The secrets of language learning

The secrets of language learning

Language learning – Croatian, Danish, French, Hindi, Italian, Swedish, now Spanish – has been part of my daily routine for two years.  I’ve become evangelical about three methods: Pimsleur, Memrise and Michel Thomas.  Each promises that anyone can learn: this post explores how each method works and what underpins that promise.


The truth is that anyone can acquire a foreign language with the right teaching system”

I’ve been using Pimsleur’s audio courses for over a decade.  They’re designed around four principles:

1) Anticipation
Words and phrases are introduced, then learners are cued to use them:
Narrator: Ask the lady ‘Where is the restaurant?’
After each cue, there is a pause to anticipate the correct answer:
Learner: Gdje je restoranu?
Then a native speaker confirms the answer, and the learner repeats it, refining their pronunciation:
Native speaker: Gdje je restoranu?

2) Graduated interval recall
The same phrase – such as “Where is the restaurant?” – is retested at carefully chosen intervals: just when the learner is likely to forget them.  Pimsleur calculated the best interval was retesting after 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, 2 years.  Learners are encouraged to complete one thirty-minute lesson each day, which ensures phrases recur at the right intervals.  (Learners are expected to achieve a standard of mastery, described as the ability to “respond quickly and accurately when your tutor asks a question” around 80% of the time).

3) Core vocabulary
The course content focuses on grammar, underlying structure and the most useful words…

4) Organic learning
…Which learners use to construct increasingly complicated sentence fragments (practising extensively in the process).  From ‘Where is the restaurant?’ one might proceed to asking ‘Is the restaurant over there?’ then stating ‘The Restaurant Marina is on Central Square.’ and so on.

Michel Thomas

There’s No Such Thing as a Poor Student, Only a Poor Teacher.”

Michel Thomas’s approach is similar, but unveils more of a language’s structure, more quickly.  The fundamental idea is the same – the learner responds to cues aloud:

Thomas: Words ending in ‘ion’ in English are the same in Spanish, and ‘tion’ in English is spelt with cion, because that’s how you pronounce it…  condition would be…”
Learner: Condición
Thomas: The condition
Learner: La condición

Thomas: A condition
Learner: Una condición
Thomas: In what condition?
Learner: Qué condición?

Thomas unveils the structure of the language progressively, offering immediate practice with each new insight:

Thomas: The bonus is that whatever we have been using for ‘you’ – you want, you can, you have, you are going – that with all verbs, the form of you, also goes for he, she and it…  You are going to do it would be, once more…
Learner: Va a hacerlo.
Thomas: He is going to do it.
Learner: Va a hacerlo.
Thomas: She is going to do it.
Learner: Va a hacerlo.

Unlike Pimsleur, there are three participants in the course: after Thomas’s cue, the learner speaks; next, a language learner; finally, Thomas.  This offers Thomas the chance to highlight and correct common errors:

Thomas: No.  Quier-e you will not be understood…  You are only allowed one – single – stress.  Never more, not the slightest indication more than one.  And in the pre-sent tense, you know now where the present tense push is.
Learner: Quie-re.
Thomas: Right, quie-re.


We make learning languages and vocab so full of joy and life, you’ll laugh out loud.”

Memrise is a simple, brilliant testing website through which I’ve learned just shy of 7,000 words over the last three years.  The first step is elaborate encoding: repeated practice reading, hearing, and recalling a word or phrase.  Choreographed testing takes place at scheduled reminders (4 hours, 24 hours, 5 days, 10 days, and so on, up to a maximum of 180 days):

Memrise 3.png

If learners make a mistake, the frequency of retesting increases  (I got ningún wrong this morning, so will be tested on it sooner than the other words shown above).

Memrise have created a series of excellent courses which include videos of native speakers using phrases.  These courses teach both core vocabulary and grammar and then build them into a variety of short sentences.  Memrise offers the the extensive vocabulary needed to flesh out the structures provided by Pimsleur and Michel Thomas.

Conclusion: languages for all?

The merits of each approach have astonished me.  I first used Thomas’s course in Italy, twelve years ago: I was shocked to find myself holding conversations with people.  On landing in Japan a decade ago, I was surprise to find sentences of Japanese ready to use.  The brute force of extensive vocabulary learning in Swedish through Memrise finally allowed me to read and understand most conversations.

It’s important not be deceived by the merits or the sales pitches for each course however.  As a trainee teacher, I quoted Michel Thomas in my first university assignment: “There’s no such thing as a poor student, only a poor teacher.”  In failing to grasp what underpinned his method, I proved him right.  Thomas never explained his methods – to anyone – and he emphasised language learning need not be effortful, as a pitch to those who hated languages at school.  The epigrams for each provider are subtly disingenuous; I might rephrase them:

Anyone can learn, with a carefully-designed course and sufficient graft.”

All three providers believe anyone can learn.  What’s less clear to the casual user is the careful application of cognitive science to their courses:

  • Learning is carefully sequenced
  • Learners are exposed to key ideas repeatedly making clear the underlying structures
  • Model answers and problems are interleaved
  • Learners are tested repeatedly and generate the answers themselves
  • Testing is spaced at gradually increasing intervals
  • Tests offer immediate feedback, which shows how much learners have understood (and allowing them to self-assess accurately)

Long before the codification of these as principles of instruction, Michel Thomas and Paul Pimsleur had designed courses conforming beautifully to the key findings of cognitive science:

Anyone can learn, with a course designed around the principles of cognitive science, and sufficient graft.

User notes and further reading

Memrise is free (with a premium package on offer).  Michel Thomas and Pimsleur courses are both pretty expensive, but my local library stocks a wide range of both.

Kris Boulton has written an interesting post on how Michel Thomas’s course reflect Englemann’s Theory of Instruction here.  Boulton discusses this delightful documentary of Thomas working with North London students in 1997.  (See also this Guardian article; I have resisted the temptation to discuss Thomas’s fascinating life and particularly his role in the Second World War, on which more here.

For more on Memrise’s approach, see here and here.

It’s worth making language learning into a habit…  more here.