Beverly Pimsleur helps adults and children fall in love with language

As a young child, Beverly Pimsleur learned first-hand what it was like to be considered an outsider simply because of the way she talked.

She grew up in the deep South and moved to Columbus, Ohio, when she was in elementary school. Her southern accent did not sit well with younger Midwesterners.

“Whenever I spoke, everybody laughed and made fun of me,” Beverly explained. “One of my cousins used to stand outside my window after school and mimic me by saying things like, ‘Y’all want to come down yonder?’ and run away laughing.

“After a while, I stopped speaking in class, so the teacher called in my mother for a conference and told her something had to be done about my accent,” she added.

Beverly was then sent to the Frieda Fraser School of Elocution to get rid of her southern accent. At 7 years old, Beverly realized how important language was to self-confidence, personal identity and a sense of community.

“If you can’t  speak a language correctly, it makes you an outsider,” she explained. I called the first language I learned Yankee English; and I mastered  it by mimicking others. It set me on a path to be being interested in studying other languages.”

Beverly eventually got a bachelor’s degree in English literature and started working in publishing.

A new way to learn

Many years later, Beverly fell in love with and married a French professor. One of her dreams was to live in France.

“When we first met, my husband, Paul, told me he had a revolutionary idea about a new way to speak spoken languages,” she explained.

“Eventually, he applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to spend six months in a country of our choice,” she added. “We were to develop a program to prove we could teach language to a basic skill level within a certain number of hours.

“We selected Greece and moved there for several reasons. When we came back, the agency loved the program so much my husband was encouraged to quit his job and work for them,” said Beverly.

“My husband said, if they thought it was so good, perhaps we should go into business on our own,” she added. “So, we set up a business and sold the program ourselves.”

However, neither Beverly nor Paul had any business sense and didn’t have any idea how to properly market a product. That’s when fate stepped in.

“My husband had a friend who was a brilliant marketer, and he joined the company,” she explained. “Unfortunately, my husband died at a very young age. But we were still able to develop the Pimsleur Language Program and make it a success. I sold the company a few years ago to Simon and Shuster.”

Pimsleur Language Program

The revolutionary system was designed to teach people how to become conversational in a language very quickly. Ideally, it was targeted toward people who wanted to travel, but only had three weeks to learn the language.

“My husband’s idea was that you could take foreign language classes for years in high school  but get to the country of your choice and still not be able to say two words in conversation,” said Beverly.

“Back then, learning a language was based on teaching you to read and speak by studying grammar rules,” she added. “But that’s not the way you learn to speak. You learn by listening to someone else speaking and then imitating it.

“That was a very original approach to teaching languages, and it worked well,” she explained. “The Pimsleur Method has been around for 52 years and is available in more than 50 languages.

“I worked in publishing for a while before we were married, so I knew a bit about marketing,” Beverly explained. “I went to Macy’s and bought some shelves for our basement and put them up next to our washer and dryer.

“We had two kids who were 18 months apart. While I was washing diapers, I would address boxes that contained instructional cassette tapes and send them out,” she added.

“When we sold our 25th order, my husband and I were really excited,” said Beverly. “Of course, we needed to sell 2,500 in order to make any real profit from it. But it gave us encouragement that our language system could work.”

Beverly is a testimony to the effectiveness of speaking languages. She can speak fluent French because she lived in France for 14 years. But, she is conversational in Italian, German and Greek.

After Beverly and Paul returned from Greece and settled in New York City, he suggested she go into teaching so they could both have summers off. So, she started teaching while pursuing a master’s degree in comparative literature.

“When we came back from Greece, I was so enamored with the country and Greek history, I initially wanted to get a degree in ancient Greek history,” she explained. “But, I also wanted to use my literature background, so I decided to pursue those studies.

“I was in the middle of taking my exams to get a doctorate degree in comparative literature when Paul died,” she added. “With two kids at home, I did not have the luxury of writing a PhD thesis, so I went to work and that was the end of my academic career. I have absolutely no regrets. I had a wonderful time teaching and loved every moment of it.”

Living in France

When Beverly and Paul received their first check from publishing their first language book, they used the money to buy a little apartment on the beach in Nice, France. They used that house for family vacations while Paul was alive.

When Paul died, at age 48, their children were 8 and 10. The Pimsleur Language Program only offered courses in five languages at that time. But, thanks to their partnership with Charles Heinle  the company eventually offered 30 languages before it was sold to Simon and Shuster, which added another 20.

Beverly was widowed for six years before she met her partner, Peter. Because her children were in college at that time, Beverly and Peter moved back to Europe to live in France.

