About a month ago, I embarked on an ill-advised (and perhaps ill-fated) attempt to learn German. This is my report from the trenches.
I have the short-term memory of a stoned gnat, so I knew that learning German would be a challenge. And because I am both impetuous and impatient, I decided to try the Pimsleur Method and Rosetta Stone simultaneously.
In case you’ve somehow missed the ubiquitous ads, Rosetta strives to “unlock your natural language ability,” while Pimsleur promises to “teach you a new language in 10 days … without any reading, writing or studying.”
One month in, I’m finding that—maybe not surprisingly—neither pitch is entirely accurate. I’ll tackle Pimsleur first.
I have no doubt that the Pimsleur Method works beautifully for some people. (After all … it’s trusted by the FBI!) But after a couple of weeks of repeating phrases ad nauseam, I gave up. Why? David Sedaris says it better than I ever could:
Instead of being provided with building blocks which would allow you to construct a sentence of your own, you’re left using the hundreds or thousands of sentences you have memorized. That means waiting for a particular situation to arise in order to comment on it …”
Like Sedaris, I found it unlikely that I would try to pick up a German woman by repeatedly—insistently!—asking her if she understands English.
So I decided to focus my efforts on Rosetta Stone instead.
Rosetta’s approach is different. Although it doesn’t advertise quick results, it does promise to make you conversant in your new language through total immersion and intuition.
It worked beautifully for the first couple of weeks. I felt my confidence growing as I learned the difference between das Pferd and die Katze. But then the conjunctions and prepositions started popping up, and everything fell apart.
As I repeated “Die Schuhe stehen unter dem Bett,” and “Die Zeitung liegt auf dem Bett” this morning, I found myself wondering why shoes would stand under something, while a newspaper would lie on top of something.
Maybe it’s because the shoes are firm, I reasoned, while newspapers are floppy (and thus incapable of standing). Or maybe masculine objects stand, while feminine objects lie. Or maybe it has nothing to do with gender, and it’s all about geographical placement.
I never did figure it out. By the time I regained consciousness, a young man was declaring, “Ich wohne in einer Wohnung.” Good for you, dear. Enjoy your nice apartment.
Thank Gott for Herr Thomas.
I’d read about Michel Thomas in David Sedaris’ wonderful essay, Easy, Tiger.
Unlike the nameless instructor in Pimsleur, Herr Thomas explains things—the fact, for example, that if there are two verbs in a German sentence one of them comes at the end,” wrote Sedaris.
“Eureka!” said I.
I found Herr Thomas’ course on iTunes and made yet another impulsive purchase. But this one came without regrets: Within an hour, I’d learned a couple of conjugations for 16 verbs. And—thanks to Herr Thomas’ Socratic teaching method—I’d learned to construct sentences on my own.
Finally, I’ll be able to ask my friend Uta what she’d like to drink, and whether she would like to come with me this evening.
Thanks to Herr Thomas, I’m also able to apologize for my misplaced belongings. (“Es tut mir Leid, aber ich weiß nicht wo es ist. Ich kann es nicht finden.”) This is excellent, since I seem to be losing a lot of things lately. Probably because most of my short-term memory is occupied by German.
So … what’s my conclusion? Unfortunately, I think there’s no single best way to learn a new language. The Pimsleur Method can teach a handful of useful phrases. Rosetta Stone definitely makes it fun to build a large vocabulary. And Michel Thomas provides the building blocks to help you communicate one-on-one.
But in the end, there’s no avoiding a simple truth: Learning a new language involves lots of study—and lots and lots of memorization. But at least my combo method is giving me the illusion that “Ich kann do dis.”