Ancient Greece Meets Modern Pimsleur

Ljulia pimsleur greekittle Pim founder and CEO Julia Pimsleur writes home from Greece.

As my plane landed in Athens for the Global Leadership conference hosted by the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, I was thinking my father must have looked out this same kind of window 50 years ago. That is when my parents came to Athens to put to the test my father’s home grown method for teaching adults with no prior foreign language experience to speak a new language. Today this would be called seeking “proof of concept” in the start-up world. Back then I am sure my father thought of it simply as seeking an answer that would make or break his future. He had a vision of creating a National Bank of Languages where anyone could learn a language in a short time for purposes of travel for business, government service abroad or for personal pleasure. In the wake of Sputnik, the United States was taking another look at why Americans were behind in the world in a number of areas, including foreign language acquisition, and they thought my dad, known as Dr. Pimsleur, was the right guy for the job.

Armed with a modest grant from the U.S. Government Department of Health, Education and Welfare, my parents left for Greece to prove that with the right method, anyone could learn to speak a foreign language, even a difficult one like Greek. Though this was a clearly entrepreneurial endeavor, Dr. Pimsleur surely thought of himself more as an academic on a mission. His challenge in Greece was simple and yet incredibly hard: get people to speak conversational simple Greek in a few weeks. In those pre- app, pre-software pre-online learning days, this had never been done. If you wanted to learn a language you had to take a course either at a private institution or university and slog through hours of grammar lessons, repetition and often not getting around to conversation for months.

My father wanted to offer an alternative way of learning that would change the field forever. To prove his method worked, my father (with a lot of help form my mother) recruited 27 Americans and Brits who lived in Greece and wanted to learn Greek. They put an ad in the local English language newspaper offering a free experimental program in  Greek.  A mix of people turned up – students,  military wives,  an English teacher and some ex pats who claimed they had tried all means but could not master the language.They ran the program for three  months and out of the original number only 2 dropped out.

dr. pimsleur greek
Dr. Pimsleur himself.

In order to write the program, my dad, with help from the students in the program, tried to target the most useful utterances that one needed to know arriving in a foreign country. The idea was that you should be able to start conversing from the very first lesson. These interactive dialogues were recorded on a reel to reel tape recorder, with my father relying on his “native speaker”, a Greek teacher, who provided him with the Greek language. My dad was the “Teacher on the Tape” (which later became the Pimsleur Method’s first tag line!). The participants repeated these words and phrases into a Wollensak tape recorder in 20-30 minute sessions every day. My mother’s job was to run the lab in a small un-air conditioned room in a downtown Athens, listen to the recordings and mark the places where students were unable to respond correctly.  This was done on lined yellow legal pads which quickly piled up in stacks around their apartment. At night they went over the responses of the lesson of the day to see what parts of the program had to be tweaked-a tedious and work intense endeavor. The next day my dad rewrote what was necessary to insure that students could respond correctly to 80% of every lesson, and those lessons were re-recorded.

That became the basis of the “gradual interval recall method” otherwise known as the secret sauce of the Pimsleur method. They also conferred with the students who helped them understand their language needs.  My parents used their own experiences as visitors to a foreign country to help decide what was the most useful and practical vocabulary to include in the programs. And then their adults started doing something amazing that kids do so naturally but adults often find nearly paralyzing in a new language: they spoke! They got comfortable and conversational even faster even than my father hoped. My mom remembers that when whey packed up shop, the students gave them a big party, wishing them luck and encouraging them to quickly go do the same for other languages!

So they went back to Ohio and founded their own company with my father as president and my mother as vice-president and started selling the program. My mother designed the first packages with a blue Greek motif and kept the stock in the basement next to the washer and dryer, wrapping up orders while drying diapers belonging to my older brother. The business was up and running, albeit to a very small market. Eventually my father invested his own money to create similar programs in French, Spanish and German.  He was even asked to go to Ghana to teach the Peace Corps volunteers Twi, an African language. The Head of the Peace Corps, a friend of my parents, had been one of the first people to try out the Greek program. Five years later, when he saw that the recruits to Ghana, even though had gone through a program to learn Twi in the US, couldn’t get along in even the simplest conversation, he thought of Dr Pimsleur. He still remembered “Catalavenate Hellenika” and some of the Greek he had learned from those very first tapes. He was convinced this was the most effective way to train his volunteers, so off our family went to Ghana to help get a language lab up and running for peace corps volunteers (by then I was on the scene).

My father didn’t live to see his method become the multinational business success it is today, marketed by Simon & Schuster Publishing. The Pimsleur Method is distributed digitally all over the world and exists in over 50 languages including Haitian Creole, Mandarin, Cantonese and Albanian. I can only imagine my father would be delighted that half a century after he first landed in Athens with his Wollensak tape recorder that he would find his daughter attending a gathering of 1,000 leading entrepreneurs in the place where he first scratched his own entrepreneurial itch and set out to prove something he believed in so passionately could be done, and done well.

Greece is known for being where Western Civilization started, but to me it is first and foremost where our family business started. I couldn’t help but feel my father was hovering as I moved through the conference representing my own entrepreneurial dream come true, Little Pim, which enables young children to learn their first second or third language. On my first day at the conference an entrepreneur pointed at my name tag with a huge smile and asked, “Are you Pimsleur like the Pimsleur language courses?! I love those! I have used them in three languages, they really work.” I’d like to think that my father heard him, too. Efharisto, dad. Milao ligo Hellenika*. I learned that from the Pimsleur Greek program.

 

* means “Thank You” and “I speak a little Greek”