Peter was an international photographer who worked mainly in the Middle East. While they were in France, Beverly continued writing material for Pimsleur courses and faxing it to the main office.

Initially, they stayed in the apartment her family had purchased on the beach near Nice. But it was not winterized. So she and Peter purchased a home a few miles away  and lived there for 14 years.

“We had a nice fixer-upper apartment a few blocks from the beach,” she explained. “It was the best decision I ever made in my life. I’m so glad we had that opportunity.”

Beverly absolutely loved living in France, particularly for the delicious foods. Cooking had always been one of her hobbies, and food is an institution in France.

“You don’t just eat in France, you dine,” she explained. “Because we lived a few blocks from a gorgeous French market that sold fresh vegetables, meat and fish, we could always make some fabulous meals.

“However, because we lived near the border in Nice, we could also hop a train and be sipping cappuccino in Italy 20 minutes later,” she added.

Beverly is a big fan of famous cook Julia Childs, who got her start by attending cooking school in France. One of the schools Beverly attended over the years was operated by Patricia Wells, who was a close friend of Julia.

“When Julia died, she gave her stove to Patricia. I found myself cooking on Julia Child’s stove in France. It was a real thrill,” Beverly explained.

Life as a foreigner

Living in France was a wonderful experience for Beverly, and not at all like the way it is sometimes described by disgruntled Americans who think French people hate them.

“The French people are so grateful to America for their work in liberating France at the end of World War II,” she explained. “However, they are often less tolerant of people who do not speak French. But, if you make some effort to speak their language, they are more well disposed toward you.”

That makes perfect sense to Beverly based on her experience moving to Ohio as a child. There is a common courtesy involved in speaking a country’s native language.

“When you go into any store in France, the first thing you do when approaching the clerk is to say ‘bonjour’ which is French for ‘hello.’ Failure to do so is seen as not being very polite.,” Beverly explained. “That’s probably something many Americans aren’t used to doing. I would cringe whenever I was in a store and a woman would walk up to the salesperson and expecting her to speak English would ask, ‘Do you have size 42?’ There are cultural niceties that differ from country to country and it always better to try to observe them.

“There are certain expectations regarding how people act and communicate,” said Beverly. “You wouldn’t go into a French restaurant and order a Coca Cola with your steak. Of course you can, but it’s probably not what someone in that culture would do.

“If you master cultural expectations and make some attempt at speaking their language, I think Americans have a much easier time traveling in other countries,” she added. “People will put up with a mispronunciation or misuse of a word if you’re really trying to use their language.”

Teaching very young children

After graduating from their respective colleges, Beverly’s son moved to Alaska and her daughter moved to France as well, where she lived in Paris while launching a career as a filmmaker. Both children were very supportive of Beverly’s decision to live in France.

After living in Paris for seven years, her daughter opted to return to New York and wanted to get married. She enticed Beverly back to New York with the promise of a grandchild, something her daughter fulfilled within a year of her return.

While her daughter, Julia,  was pregnant, she told Beverly she wanted her children to grow up bilingual, too. However, her daughter didn’t like any of the available language programs for preschoolers.

“One day, she told me, ‘I’m going to start my own company. You’ll run it and, once it is successful, I’ll quit my job and help you with the company,’“ Beverly explained. “So we started a company called LittlePim to teach languages to small children.”

“My daughter is a very careful researcher who worked with neurologists to understand the benefits to a child being exposed to a second language, even as an infant,” Beverly explained.

“Our program was geared toward children just after birth up to 8 years of age,” she added. “Parents would just play the tapes so children heard words in the different language. By the time they were 2 or 3, the children can start responding by repeating some of the words.”

With Julia running the company and Beverly a part of the production team, they developed 12 language programs for children.

“It was a fun project. Because kids like animals, we had the children talking to dogs and cats,” she said. “It was a really cute program.” 

After 17 years, Julia sold the company to pursue another dream.

Learning to dance

Beverly’s experience living in different cultures instilled a love for learning, which continues today. In fact, when she was in her 60s, Beverly wanted to learn how to do a very eloquent, but technically challenging dance called the tango.

“When Peter was sick and in the hospital, I had to take two busses to visit him. While waiting for the second bus to arrive at the end of the day, I could see people dancing the tango,” she explained. “I never thought of dancing myself , but the music was so beautiful and the dance so graceful that I fell in love with it.

“After Peter died and I moved back to New York, I had what I call my Richard Gere moment from the film ‘Shall We Dance?’“ said Beverly. “I was walking down Broadway and saw all these people dancing the tango in an upstairs studio.

