Pimsleur Review: Solid Audio Program, But It’s Not for Everyone
Sometimes you just want to stay in your pajamas all day and re-watch your favorite movies.
Pimsleur is like that—it may not be particularly exciting but there’s something comfortable about it, even if you’ve never used it before.
In this article, I’ll give you my completely honest review on the Pimsleur language learning program—and why I have this stance.
Discover how to get started using Pimsleur, its potential drawbacks and who can benefit from it.
You can also check out my colleague Teddy’s review of the program for another perspective!
Description: A classic audio-based language program with a research-based method.
Languages offered: Offers 51 languages including Croatian, Czech, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, Ukrainian and more.
Offer price: $20.95 per month
Pimsleur focuses heavily on effective and practical verbal communication as opposed to reading and writing, so while it is effective for some it may not be the right fit for others.
- User friendliness - 7/107/10
- Delivers on promises - 9/109/10
- Authenticity - 9/109/10
- Value for price - 7/107/10
- Hands-free and convenient
- Teaches practical language
- Can help build confidence with speaking
- Can aid in long-term memorization
- Not much speech variety
- Material not very thrilling
- Doesn’t teach you grammar explicitly
- Limited vocabulary
- Almost no writing and reading
- Pimsleur Overview
- What Pimsleur Is
- How Pimsleur Works
- The Advantages of Pimsleur
- The Downsides of Pimsleur
- Who Would Benefit the Most from Pimsleur?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Pimsleur
- Alternatives to Pimsleur
- Final Verdict
Overall rating: 8/10
Price: Depending on the language, once off fees for the complete course is usually $575, or $150 per level (there are usually five levels). You can also subscribe to Pimsleur All Access for $20.95/month
Summary: Pimsleur is a classic audio-based language learning program with a research-based method. It focuses heavily on effective and practical verbal communication as opposed to reading and writing, so while it is effective for some it may not be the right fit for others.
Languages offered: Albanian, Arabic (Eastern, Egyptian and Modern Standard), Armenian (Eastern and Western), Chinese (Mandarin and Cantonese), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dari Persian, Dutch, English (ESL), Farsi Persian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish (Latin American and Spain-Castilian. Click here for our review of Pimsleur for learning Spanish), Swahili, Swedish, Swiss German, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Twi, Ukrainian, Urdu, Vietnamese.
- Hands-free and convenient
- You learn practical language
- Can help confidence with speaking
- Can aid in long-term memorization
- Not much speech variety
- Material not very thrilling
- Doesn’t teach you grammar explicitly
- Limited vocabulary
- Almost no writing and reading
What Pimsleur Is
Pimsleur language programs, which are based on a method of language learning developed by scholar Paul Pimsleur, have been around for a long time. They haven’t changed much and people still buy them.
You could attribute this to the Pimsleur name having gained ground back when there was less competition in the language learning market and having just stuck around, sure. However, while name recognition probably figures into why people are drawn to the product, I’m inclined to think that Pimsleur’s continued popularity has more to do with the fact that people often prefer a very straightforward learning method.
They’ve traditionally been one of the pricier language learning options, but they sometimes run sales with fairly deep discounts on their website, and they now offer monthly plans that make their lessons more affordable.
How Pimsleur Works
You can either purchase lessons by the level, by multiple levels or in smaller increments on CD or MP3 (CD level sets come with a reading booklet), so the prices really do vary depending on how much you want to invest in the Pimsleur learning program.
Alternatively, you can access all audio lessons for a particular language by paying a monthly subscription fee and Pimsleur Premium, with supplementary materials like flashcards, for a higher subscription fee. These options, which come with a seven-day free trial, make Pimsleur more accessible to people who don’t have hundreds of dollars to spend on language learning in the near future, and they also make it so you don’t actually have to buy the products.
The exact options available vary somewhat by language, though, as do the number of levels available.
Regardless of how you access Pimsleur lessons, here’s how it works:
30-minute audio lessons
Pimsleur programs are split up into audio segments of around 30 minutes that focus on basic speaking scenarios. While you can theoretically go through these lessons however quickly or slowly you want to, Pimsleur lists some “Golden Rules” that they recommend learners follow: namely, you should do one lesson per day, and you should master around at least 80% of the previous lesson’s material before moving on to the next one.
