and many others.
Matthew Chozick, now living in Japan, has an interesting article in Tofugu in which he describes how he used Pimsleur to start his journey of learning Japanese; the article also has tips to many other Japanese language-related tools. He, as well as other people, dislike a few dialogs in Pimsleur I, in which a man asks a woman to dinner and/or to his apartment. I found the dialogs harmless, but if you are likely to be bothered by this, these dialogs are confined to a few sentences in a couple of lessons of level I, and never show up again.