The Importance of Gaining Exposure When Learning a Language

After working with both Pimsleur Mandarin and Pimsleur Tagalog for a few days, I’m starting to experience first-hand the advantages of being exposed to a language versus never having any prior experience.

Being a second-generation Filipino American, my parents decided not to teach me Tagalog despite speaking it fluently to each other. Growing up, I was surrounded by relatives speaking only in Tagalog around me but never directly to me. Most Filipinos are capable of speaking in both English in Tagalog since English is a mandatory language in the Philippines, so they always spoke in English to me. In turn, even though I did not understand 100% what they were saying to each other, I still had a vague idea of what words meant and, more importantly, how to pronounce them correctly.

This familiarity, or exposure to the Tagalog language, is making all the difference with my Pimsleur Tagalog language lessons. For those unfamiliar with Pimsleur, it is a computer program that teaches you how to speak a language via audio recordings only. A speaker will say a phrase or a conversation in the language, and then you are instructed to repeat the phrase. There are no visuals whatsoever, so if you are not sure what the speaker in the recording said, then it is difficult to replicate the phrase accurately. Fortunately, thanks to my Filipino relatives, I recognize almost all the words said in the Pimsleur Tagalog program even though I don’t see them written out.

On the other hand, using the Pimsleur Mandarin program has been an incredibly difficult challenge. Since I rarely heard Mandarin before starting Pimsleur, it is difficult for me to know if I am pronouncing the word correctly or not. Even though I can repeat a lesson with Pimsleur multiple times, I am still not 100% positive I’m pronouncing the word correctly since there is no visual image to reaffirm what I am saying. It doesn’t help that Mandarin is also a tonal language where one character can be pronounced in four different ways. Even if I may be saying the right character, I could say it in the incorrect tone and say another word unintentionally. For a language as complex as Mandarin, I’m realizing that Pimsleur is not an effective approach for someone who has almost zero exposure to the language.

Pimsleur - "No Books! No Classes! Totally Audio!"

Pimsleur – “No Books! No Classes! Totally Audio!”

When it comes to teaching English Language Learners (ELL) or English as a Second Language (ESL) students, I am finally understanding how difficult learning English must be especially from a student that came directly from Mexico, China, or anywhere else without any prior exposure to the English language. I feel the fastest way for a student to learn a new language is to immerse himself or herself in an environment where all they hear is the new language. This way, even though the student doesn’t understand what most people are saying, they can at least hear the correct way to pronounce words and use grammar. However, this “all-English environment” needs to be supported by a teacher or classmate that can assist the ELL/ESL student in their native language if they feel truly lost.

For myself, I will try giving Pimsleur Mandarin a second chance but I need to expose myself to more of the Mandarin language first. I plan on doing the following:

1.) Get a dictionary to help me confirm if I am pronouncing a character correctly and using the correct tone.
2.) Get a grammar book so I can learn how to pronounce and distinguish between the four different tones.
3.) Watch Mandarin TV shows to see how native speakers pronounce Chinese characters.
4.) Listen to Mandarin music only for vocabulary and not pronunciation. Unfortunately, since Mandarin singers cannot distinguish tones when they sing, it would not be an accurate representation of how to correctly pronounce a character. However, music is definitely a great way to increase vocab but just recognize that most of the lyrics will not be every day phrases.

I know Pimsleur’s approach is “No Books! No Classes! No Audio!” but how can you learn a character-based tonal language without a book? I’d like to hear a non-native speak Mandarin after using only the Pimsleur Mandarin program. It’d definitely be a memorable experience.

What strategies do you use to gain more exposure to a different language?



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