Active practice with speaking prompts
The lessons contain speaking prompts that instruct you to repeat after a native speaker to learn the pronunciation of a word or phrase, to repeat a phrase you’ve learned earlier in the lesson or to try to construct a new phrase by piecing together vocabulary you’ve learned. This integrates Pimsleur’s “principle of anticipation,” the idea that systematic prompting and reinforcement of certain knowledge hardwires that knowledge into your brain.
Focus on mastering core vocabulary by repetition
Pimsleur focuses on basic vocabulary first, operating under the idea that overloading on vocabulary slows down the learning process. This means that the lessons contain a lot of repetition and are more geared towards teaching you how to effectively use a limited amount of language than teaching you more words.
Graduated interval recall—Pimsleur’s take on spaced repetition
Spaced repetition is a widespread concept that has to do with learning information at intervals spaced further and further apart over a period of time to aid memorization. Pimsleur’s version of this is called “graduated interval recall” and is built into their lessons. Essentially, there’s consideration given to the vocabulary you learn in each lesson and how often that vocabulary is repeated in subsequent lessons.
Now let’s look at some advantages of using the programs. Before we get started, I’d just like to say that the observations below are based on my own experience using Pimsleur to differing degrees for different languages over a number of years.
I’ve generally found Pimsleur to be useful, but I haven’t often used it as a primary means of study. Others, especially those who have used it exclusively over a longer period of time, may have had different experiences, but I’ve tried to consider as many angles as possible.
The Advantages of Pimsleur
Hands-free and convenient
This might be a big deal if you just don’t have the time to sit down and use a program that requires your hands and full attention. This isn’t to say that Pimsleur programs aren’t mentally demanding—they require a certain level of concentration, and you can’t go on autopilot.
However, I have used Pimsleur while doing mindless chores, walking, driving or lying on the couch with my eyes closed. I find it to be very useful that way, making the most out of my dead time while I’m doing other mindless tasks.
I would add that all of these scenarios might not be possible for everyone and you should probably consider how easily distracted you are before driving with Pimsleur, for example. But that goes for just about any kind of audio program or entertainment, and the convenience of the program may be a huge selling point for some people.
Of course, because of Pimsleur’s heavy focus on speaking, you should probably be mindful not to annoy those around you with your incessant babbling!
Learn practical language
Pimsleur lessons generally revolve around common travel situations and use basic phrases that can be put to multiple uses.
In fact, my favorite thing about Pimsleur is that it is completely conversation-based. A lesson will begin with a real dialogue with real native speakers, which is then dissected to teach the vocabulary in it so that you can understand the exchange by the end of the lesson. This means that you’re not going to waste time learning isolated vocabulary or language that you wouldn’t be able to use in an actual conversation.
Helps confidence with speaking
Perhaps the biggest advantage to Pimsleur’s particular audio lesson format is that you can put yourself in a situation where you’re forced to speak without actually interacting with anyone. The prompts make your physical reactions to the language more automatic, which makes you feel more prepared to go to places where you might need to use the language.
For me, using Pimsleur also felt exciting because I realized that with some relatively gentle direction, I was actually putting together the pieces of the language on my own as I spoke it out loud.
Essentially, the program is teaching you, but you’re doing the actual work of integrating the language into your speech patterns yourself, and when you see this, it can be a huge confidence booster.
While, overall, Pimsleur is probably best used consistently and over a longer period of time, I think that even using it inconsistently or over a shorter period of time can be helpful in this regard.
Aids long-term memorization
After using Pimsleur consistently, I’ve noticed that it helps with the retention of words and phrases over the long-term. Unlike other methods, I could recall vocabulary and useful phrases weeks after learning them, and the ones I couldn’t remember didn’t take much work to pop back into my head.
Best of all, with Pimsleur, I’m not the one who has to do my own planning or strategizing for how to learn things in my target language effectively!
By committing to a certain amount of time spent with the lessons per day, and you’ll see progress that will likely stick with you.
According to a study done at Columbia University, Pimsleur programs show “major strengths in promoting noticing, awareness and longer memory retention” (italics mine).
The Downsides of Pimsleur
Like any program, Pimsleur comes with its downsides, but many of these aren’t so many reasons not to use the program as factors to be aware of and take into consideration. Overall, Pimsleur is limited in what it teaches and does, but it can still be a very useful part of your language learning.
Little variety of speech and somewhat dull material
One of the biggest general criticisms of Pimsleur is that it’s boring. I find that many of the scenarios, while useful, are rather dry and can tend towards overly-formal.
