An Honest and Thorough Review of Pimsleur

A short time ago, I wrote a post summarizing the eight language learning resources that I use on a regular basis. Although I briefly mentioned the reason why I use these resources, how I use them and their approximate costs, I wanted to spend the time to write out thorough reviews of each of the eight resources as well.

As I mentioned in that post, I write several reviews of language learning materials on this site, but do not continue to use them once I’ve experimented with them enough to write a thorough review. Some of those reviews were even solicited, but I try to give new materials a go because you never know when you’ll discover something incredible that really works for you and your language learning preferences.

At the same time, however, there are a few that I’ve written just because I wanted to share my thoughts on the resources.

This is one of those reviews.

All About Pimsleur

First, I would like to clarify something because defining just what the Pimsleur products are can be somewhat confusing. In this article I am talking about the official Pimsleur products, not the Pimsleur Approach products (which I believe is an affiliate of some sort for Pimsleur but not the official product).

The official Pimsleur products are published by Simon & Schuster. The method was developed by Paul Pimsleur, a French phonetics and phonemics professor at UCLA, based on the natural language acquisition processes that take place when a child learns his or her first language.

The structure of each of the lessons (which are about 30 minutes in length) is typically laid out as:

  • A brief dialogue in the target language
  • A breakdown of each of the phrases or words used in the dialogue
  • After each word or phrase is introduced, there is a pause to give the listener an opportunity to repeat the new material
  • The correct answer is then repeated by a native speaker
  • As new words and phrases are added, the previous material is revisited with the time between each repetition growing longer (this is spaced repetition)
  • You participate in a similar dialogue to the one at the beginning of the lesson during the last few minutes, really showing you how much you’ve learnt during the previous 30 minutes

My Experience with Pimsleur

At this point I have worked with the Pimsleur lessons in two languages and I am getting ready to embark on my third venture with them.

It has been one of the first two resources I’ve invested in, along with Assimil, for every language I’ve learnt since I’ve discovered it. And yes, if you’re counting, I discovered it three languages ago.

One of my favorite things about Pimsleur is that it’s really easy to commit basic conversational phrases to memory because you’re not relying on a text to remind you. If you are going to successfully complete each of the lessons, then you need to remember the material. You can’t flip back the pages and reference something earlier in the chapter, you actually need to learn it.

And that’s really motivating.

I always feel a bit annoyed with myself whenever I’m not able to come up with an answer in the allotted time and it pushes me to work harder at remembering the next time around. It keeps me moving forward.

The Benefits of Using Pimsleur

Pimsleur is one of the few methods I am aware of that focusing almost entirely on speaking and comprehension. While there is reading material available for the lessons, the emphasis is really on speaking and listening and tuning your ear to your target language. For people who prefer to see what they’re learning, and have it in front of them, this may not be the best resource, but it could also be a great way to challenge your skill in a language. You (hopefully) won’t have a textbook in front of you when you’re out using the language with native speakers, so why not work on learning a language the same way you plan on using it?

The emphasis on listening is definitely one of the reasons I really like Pimsleur. With the Mandarin lessons I studied, new voices were gradually added in so that I had the opportunity to hear the way the language sounded with different speakers. This is incredibly helpful as far as comprehension is concerned.

They break down the material into bite-sized chunks so that you can work on your pronunciation. With Mandarin, for example, they broke down words that use multiple Chinese characters into each individual sound so that I could really hear which tone was being used and how difficult sounds, like z and c, were said.

The pressure to recall vocabulary within a limited time is actually surprisingly effective. It forces you to file through your mental indexes much more quickly than you would likely push yourself to do and it encourages you to work harder at recalling the appropriate words or phrases within the time given.

They offer learners situational dialogues. While sometimes a little awkward, they do give you the opportunity to practice conversing by giving you short situational dialogues (like talking about how old your children are and where they are going to school or working while at a coworker’s house for dinner). While particular situations may not apply to everyone, they do help you learn material that might actually come up in a real-life conversation with a native speaker.

The Downside of Using Pimsleur

Arguably, one could learn a lot more material than what is presented in the time spent completing an entire level of Pimsleur. If one is really motivated and has a well-structured study schedule, they could advance much more quickly than the Pimsleur program allows. The fifteen hours spent on each level could be spent more intensively learning a language, but only if you’d actually spend those fifteen hours learning another way.

That being said, I want to point out that you really need to look at when you’re using Pimsleur and whether or not you have the time to sit down and work through other materials.

