How Audio-based Language Learning Trumps the Textbook

How Audio-based Language Learning Trumps the Textbook

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Guest Post…

Purna Virji possesses a talent for learning new languages with six in her present language-speaking repertoire. She is a former producer for an Emmy-nominated television show with a master’s degree in international journalism. She currently works at Pimsleur Approach, the world leader in the audio-based, language-learning program developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur.

How audio-based language learning trumps the textbook…

“We listen to a book a day, talk a book a week, read a book a month and write a book a year,” said author and educator Walter Loban. Is it any surprise that an audio-based program is the best way to learn a foreign language?

Language is chiefly a spoken form of communication. It was born and evolved that way at least 100,000 years ago, with reading and writing only emerging relatively recently. Even with the rise of the books, then the Internet, texting and so on, the vast majority of day-to-day communications remain oral, driven by listening and speaking rather than reading and writing.

While this reason alone may be enough to conclude that audio-based programs are the most effective way to learn a language, there is also a growing body of research-based evidence to back it up.

How You Learn as a Child…

Let’s begin with how we actually process language. As a child, you learned your native language by listening to people talking, not by studying textbooks. In fact, we listen for up to a full year before speaking, and reading and writing comes much later, mirroring the evolution of language itself. Therefore, learning language by listening can be considered the more natural way.


Leading anthropologist Terence Deacon agrees. “Writing and reading occurred recently,” said Deacon. “We are not well designed to do so and as a result a lot of people have difficulty acquiring reading and writing. If language itself were like that we should expect to find those kinds of problems with our ability to acquire language.” Clearly, for the majority of people, this is simply not the case.

The Science of Language Learning…

A groundbreaking 2001 study by the Carnegie Mellon Center for Cognitive Brain Processing found that the eye and the ear process information differently.

“The brain constructs the message, and it does so differently for reading and listening,” said Marcel Just, Carnegie Mellon Psychology Professor. “The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. Listening to an audio book leaves a different set of memories than reading does. A newscast heard on the radio is processed differently from the same words read in a newspaper.”

The experiment found that there is more working memory storage in listening comprehension than in reading, and that because spoken language is more temporary than written material, the brain is forced to process the language straightaway. The research went a considerable way to confirming what language learning researchers had long posited- that not all language learning methods are equal.

Better Pronunciation…

Moving away from pure science, there are numerous advantages of using an audio-based program rather than textbooks or visual programs. Firstly, using an audio-based program enables you to perfect your pronunciation and accent. By listening to native speakers on CDs, you can compare and improve your accent in a way that is simply not possible using textbooks. Therefore it is important to choose an audio-based system that uses only native speakers, and preferably one that focuses on breaking down unfamiliar strings of sounds.

In addition, learners naturally read words in their native accent. For example, take the German word ‘welt’ (world). A native English speaker would naturally pronounce it as it is written; however, it is actually pronounced ‘velt’. Even if they immediately read that it should be pronounced ‘velt’, the connection has already been made in their brain and it can be difficult to reverse. Learning using an audio-based system eliminates this potential problem.

Tune in to the Language…

Next, listening regularly to the language makes it possible for your brain to tune into the language’s unique cadence and rhythm. Every language is spoken differently, such as the musicality of the Romance languages and the perceived ‘harshness’ of German and English. With audio language learning methods, your ability to hear and understand the language, with all its different sounds and rhythms, will be speeded up.

In addition, the intonation of language varies considerably. Has anyone ever said to you, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it”? Linguistic researcher CMJY Tesink says, “Language comprehension in (verbal) social communication calls upon pragmatic listening skills, since the listener is often required to work out the non-literal meaning of the speaker’s message by using the context and his own knowledge of the world.” Audio-based learning programs tune the learner’s ear into the unique and often subtle intonations of language.


To state the obvious, books do not talk back! Although the interaction in audio-based programs is not real, per se, the best programs recreate real situations and conversations as closely as possible, preparing learners for those all-important conversations with native speakers.

The voguish term for language learning now is “language acquisition”, which differentiates between the direct instruction of language rules and the more natural, interactive approach now recommended by experts. Audio-based learning programs are much more conducive to this new, “acquisition” style of learning than books, which rely heavily on direct instruction.