What balances this out somewhat is the excitement of getting to speak and seeing your speech and understanding come together as you learn to navigate your way around the language. Considering how intense the speaking requirements of Pimsleur are, I’m not sure that you’d necessarily want the subject matter to be too fascinating, as this might prove distracting and intimidating.
At the same time, I imagine there might be room for them to improve the product in the future.
May be anxiety-provoking
Foreign language anxiety is real, and Pimsleur will ignite some learners’ tendencies towards perfectionism. Personally, the anticipation of being quizzed on the material and the mental scramble to remember what I’ve learned with Pimsleur sometimes causes me to tense up and worry about getting everything right.
The program makes some strides towards discouraging a perfectionist attitude—for example, with their assertion that you only need to master 80% of the material before moving on—but it’s still easy to feel discouraged if you haven’t mastered that 80%.
One thing that’s helped me immeasurably with using audio-prompt programs, in general, is learning shadowing. The general concept behind shadowing, which I don’t think of as a language learning approach so much as a language learning skill, is that rather than listening to a speaker and repeating after them, you just start repeating immediately. Rather than overdoing your pronunciation, you simply lean into the speaker’s voice and let your voice be guided by theirs. This can help your speaking become more relaxed and automatic.
Another solution to audio-prompt anxiety might be to do something with your hands while listening to a Pimsleur lesson. Like I’ve previously mentioned, washing dishes, crocheting, playing a predictable and largely visual game on my phone… These activities have kept me from focusing on my own speaking too intensely and helped me respond to the prompts as if they, too, are a predictable and inconsequential game, which isn’t so far from the truth.
Doesn’t teach grammar explicitly
One thing I’ve noticed is that Pimsleur gives you a good foundation of practical grammar usage, but it doesn’t generally explain actual grammar rules to you.
Of course, counteracting this is simple: There are plenty of good foreign language textbooks out there that you can use as a supplement to a resource like Pimsleur.
However, before writing this review, I used Pimsleur to learn Russian, a language fairly unrelated to others I’d studied before. While I did feel that it helped me build a foundation and an understanding of some basic phrases—and maybe helped me get started on the language in a less intimidating way—I definitely felt that I needed to buy some books and get into the actual workings of Russian after that.
There were often grammatical concepts introduced within the lessons that prompted questions for me, and although I looked them up on my own, there weren’t any explanations of these grammatical concepts within the Pimsleur program itself.
Ultimately, there’s no simple answer as to whether a program should incorporate grammar directly, and it’s fine to wait and see how you react to a no-grammar approach before considering a change or upgrade to your learning method.
Vocabulary is limited
Along with there not being much variety in the type of speech you hear, the actual number of vocab words in Pimsleur’s programs is limited, which, as we’ve already touched on, is something that Pimsleur does intentionally. I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, particularly for complete beginners, as there’s only so much language you can absorb at once anyway. But, not having a broader range of vocabulary will ultimately limit how far you can progress in a language.
The lack of input in the Pimsleur programs, along with a lack of actual interaction, is one of the downsides brought up in the Columbia University study mentioned earlier. I mean, you can always use language exchange apps to get in some quick conversation practice, but even if were are introduced to a lot of vocabulary with Pimsleur, there is no way to practice it outside of repeating it in the audio podcasts.
Virtually non-existent reading and writing
One of the “Golden Rules” that Pimsleur informs learners of when they first begin using the program is that learners shouldn’t write anything down. Pimsleur believes, rather, that the learner should focus on developing “instincts”—in other words, they should listen carefully and repeat after the native speaker, and during recall exercises, the learner will be able to speak the language within the context of the lesson.
In fact, the Pimsleur program consists primarily of two screens: one with a list of the lessons, and another screen where the lesson audio plays like a podcast. There are no dictionaries, grammatical explanations or written exercises.
The issue with this is that learning a language is generally thought of as having four parts: listening, speaking, reading and writing.
By being told not to write anything down, the learner is missing out on developing this crucial skill. For example, I attempted to learn Egyptian Arabic with Pimsleur. While it was successful in teaching me some useful phrases, it did not teach any writing at all, which is particularly disadvantageous considering Arabic uses a completely different alphabet than English.
Essentially, if I ever traveled to Egypt, I would not even be able to identify basic letters by using Pimsleur alone.
Further, the Pimsleur program itself has no written samples of the language nor study notes to help the learner. This means that reading the language is also a skill that is not developed.
