I’ve been trying to learn the Japanese language for more than thirty years, hoping to reach the point where I could hold my own in a Japanese conversation. Before starting this project, I studied the Pimsleur Japanese course and two other Japanese language courses rather thoroughly, to the point of typing up their transcripts in some cases and even re-recording their audio portions. These three courses each had advantages and disadvantages, as described below.
1. Berlitz Japanese Audio Lessons
A number of years ago, before the Pimsleur Japanese course was developed, I enrolled in a Japanese audio course offered by Berlitz. This course was copyrighted in 1986 and came with twelve 30-minute audio cassettes. There was no English in these 6 hours of material. The Japanese vocalists spoke at a fairly slow deliberate speed, and the course came with transcripts of the lessons, written in romaji.
For me, trying to listen to the Japanese conversations on these cassettes was frustrating. There was very little comprehensible material for my English-thinking brain to grasp, and I felt a bit lost as I studied them. I soon realized that listening to people talk, when you don’t understand what they are saying, is a very nonproductive way to immerse yourself in Japanese.
With the help of my wife, I was able to translate the Japanese sentences in the Berlitz course into English. Then I used audio software to insert English translations of individual sentences into the Berlitz audio track, essentially turning the material into audio flashcard lessons. After eliminating the most basic material, I ended up with nearly 3 hours of lessons.
By modifying the Berlitz audio lessons in this way and using them as audio flashcard lessons while exercising or commuting, I was able to make considerable progress. As I did this work, I began to see the value of audio flashcards for the first time.
2. Pimsleur Japanese Lessons
The second audio course that I completed in an attempt to learn the Japanese language was the Pimsleur Japanese course. Professor Paul Pimsleur, who died in 1976, designed a unique language-learning method that is a more complicated and, in some ways, a more sophisticated version of the basic audio flashcards method. It introduces new material slowly, to avoid overwhelming the learner, and then it repeats this new material at fixed intervals, in an attempt to cement newly acquired knowledge in the student’s brain.
At the time that I studied it, the Pimsleur Japanese course consisted of about 48 hours of lessons. Although it doesn’t really try to teach grammar, it’s a high-quality professional product, especially suitable for people who are just starting to learn Japanese and need to be spoon-fed, so to speak. I found it very useful.
Unfortunately, the Pimsleur Japanese course has some deficiencies that become apparent as one uses it. For one thing, the repetition that was an important part of Professor Pimsleur’s learning theory, while very helpful the first time one listens to a lesson, starts to grate the second time and gets tedious on subsequent listenings. The course would have been much better if it had included review lessons, incorporating all of the unique material in the lessons without repetition. (I am told that they now have a “Premium” edition which includes review lessons.)
Another problem with the Pimsleur course was that it did not provide the learner with a transcript (although I have been told that they now provide a transcript in the “Premium” edition). Thus it was necessary to rewind the mp3 player if one failed to hear the native speaker’s words accurately.
Finally, as mentioned above, the Pimsleur Japanese course doesn’t try to teach much grammar. So, although you may learn how to say some fairly complicated sentences, you will not learn what some of the individual words in those sentences mean or why they are combined in the way that they are. For example, you will learn to say moshi yokereba and understand it to mean “if it’s all right with you,” but you will not learn that the word moshi means “if,” that yokereba is the eba form of the adjective yoi (meaning “good”), or that the eba form means “if … then.”
As a result of such omissions, you may get the impression that Japanese is a mysterious language consisting of complex phrases that just need to be memorized, rather than a logical one based on simple building blocks and rules. The Pimsleur Japanese course will leave you with a basic but limited understanding of Japanese.
Because of repetition, the Pimsleur course didn’t actually teach 48 hours of unique material. To overcome the problem of repetition and make it possible to review the lessons, I typed up a transcript containing what I considered the essential material in the course, excluding material that was too basic for me at that point in my studies, and recorded this material in a question-and-answer format. The end result was about four hours of interactive review lessons, which proved to be quite valuable as I continued studying Japanese.
3. “Learn In Your Car” Japanese Audio Lessons
As I continued my efforts to learn the Japanese language, the third set of audio lessons that I completed was the Learn in Your Car (LIYC) course. The Japanese lessons in this series are about four hours in length (after omitting repetitive elements). Compared to the Pimsleur Japanese course, the LIYC course covers nearly the same amount of material, but not the same material. There are many vocabulary words taught by LIYC that are not taught by the Pimsleur course, and vice-versa.
The LIYC product isn’t quite as professional as the Pimsleur Japanese course. It comes with a transcript, which is very useful, but both the lessons and the transcript contain a number of minor errors and seem to have been thrown together somewhat haphazardly.
The main problem with the LIYC course, apart from its haphazard organization, is its unnecessary repetition. The publishers inexplicably chose to have the Japanese speakers repeat all of the Japanese “answers,” i.e., to have them say everything twice. This isn’t very helpful, even on the first listening. On subsequent listenings, it becomes a serious annoyance. In order to overcome this problem, I used an audio program to cut all of the redundant Japanese answers out of the lessons. In this way, I was able to make the lessons suitable for repeated use, and I found them very useful as audio flashcards.
In summary, I learned a lot from all three of these Japanese language courses, but none of them was capable of providing the comprehensive foundation in Japanese that I needed. In spite of my efforts, when I found myself in Japan, most of the things that Japanese people said to me or to each other remained a mystery, and I still could not carry on a satisfying Japanese conversation.