Moreover, audio-based programs provide a kind of inbuilt revision. As the learner reacts to the voices on tape- answering questions, repeating pronunciation and so on, the new words and phrases are reinforced in their memory. In addition, as audio-based programs focus on real conversation, the learner will hear words and phrases repeated regularly, but not in the endlessly repetitive way that turns so many people off language learning.


Pragmatically, audio-based programs beat other systems hands down simply because of their portability. Considering that one of the top reasons people give for not learning a language is “I don’t have time”, portability and convenience are major strings in the bows of audio-based programs.

Practice and daily contact are widely acknowledged to be crucial ingredients in language learning success, and using an audio-based program means you can listen to the language wherever you go and whatever you’re doing- on your daily commute, while working out, or even while catching up on household chores. You don’t have to sit down with books or a computer, or try to find a window free in your schedule every day. Audio-based programs will fit effortlessly into your lifestyle, and it will therefore be easier to keep up with your language learning.

There is little doubt that audio-based language learning programs will grow even more popular, and will doubtless undergo exciting changes as the “digital age” marches on. Isn’t it time that you turned on and tuned in?

Purna Virji

12 thoughts on “How Audio-based Language Learning Trumps the Textbook”

  1. Martyn, “only one-on-one tutorship beats audio when it comes to learning a lingo” and I’ll have to agree with you. Especially if one records their one-on-one’s for afters 🙂

    Hi Emil, Pimsleur only has an introductory course for Thai but I do know what you mean. I prefer playing around with as many different methods as possible (I get bored easily).

    Also, as soon as I learned how to read Thai my recognition of the spoken tones became much better, so for me, learning how to read is important.

    My main reason for liking Pimsleur (100% audio) is the pretty much the same for BYKI (audio + script) – both push me to come up with answers. It’s when I’m tested that I sit up and pay attention to what I don’t know, and then work to improve. Otherwise, I’d feel like I’m just spinning my wheels.

  2. Written and spoken communication are two different — connected, but different — things which both have value and both have their own intricacies and difficulties. Written communication is slow but has posterity, is easier to duplicate and can traverse oceans (hell, I’m reading this article a month late, in Australia).

    Not to mention the argument put forth here used the written medium.

    None of which detracts from the value of audio-based language learning tool. I think Pimsleur’s Thai is fantastic — but it’s not a be all and end all. I’ve done the course twice now, and most of my Thai lexicon can be attributed to it, but I couldn’t be further from fluent.

    I understand the points raised in the article but I take issue with the premise. Perhaps one style of learning is superior to another but that is no reason to ignore other aides/methods.

    For my own two cents (and that’s really all they’re worth), I think Pimsleur Thai is a great introduction into Thai but it really is just that, an introduction.

  3. The post and its content make a lot of sense and the explanation between velt and welt has audio hitting books out of the ball park. I would say only one-on-one tutorship beats audio when it comes to learning a lingo.

  4. Tod, “perhaps it did give me a solid foundation to build off” … and that’s the whole point of beginner’s courses. Even when learning Contract Bridge I had to relearn a few ‘rules’ because teachers knew that throwing students in at the deep end doesn’t always work. Especially with those who don’t have an ear for card playing.

  5. Sorry this is long. .
    I learned almost exclusively from audio files early on; Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Benjawan’s stuff, even that 12 set c/d dealy you buy at the BTS stations and about any online resource I could find too. I did this mostly because Thais were (and honestly, still are afraid to talk to me). Now that that Google Translates “speaks”; I routinely “rip” text from several Thai newspapers and “listen” to them as I read along.

    Unfortunately, after learning from audio files I found, real honest to goodness Thais didn’t speak even remotely like the tapes sounded. These people speak in staccato bursts, shortening or dropping words when ever they want to, not to mention leavin’ out all personal pronouns in context. It left a huge gap in what I’d learned via audio and what I heard spoken every day around me here surrounded by the Thais.