This not only proves to be an issue for learners who may need to read or write something in their target language, but also for visual and linear learners who are met only with a podcast screen when taking a lesson.
Who Would Benefit the Most from Pimsleur?
So, taking the above into consideration, who should Pimsleur work best for?
Busy people with little time
Pimsleur is undoubtedly a time-saver if you can do it while driving, doing chores or doing any kind of work that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. For that reason, it can be a great option for busy people who don’t have time to devote specifically to learning—those looking for a serious language learning app or program that doesn’t require them to stop everything in order to use it.
Those after a structured, regular language routine
While creative and self-directed language learning can be a lot of fun, it can also take up a lot of energy figuring it out for yourself. Not everyone wants to spend time planning or messing around with different learning methods. This isn’t to say that Pimsleur is necessarily an all-in-one solution, but it’s a way to start learning a language that requires little thought outside of the actual 30 minutes you spend doing each lesson.
Learners who are visually impaired or want to limit visual learning
Obviously, audio programs in general are going to be a better choice for people for whom visual learning isn’t an option. But, a lot of audio programs are paired with text or other visuals. With Pimsleur, visual learning is optional, and the audio is truly self-contained and comprehensive, making it a genuinely good choice for people who need to do all or the majority of their learning through audio.
Aside from those who aren’t able to learn visually at all, people who suffer from migraines or other conditions that limit sight temporarily or are exacerbated by too much visual strain might find Pimsleur helpful.
Limiting visual learning can actually be a good move for a number of reasons, even if it’s not something that you strictly need to do. If you’re a really dedicated language learner or if you have a job that requires a lot of time reading or spent in front of a screen, integrating audio into your daily routine, even just for a half-hour, can give you a much-needed break that might prevent headaches and stress and even help you think more clearly.
People who need the basics quickly for travel
Again, every language learning program has something of a limited range, and Pimsleur most benefits those who want to pick up the basics of speaking a language quickly. Phrasebooks, textbooks, classroom learning and all-around programs meant for long-term use all come with their own advantages but might not give you the laser focus on mastering practical speaking in a short(ish) period of time that Pimsleur does.
Frequently Asked Questions About Pimsleur
Does the Pimsleur method really work?
Pimsleur is very effective in helping you learn to speak and understand a new language. Its methods are research-based and have been refined over years and years since its creation, so it’s no wonder the program is so popular.
However, as with most things, how well the program works for you will come down to your individual learning style and how much work you put in!
Can you become fluent with Pimsleur?
In my opinion Pimsleur won’t get you to fluency, though some may claim that it does.
There’s no doubt that it’s an effective program, but reaching fluency with it is very ambitious—it’s lacking in too many areas for it to get you all the way there.
Is Pimsleur worth the money?
This is another question that doesn’t have a universal answer.
If you thrive with the type of learning that Pimsleur facilitates then it probably is worth the money. But if you don’t, then there are great alternatives out there that don’t come with the hefty price tag.
Alternatives to Pimsleur
If the price and the cons don’t outweigh the pros for you, here are some alternatives that are worth looking into.
Rocket Languages offers comprehensive, classroom-style courses that also teach you about the culture of the language you’re learning. There are plenty of audio lessons and interactive exercises, and it’s easy to keep track of your progress and stay motivated.
Read our full review of Rocket Languages here.
The language learning program FluentU is an effective option for those wanting to learn a language as it’s spoken in real life.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)
Babbel is great for when you’re just starting out. It’s a well-structured course which focuses on helping you learn the most important parts of the language first. There are lots of short, everyday scenarios which make the course a practical option for learning any language.
Read our full review of Babbel here.
Busuu is a great app which, like Pimsleur, places more emphasis on speaking more so than other programs. You’ve also got the option to engage with a community of native speakers and learn cultural nuances, which adds to the effectiveness of the program. While it’s free, it’s definitely worth upgrading to premium if you’re serious about language learning!
Read our full review of Busuu here.
It’s hard to say for sure whether Pimsleur is right for you, because it depends on what you want to get out of the program.
If budget isn’t an issue (admittedly, the program is on the pricey side), then it’s a pretty solid choice for those who are wanting to learn the basics and enjoy structured learning. It’s also a great method for audio learners.
However if you’re wanting to reach fluency in a language, there are more effective resources out there.
All in all, Pimsleur is a solid classic for a reason—and for many people, it may be the simplest, most obvious and most comfortable solution.
And sometimes it’s okay to just go with what feels right.