Sometimes you don’t feel particularly adventurous.
Pimsleur is like that.
People may tell you it’s not particularly exciting, but there’s something comfortable about it, even if you’ve never used it before.
This isn’t to say that learning a language with Pimsleur couldn’t be the start of a fantastic adventure.
Frodo and Sam had to do some walking just to make their way out of the Shire, after all.
In this post, we’ll look at the Pimsleur program.
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Let’s take a look at the logistics of using the program, who can benefit from it, its potential drawbacks and how to get started.
Pimsleur Review: An Honest Look at the Classic Language Learning Program
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.
People don’t always want the latest technology for everything, at least not all the time. For example, I spend plenty of time watching videos on YouTube, but if I click on a news article and a video starts playing as soon as I navigate to the page, I go nope and back out as quickly as I can. There’s a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it’s nice to know exactly what to expect.
Let’s look at what you can expect when learning a language with Pimsleur.
The Pimsleur Program: What You Get and How It Works
First of all, Pimsleur has traditionally been one of the pricier language learning options that you can go for, but they sometimes run sales with fairly deep discounts on their website, and they now offer monthly plans that make their lessons more affordable.
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 what you get:
- 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.
- 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.
- Core vocabulary. 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.
- 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
It’s 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!
You’ll 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.
It can help you become confident 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.
It can aid in 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 (and How to Offset Them)
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.
There isn’t much variety of speech, and you may not always find the material thrilling.
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.
This is why I’d recommend combining or following Pimsleur with authentic materials, like those found on FluentU.
There’s so much authentic content that you’re never bored by what you’re learning. All of these video clips are 100% authentic: they include real speech spoken by real native speakers of the language you’re learning.
Best of all, there are a variety of speakers: some are adults, some are children or the elderly. You can even hear slang and different dialects of your target language.
It might be anxiety-provoking for some!
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.
It doesn’t teach you 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.
Writing and reading are virtually non-existent.
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.
Programs like FluentU, however, make it easy to find and practice new vocabulary! One of FluentU’s primary learning features is its interactive subtitles. You can click on any word or phrase to learn its translation, its grammatical information and other tips. Next, you can add these words to customized vocabulary lists and flashcard sets for further practice.
Who Would Benefit the Most from Pimsleur?
So, taking the above into consideration, who should Pimsleur work best for?
Busy people who don’t have time to devote specifically to learning.
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 people who are looking for a serious language learning program that doesn’t require them to stop everything in order to use it.
Those who need a regular language routine they don’t have to figure out themselves.
While creative and self-directed language learning can be a lot of fun, it can also take up a lot of energy. 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 blind, have low vision or want to limit visual learning for other reasons.
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 to learn language basics for travel in a short period of time.
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.
Another Excellent Choice: FluentU
We’ve mentioned FluentU a few times throughout this post. Sure, we’re a bit biased (you are reading the FluentU blog, after all!) but we thought it was worth mentioning a great choice for language learners.
Whether you find that Pimsleur doesn’t meet your language learning needs, or you enjoy learning with Pimsleur but want a program that’ll pick up the slack where it falls short, FluentU is here to help!
With FluentU, you can learn with natural language videos that native speakers actually watch.
You can also check the definition of any word as you watch, as well as add it to your vocabulary list. Then, test yourself on any of the words used in the video or the words in your word list.
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.
Elisabeth Cook is a freelance writer who enjoys pondering how to make language learning more relaxing. You can find her on Twitter (@CooksChicken).
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.