    Perhaps it did give me a solid foundation to build off of, but it was almost as if I was starting from a disadvantage. I learned the “spoon fed” or “correct way” to speak and to listen for responses. It appears to me the Thais weren’t following the same script and/or the language had changed so much as to make even fairly recent audio stuff almost valueless in “real-life” Thai.

    I immediately discount anything with the word “colloquial” in it where it pertains to learning Thai. That stuff’s outdated almost as soon as it makes it into print, sometimes to the point that it’s laughable. Thai as it’s spoken by the Thai youth of today (heck, even by older Thais too) is going thru exponential changes at a rate that wobbles the mind (in a good way). New words are cropping up all the time. I just sat a class where the teacher went over “new Thai words”; ones which hadn’t even been in existence a year ago and we had a couple pages of them!

    As an example; I mean how in the world did the phrase เป็นยังไงบ้าง (which all foreigners are taught) morph into something which sounds like a drawn out งาย nowadays? The only way a non-native speaker is gonna learn anything close to “colloquial Thai” is to get out there and listen to what Thais are sayin’ right now when they talk to each other.

    Don’t mis-remember what I wrote, audio files do have their place in the learning process. If I could have a “do over”; I wouldn’t waste a second on audio files as a primary learning resource like I did. Instead I’d enroll in a school or find a qualified Thai teacher that knows how to teach Thai to non-native adult speakers and concentrates on teachin’ “Thai as it’s spoken today”. I wouldn’t try to learn the Thai of “dayz-gone-by”, or that overly polite syrupy sweet Thai these people wished they all spoke, but in reality don’t. It’d either be that or I’d pick a country where they had a better command of English than they do here…

    If you do have thais, errr I mean ties to this country, if you choose to live here, by all means learn the Thai you need to help you get things done and learn it by any means which works best for you!! There is NO short cut, no magic pill, no “best method” to learn Thai or any language. It takes time effort and hard work. I think using every resource available to you and cut-n-paste them to your needs works the best. But hey, that’s just me..

  6. That’s a good way of explaining it Justin. As a reluctant language speaker, I’ve agreed with Steve’s method (don’t participate until you are ready). But in practice, I learn faster if I’m pushed out of my comfort zone.

    I’m a lazy language learner (insomnia heavily comes into it so perhaps that’s too simple of an explanation). When I’m forced to scramble around for the word or phrase, to participate instead of let the language flow over me, I feel like I’m getting somewhere. And with usage, the words and phrases stick.

    But Steve isn’t a lazy language learner so he’s able to use the waiting method to his advantage. And it obviously works for him and many others.

  7. Yeah, I like LingQ as a resource, but Steve is one of those “Don’t speak first” language learning advocates. My problem with that is that, based on my experience, your abilities to listen and understand will usually always be at a different level than your ability to use the same vocabulary. Sometimes one is higher than that other, but not often are they the same. Sometimes you speak more than you can understand and sometimes you understand more than you can speak.

    Anyway I’m stepping off my soap box now.

  8. Steve from LingQ recorded a video, Why I am not a fan of Pimsleur. One of the reasons he gives for not liking Pimsleur is that he doesn’t like being forced to speak. But having to come up with responses verbally is the very reason I enjoy the course.

  9. I agree. You would get a foundation from which to build off of. Reading and listening will be much more helpful to you and would actually help your speaking abilities too. I checked it out and it teaches good proper, yet colloquial Thai. Unfortunately, Thai isn’t the emerging market that China is and doesn’t have the “Romance” of the Romance languages. But at least there are things out there to help you get started.

  10. Liam, compared to other the languages they support (French, Chinese, Italian… all the biggies), there just isn’t a huge market for Thai courses. And at least Pimsleur didn’t make a dog’s breakfast like Assimil did. Ah, come to think of it, I don’t believe Assimil has plans for an intermediate Thai version either.

    Pimsleur’s Thai is a decent starter course. You won’t become fluent, but if the method suits your learning style you will gain confidence with the language.

  11. Sadly it doesn’t look like Pimsleur has any plans to make Thai lessons beyond the basic set they have now. I wrote a letter to them a while back requesting more, and while they were kind enough to actually write me back, I was told that there are no plans to extend the Thai series. Not enough demand I suppose.


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