“So, I walked up and asked the receptionist if I could sign up for classes,” she explained. “The receptionist was about 20 years old and tried her best to discourage me by telling me the tango was very hard to learn. She recommended I try salsa instead,” Beverly explained.

But Beverly persisted and began classes, which she said helped her in dealing with her loss.

“You cannot grieve while you’re dancing the tango because you must concentrate on all the steps,” she noted.

Because of her age, Beverly knew she didn’t have 10 years to master the dance, so she started going to classes three or four times a week. Then, on weekends, she participated in milongas, which are day-long tango dance events.

“I met new people who weren’t really interested in hearing someone’s life story. They just wanted to dance together,” said Beverly. “Dancing the tango was a wonderful way to get over the sadness  I was experiencing by concentrating to something new. I danced the tango for 13 years.”

In fact, she fell in love with all types of dance from ballroom dancing to folk dancing. She even performed on a few cruise ships.

“The tango was my first love and I think that really saved me emotionally,” said Beverly. “It was very difficult to get over losing a second partner. I advise anyone in a similar situation to simply dance their way out of grief.”

Learning to write

Continuing her love of learning, Beverly took up writing for fun in her late 70s.

“I was a teacher and lecturer who had to write my classroom material, and I also did a lot of editorial work when I was in publishing. But I had never written anything just for fun,” said Beverly. “When I stopped dancing, it was my daughter’s idea for me to write a memoir.

“I resisted by telling her that was something only famous people did, but she encouraged me to write out my family history because it was an interesting story,” Beverly explained.

Her great grandparents lived in Russia, and fled the pogroms, which was an organized massacre of Jewish people. One of Beverly’s uncles was a photographer who had amassed hundreds of photos about life in Russia in the 1800s.

“I did some research into that era and put together a book based on those photos,” she explained. “I attended some writing workshops and wrote a book called ‘Kishinev to Kentucky.’

“At one of the workshops, I met a woman who was also a widow with two children. She had been invited to Greece and used the Pimsleur Method to learn Greek,” said Beverly. “That woman encouraged me to write a book about how the company started.”

Titled “Repeat After Me: A Love Affair with Language and Life,” Beverly is currently interviewing agents and hopes to have the book published later this year. Some chapters have already been published in different women’s magazines.

“Everyone has a story to tell. Many times, they think what they’ve done in life isn’t important. But, even if you only write for your children and grandchildren, they will be immensely grateful that you preserved all those stories,” said Beverly.

“There are many, many writing courses for free at libraries and courses people can take online to help them write their life stories,” she added. “If you don’t like to write, then you can dictate your story. I actually dictated a large part of my book into my phone, then transcribed what I recorded into a Word document and edited it.

“There are also editors who will help you polish your story, but it is very important that you do not allow your story to die with you,” she explained.

Keep moving forward

If there is one thing Beverly’s life exemplifies, it is the need to keep moving forward regardless of what happens and to find new interests.

“We all have a lot of untapped abilities. It may take a while to find out what they are,” said Beverly. “Your life is an epic story with a lot of chapters.

One way best way to describe someone’s life is by looking at Russian nesting dolls. You open one and there is another doll inside. You open another, and there is an even smaller one inside,” she explained. “By the time you have them all opened, you have several versions of the original doll.

“When Peter and I traveled to Russia, he gave me one of those dolls and told me I was just like that, with a lot of different people inside me,” she added. “That’s true of everyone. Many people have unexplored interests and talents that should be released so others can benefit from them.”

Now in her 80s, Beverly has no plans to slow down. With the huge influx of migrants in America, she wants to help them master the English language.

“If they don’t learn our language, it will hold them back. So, once my book is published, I am going to teach English as a second language in New York,” she explained.

Advice for people over 50

Beverly is well aware of the dangers of waiting until “someday” to live life to the full. Her first husband died at 48 and Peter was 64 when he passed. Had she followed the advice of well-meaning friends and family members by waiting until she retired, Beverly would have missed out on some tremendous opportunities and experiences.

“When Peter and I were thinking of moving to France, people told us to wait until we retired and were financially secure because we weren’t exactly sure how we were going to manage living in France,” she explained. “But Peter was a Holocaust survivor as a child and he knew the future was very uncertain.

“He told me if we were ever going to do this, we needed to do it now,” said Beverly. “I’m glad we followed his instinct and didn’t wait because Peter never made it to retirement age.”

People can connect with Beverly by email at Look for her book, “Repeat After Me: A Love Affair with Language and Love” to be published later this year.