For me, the time I spend with Pimsleur couldn’t really effectively be spent any other way (I can’t take notes while driving and mess around with the fast forward or rewind buttons), so the pace and the amount of material in each lesson is perfect.

For someone who is not invested in learning a language quickly, but rather, leisurely, Pimsleur is also fantastic. There isn’t a lot of pressure and they don’t delve into complex grammar features of the languages in the ways a lot of texts do. Rather, they focus on naturally acquiring conversation skills in the target language.

I find Pimsleur to be an irreplaceable part of my study schedule because I spend a lot of time in the car. Intense language lessons available through various podcasts can take up too much of my attention while I’m driving, but Pimsleur is really quite natural and I’m able to give enough attention to them while focusing on staying safe in the car to make the most of my time commuting. Other audio resources I’ve tried present too much material in too compact of a time frame for me to remember any of it – especially when my attention is somewhat divided.

If I commuted another way, on a train or bus, perhaps, I might opt for something a little bit more involved. But when doing things that require my attention – exercise, driving, or even cleaning – Pimsleur is perfect. It doesn’t require so much concentration that I get worn out or distracted, but it requires just enough that I’m actually picking up new material in the language that I’m learning.

One of the issues that I did have early on with Mandarin, however, was that of connecting what I had learned through Pimsleur with the written sounds and characters. It wasn’t as difficult for me with Croatian, but if you look at my notes in either language (before I really started to work on reading and writing), I was pretty far off. When I finally did get around to reading and writing, it took me a little longer than it should have to connect the written words and the spoken words in my head because two separate versions of them existed in my head. For this I prefer Assimil because the books are structured to give you both simultaneously, but it’s something I’ve learnt to work around (and expect) whenever I start a new language with Pimsleur.

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Another issue is that they use a set vocabulary list and even if the words aren’t relevant to you, you’re kind of stuck with them. As an example, a lot of the recent lessons have involved discussing one’s children (something that isn’t relevant for me quite yet). I may perhaps need that vocabulary one day, but for now it’s not really something that I’ll use and my time might be better spent learning things that I can use today.

Something that I heard quite a bit when I was originally looking into Pimsleur, was that it was structured so that men could travel to foreign countries and pick up girls. Why do they say this? Because in the first few lessons, it kind of comes off that way. You spend quite a bit of time asking the female speaker out to coffee or over to your place. It can feel pretty awkward, but here’s why I don’t really agree with this opinion (and by all means, feel free to disagree with me).

I understand why people say that it teaches you to pick up girls, but they need to present both genders, so it makes sense to have both But let me explain why I think they do this. In a lot of languages, different genders use different words to explain things. And there are different words to describe people or things of different genders. Whatever you might think of this, it’s just the way that it is. By using a female speaker and a male speaker to use basic conversation topics (like going out to dinner, asking for a phone number, and so on), it allows the learner to become familiar with these differences in language.

So let’s talk about price.

Pimsleur is one of the most expensive language learning resources I use (my lessons on iTalki are more expensive if you add up total costs over time, not individual lesson costs). But for me personally, the price is worth what I get out of it. As I said, I spend a lot of time commuting and at the level where I’d use Pimsleur, I get more out of the lessons than I would with any other audio resource.

I’ve learnt a lot from my Pimsleur lessons – everything from basic conversation to accurate pronunciation – and I’m happy with the hours I’ve invested into working through the lessons.

On the Pimsleur website, the lessons are $345 per level for the CDs or $119.95 per level for the digital downloads. If you buy all four levels as a bundle, they are $450 as MP3s or $970 for the CDs.

My Recommendation

While I love Pimsleur and think it’s a really great resource, especially when you’re getting started, I wouldn’t recommend it as a standalone language learning tool. In fact, I honestly wouldn’t recommend any one thing as a standalone, all-in-one, language learning resource.

As I’ve said in the past, and as I’ll continue to say, it’s important to keep a nice mix of different materials to cover your bases while learning a language. For me, Pimsleur is a great way to get acquainted with how a language sounds, how to properly pronounce words and sounds in a new language, and to get familiar with basic conversation vocabulary and phrases.

You can try it out for yourself with a free lesson and you can get 25% off using coupon code SAVENOW.

Have you used Pimsleur? What was your experience? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Please note that while Pimsleur did not ask me to write this review, I am an affiliate for them. So, if you click any of the links to Pimsleur in this post, I make a small commission and you help me keep this site up and running at no additional cost to you.

© 2020 Shannon Kennedy & Eurolinguiste. All Rights Reserved.

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