Learning Spanish with Audio Lessons

As of mañana I will have completed Level 1 of the Pimsleur Spanish audio course—and I just thought I’d share a few thoughts on how pleased I am with it!

Now, since this is a philosophy blog, let me mention that it’s not hard at all to see learning a language as a Stoic exercise. According to Quintilian, in fact, the ancient Stoics made large contributions to the study of grammar, and were the first Westerners to give names to things like “articles,” “prepositions,” “pronouns,” and “adverbs” (Institutio Oratoria, 1.4).

Those of us who have fallen in love with a canon of ancient texts, moreover, are always tantalized by the far-off possibility of reading them in their original language. Especially dedicated contemporary Stoics, for instance, sometimes take to learning Koine Greek. Personally, I have a few Loeb editions of Cicero, and the Latin facing me on the left-hand side always taunts me! I dream of someday being able to read Seneca and Cicero in the original—especially since I expect to be using them to inform my daily practice for years to come.

I love the Loeb series.  But I definitely cannot read Latin.

On a simpler level, though, becoming a polyglot is just one of those things that pretty much everybody would like to accomplish, but which we rarely find the time or resolve to actually pursue. Like exercising and eating healthy, then, learning a language is one of those aspects of human excellence that we often aspire to, but rarely flourish at (Stoic virtue, anyone?).

Alas, putting aside the obvious fact that nobody I know speaks a classical language (making it a pretty lonely sport), I don’t have time to study ancient Latin grammar (which, by the way, is craaazy stuff!). Frankly, I don’t even have time to be writing this blog—I have more than one job, I’m working on a dissertation that has nothing at all to do with philosophy, etc. You know the drill: real life always beckons! Cicero is right when he says that love of knowledge can easily lead us to be “careless of health or business” (De Finibus, 5.48)—but, true to his Aristotelean form, I’m not sure he realizes that that’s a bad thing!

Enter Pimsleur. It’s an audio course that teaches you to speak a second language in daily, 30-minute lessons. Pretty straightforward. They do a great job of giving you spaced repetition, so that the words you learn stick in your memory. It’s a challenge to keep up, but the lessons are well thought-out—which is what you’d hope from a series that costs $15 or so per 5-lesson unit (and that’s just because I get a discount through Audible.com).

I’m using it to learn Spanish, which is most certainly not Latin (none of the Romance languages are mutually intelligible with classical Latin), and won’t help me understand Cicero—but it is an extremely important world language that in fact dominates most of the countries on this side of the planet, it is part of the broader Latin heritage (Seneca, Quintilian, and the family of Marcus Aurelius were all from Spain, in fact!), and it invites me to connect with a culture that I know embarrassingly little about (my recent post on Francisco Suárez is exhibit A).

What you can Expect from Pimsleur

Children should first know how to inflect nouns and verbs, for they cannot otherwise come to understand the following stages.

—Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 1.4.

I am very excited about these lessons in particular for two reasons:

  1. It’s been very easy to get in the habit of practicing. Driving to campus or walking to the library—time that used to be wasted—is now put to very productive use! Better yet, Pimsleur has helped me get in the habit of exercising: I like to go running first thing in the morning while listening to a Spanish lesson—and the double benefit I gain from that half hour helps the two habits reinforce each other!
  2. I’m learning more than I ever have in previous attempts to learn a language on my own. Much of the cause, I think, is that the Pimsleur lessons focus on teaching you new grammar constructs and “connecting words” at a fast rate.

After finishing Level 1 of their 3-level program, I would still be a terrible conversation partner. But here is what I’ve learned:

  • How to talk about the present using null subject sentences with the appropriate inflections (something that can be quite jarring for English-speakers, but which is common in most Romance languages—you can thank the vestiges of that complex Latin grammar!):

    “Tenemos dinero.”—”(We) have money.”

  • How to use infinitives to talk about actions:

    “Quiero ir con usted.”—”(I) want to go with you.”

  • How to use “to go” to talk about the immediate future:

    “Voy a comer en casa.”—”(I) am going to eat at home.

  • How to use “to have” and past participles to talk about the past (present perfect tense):

    “Lo he visto muchas veces hoy.”—”(I) have seen him many times today.”

    Geeky aside: fascinatingly, the use of “to have” (“haber” in Spanish, “haben” in German) to form the perfect aspect is common across most modern European languages. But this commonality is due simply to areal diffusion: ancient languages like Latin did not use “to have” in this way. Just as fascinating, the similarity between the Spanish “haber” and Germanic words like “have” and “haben” is coincidence: “haber” has an entirely different etymology.

And of course you also learn other basics, such as how to handle feminine and masculine nouns and to make adjectives agree in gender and number.

All said, while I obviously still have a great deal to learn, and my vocabulary is very small, Pimsleur Level 1 has clearly made an effort to equip me with a complete enough complement of grammar constructs that I can actually talk about many of the sorts of daily things that I might need to express.

Now, as an audio course, let me be clear that Pimsleur never taught me any of these grammar terms. It just gives you new examples over time—it doesn’t say “okay class, today we’re going to learn about participles!”

This is why people are often critical of audio-based methods: adult learners rely heavily on occasional grammar tips to help us generalize from the examples we are taught and be able to construct new sentences. Without being explicitly taught at least a little bit of grammar now and then, a lot of people fear that you’ll fail to develop this general understanding of the language, and that you’ll just learn to reactively spit out memorized phrases. As Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months puts it in his review of Pimsleur, he fears that “the course produces parrots rather than potential conversationalists.” In machine learning and data science, we would call this overfitting. The pernicious thing about overfitting is that as long as you’re able to answer correctly, you’ll feel like you’re learning. According to Lewis, this is something that “many courses do to make you feel like you are making a lot of progress… even if they don’t actually bring you far at all.”

Time will tell how well I am actually learning to construct new sentence in Spanish through this method. But so far I don’t think I’ve succumbed to the “parroting” pitfall: each time Pimsleur teaches me a novel grammar construct, I get very curious about what’s going on, and usually spend a little time online looking up explanations. It’s very easy, and only takes a couple minutes of reading to reach the point where everything clicks.

So far I feel that the combination of the audio lessons with a little bit of light grammar Googling (and Duolingo practice, which helps with spelling and vocabulary) has been very effective.

There are still some things I struggle with: forming questions is hard for me to do quickly, since in Spanish you have to say things that are the literal equivalent of archaic English constructs like “Know ye the restaurant?” (“¿Saben ustedes el restaurante?”) and “To where goeth he?” (“¿A donde va él?”). And let’s not even get started on reflexive verbs (like “irse,” “to leave”) or the word order for subject pronouns (Ha me dicho lo… Ha lo decirme… no, that’s not right… Ha me lo dicho? Oh shit, “haber” always goes with the verb… Me lo ha dicho? Turns my brain to mush!).

These things will get less confusing with practice, of course, so I’m not concerned. I aim to complete Level 2 by the end of this year, and (fate permitting) Level 3 in the Spring.


2 thoughts on “Learning Spanish with Audio Lessons”

    1. Thanks! I’ll try it out. I’ve been using Duolingo on and off—but I always suspect that it helps me more with vocabulary than anything else, so I’ve been wanting to move to something that is more akin to flash cards!


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