First Words

First Words; Lonely Planet Kids, $12.99, 208 pages, ages 4-8.

Lonely Planet Kids has expanded its product line-up in recent years with an intense focus on the pre-k to third grade demographic with interactive travel journals, guidebooks, and now, phrasebooks. In the age of Google translate (which is no substitute for learning a second language, but that’s another topic altogether), it’s reassuring to see publishing houses recognize that language acquisition is a skill best learned young. The First Words series enters the market with three languages–Spanish, French, and English–and each volume introduces the same 100 words. Each book uses the same images, so there’s continuity across the series if not cultural diversity. (But really, a gato is a chat is a cat, right? Sometimes it’s best not to overthink these things.) Every page is devoted to one word with a pronunciation guide, and Lonely Planet’s website offers free audio clips spoken by a native language-speaking child, for all 100 words. (Check it out here.)


The First Words series is a cute introduction to second language acquisition, and Lonely Planet plans to add Italian, Mandarin, and Japanese to the lineup in the near future. The trick now is for Lonely Planet to follow up with an equally engaging series that takes readers to the next level of language acquisition, because it’s at this secondary stage that many companies falter, and kids lose interest. Here’s hoping Lonely Planet will change the trend.

Julia Pimsleur-Levine

Interview with Julia Pimsleur-Levine, CEO of Little Pim

            Julia Pimsleur-Levine, founder and CEO of the Little Pim language program, spoke to me from her Manhattan office about her business, love of languages, and being a ‘mompreneur.’ 


photo credit: Jean-Luc Mege


          Pimsleur-Levine considers herself part of a growing group of female CEOs and business-owners who actively and successfully balance work and home commitments.  She considers ‘mompreneurs’ essential innovators in the marketplace.  “It’s a fabulous term. There’s a growing group of women who look out into the marketplace and see there’s something lacking for their own children and then they go out and create it.” The realization came quickly that she would have to create her own language program after searching for an effective and entertaining way to teach her firstborn son French. The search was fruitless – there was nothing on the market that catered to the youngest demographic. “I created Little Pim for my oldest child. I think – like many women – I sat there for a few months and said, ‘Gee someone should really make something for parents who want their children to learn a foreign language.’ Then I realized that someone should be me.”    

           Pimsleur-Levine began developing the Little Pim program in 2007 while her son was a toddler. She recalled how the harshest critics are often those still in diapers.  “Toddlers are your most unforgiving audience because if they don’t like something they just stand up and walk away.” This proved to be constructive feedback for her. Pimsleur-Levine worked with award-winning animators, language advisors and neuroscientists to create the language-learning program. “We made sure that we created something that was as engaging and entertaining as it was as educationally sound,” said Pimsleur-Levine.  “Both those pieces were really important to me.” The Little Pim franchise is now in its fourth year of sales and offers twelve languages ranging from French to Arabic to Chinese. 

Pim the Panda

            At the core of the program is an adorable panda named Little Pim who acts as the friendly and engaging catalyst for language acquisition.  How did Pimsleur-Levine choose this animal? “Well, I have to credit my mother for that. She came up with the idea for a panda. It was a much less popular animal at the time. Now you see pandas everywhere.  But it was a little more rare then. And we liked that babies see black and white better than color at first. Since pandas are from China, we knew that children would be inquisitive about the origins of the panda. That way they’re already learning about another language and country.”  Each DVD is centered around a theme such as eating, playtime, and sleeping, and each video is broken down into five-minute segments to accommodate the attention span of babies and toddlers.  The program’s success can be measured in the accolades it has received from parents as well as educational organizations – Little Pim has won twenty-five awards over the past four years. Looking to the future, Pimsleur-Levine plans to transition the program to exclusive digital content, creating digital downloads of all the language programs and offering e-books that currently accompany the videos in traditional book format. 

Baptême du feu

            Born in New York, Pimsleur-Levine’s family moved to Paris when she was six. Her father, Dr. Paul Pimsleur, had been invited to the Sorbonne to share his successful audio-based language learning method.  Ms. Pimsleur-Levine and her brother arrived in Paris not knowing how to speak French.  Yet two months after enrolling in the local public school the children were fluent.  Being the only Americans in the school was a culture shock, as Pimsleur-Levine recalled those early days.  “It wasn’t an easy experience. The other schoolchildren had never met Americans before, so we were like objects of curiosity. While I complained bitterly about it at the time, I now feel grateful for the gift that my parents gave me. Now that I’m a parent I see many moments like that.”

            Complete cultural immersion imparted Pimsleur-Levine with a lifelong love of all things Francophone.  She even moved back to Paris after graduating from Yale to pursue a career in filmmaking. Pimsleur-Levine credits fluency in French as a major advantage to this stage in her career. “I love languages – especially French, and as soon as I graduated from Yale I moved to Paris. I lived there for seven years and went to the French National Film school and got my MFA there.  It was a huge advantage to already be bilingual.” As a filmmaker Pimsleur-Levine made documentaries that would eventually be broadcast on HBO and PBS. 

Tricks of the Trade

            Parents who don’t speak another language can help their children learn a second language using the Little Pim language method. Pimsleur-Levine uses Chinese as an example. “I think we’ve hit a cord because there are so many non-Chinese speaking parents who want their children to become familiar with the language. One of our core principles at Little Pim is that we want all of our products to be accessible to parents who don’t speak the language.  And so that’s where we’ve really filled the niche.” Often, learning a second language intimidates parents, and Little Pim’s goal is to allay some of that anxiety.  “Parents often don’t know where to start, and they find our product, which presents the language to their kids with a perfect accent.  We’ve made it very easy and you don’t have to be Chinese to offer this to your children.”

            For parents concerned that their children may not use the language, Pimsleur-Levine offers sage advice.  "You often have a higher degree of receptive comprehension rather than expressive ability. Meaning they understand a lot more than they speak.“ While at first a child may not seem to be learning a language, there is solace in knowing that offering language instruction to young children is a great gift. "The way I see it, we’re giving them a solid foundation, but children don’t yet see all the advantages of speaking a second language.  That comes later when they travel to another country or when they have their first cognitive experience using the language. I think more kids step up speaking when they have that base.”