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Monday, November 26, 2012

Interview with Robert Riger, Pimsleur Language Programs: Innovators in E- and M-Learning Series

Mobile learning and second (or third, fourth, or fifth) language acquisition has lent itself to mobile learning in a comfortable integrative way, thanks to the ideas and innovations of early pioneers such as Paul Pimsleur. It is useful to see how companies such as Pimsleur approach the rapid pace of communications innovation, and how they incorporate their core teaching and learning philosophies into the new technologies. Welcome to an interview with Robert Riger, Vice President and Director of Pimsleur Language Programs.

1. What is your name and your relation to e-learning?
Robert Riger, Vice President & Director, Pimsleur Language Programs
Paul Pimsleur, our company’s founder, was one of the first people to see the potential for self-instructional language programs.  He embraced new technology, using audiocassettes, the “digital download” equivalent when he began writing his courses.  He was delighted to be able to set his students free from classrooms and schedules.  In fact, in the early 1960’s he worked with Ohio Bell to create an on-demand dial-in program for audio language lessons (perhaps a precursor to a podcast?).

The learning tools he created, and which our current courses are built on, allow users to express themselves in whatever language they wish: to understand at a functional level, to recombine elements learned, and to read and sound out words in a new language.  Courses are designed to be used independently, with no prior knowledge, no live instructor, and no textbook.  Because of the medium and the method, students connect directly with the language.

2. What do you think are the most effective ways for students to learn a language using e-learning or mobile learning?
We all learned our first language through our ears, and by mimicking sounds and associating them with meaning.  We believe that’s still the best way, and the closer we can duplicate that process, the better off our learners will be.

One of the best ways to learn a new language is via audio lessons that can be used every day irrespective of the student’s lifestyle or schedule.  In that way, Pimsleur is a perfect fit for e-learning – it was designed to be used this way right from the beginning.

Our newest program, Pimsleur Unlimited, is currently available for use on MAC and PC computers, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook as a mobile solution.  The audio lessons can be done inside the program, or they can be transferred to MP3 audio format with the touch of a button.  Pimsleur Unlimited allows users to access more visual aspects.  Users have the ability to see words and phrases written down, work on pronunciation and conversational speed, use flash cards, or do a Quick Match game – while still preserving the primary language learning that occurs when completing the audio lessons.

Pimsleur Unlimited also features an online chat option.  Users can log in to hear presentations about various cultural aspects, and chat with native speakers and other learners as part of the learning process.

3.  What are a few new developments in learning languages using mobile devices?
Pimsleur Tapes were among the original “mobile” learning opportunities.  Many students claimed that they learned an entire new language while listening (and speaking) in their cars.  Now that the whole world has gone mobile, banking, entertainment, shopping, and learning are all being done on the go.

There are many portable tools available to users who want to use another language to communicate.  Whether one needs translation, a dictionary, flash cards, word games, or drills and even access to a foreign newspaper, news program or online tutor, there’s probably an APP available.  In fact, there are so many options available, many beginners have trouble figuring out how to get started.

We encourage everyone who wants to learn a language to start by working with Pimsleur.  Once they are able to acquire a vocabulary and useful conversational skills, all the rest of the tools become truly helpful.  After just a few weeks of Pimsleur, everything else starts making sense.  

4.  What is Pimsleur's core instructional strategy for language instruction?
Early in his career, Dr. Pimsleur created a battery of tests designed to predict a students’ language ability.   His tests confirmed that almost no one was actually learning foreign languages in school, and in the rare cases when they were, it was due to some extraordinary factor – a super teacher, a bilingual family, or some other influence outside the normal.

His research showed that self-instruction that tapped into the brain’s natural abilities for learning and memory would produce profound results.

Dr. Pimsleur believed that users should own the learning process.  His programs give students the ability to put together unique sentences, and to speak with an accent that is near native.  More than learning a list of words or memorizing phrases, it’s the ability to recombine them into unique utterances that really sets Pimsleur apart from everything else out there.

He foresaw the potential e-learning had for government and academic institutions required to train large numbers of people in a new language quickly as world events demanded, for example in event of an earthquake, political upheaval, or other natural or man-made disaster.  He also envisioned the possibility of making less-commonly taught languages available to learners who previously only had access through exclusive academic channels or by complete cultural immersion.

He wanted his students learn at their own pace, working when and where they found themselves, but on a regular basis – preferably every day.  He wanted his students to work on perfecting their pronunciation, to read in the language, and to put themselves into situations where they would be required to use their new language with native speakers as soon as early and as often as possible.

5.  How does Pimsleur implement the strategy for use with mobile devices?
The concept of portability is one of Pimsleur’s founding principals.  Since the days of cassette tapes, Pimsleur products have kept pace with our “mobile” customers as they’ve learned new languages while living their busy lives.  Currently all of our 50+ courses are available as digital MP3 files, so the audio lessons are accessible to anyone with a player.

For Spanish, French Italian and German learners, our Pimsleur Unlimited courses are more visual, but still integrate instant access to MP3 audio files.  In addition, they allow access to the visual components on the Nook, or on a laptop or other personal computer.

Many language training programs offer some aspect of their program in a “portable” format.  They allow users to do flash cards, use a digital dictionary, or do games or exercises on their phones or portable devices.  Pimsleur is the only language program with a completely portable core learning method.  There haven’t ever been workbooks or grammar lists with Pimsleur, just progressive, foundational learning that serves as a springboard into the culture, the people and even more language.

6. What are some of the future directions for Pimsleur?
At present, our intention is to continue evolving into the digital audio landscape.  Pimsleur has mobile learning in its DNA.  It’s the way our programs were originally conceived and developed, and it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever allow them to become less mobile.  Even as we move into software, and the option of desktop learning, we’re determined to keep the portable / mobile option open for all of our customers.  Even as the technology becomes more complex, we see more desire than ever for audio courses, and we plan to continue offering them on whatever platform our customers are using.

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