Anyone who has tried to learn a language in the last thirty years has probably heard of Pimsleur. This language learning program was started by Dr. Paul Pimsleur in the 1960s. The program is based on his scientific studies concerning memory and language retention.
Dr. Pimsleur was in fact one of the first people to design and create language learning materials for self-taught students. We, as language enthusiasts, have a lot to thank him for. Many of his studies were the basis for the modern language programs we use today.
Knowing this, it only makes sense that we would want to try the program that is not only named after him but also fully based on his principles. Don’t worry though, the program has been updated quite a bit since its early development. In particular, there have been some major changes just in the last two years.
This program used to be very expensive, approximately $550 per course, and frankly, it was very dull. But, thanks to the release of a new app in 2018, along with a new subscription program, Pimsleur is back on the map as one of the best language programs for self-taught students.
If you haven’t looked into Pimsleur in the last few years, I strongly recommend that you check it out. I think you’ll be impressed with the improvements. Here is a quick look at some of the things I like about it as well as a few of the things I don't like as much.
You can purchase Pimsleur’s lessons for $159.99 per level or you can purchase a subscription for $19.99 per month.
$159.99 per level
$19.99 per month
Languages: Over 50 different languages offered
Initial Thoughts Of Pimsleur
Since this is a well-established program, you can imagine the wide range of reviews out there. I had been interested in trying Pimsleur for a while, but the mixed reviews made me hesitate. Some said it was the best program out there while others said it was less than stellar. The exorbitant price was also a major drawback.
Now that they have done so many updates to modernize the program plus making it more affordable, I decided that it was finally time to try it out. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. Although I would not say that this is the best program for everyone, I would say it is a great choice for anyone interested in becoming conversational in a short amount of time.
This program is available for Android, iOS, and through the Pimsleur website. For the purposes of this review, I downloaded and mainly used the app for Android. I have not tried the iOS version at all, but I found both the Android app and the website to be glitch-free.
My first thought upon opening the app was that it is well put together. The platform is clean, well laid out, and easy to navigate. Some may find the design a bit dull because it lacks flashy animation and videos, but the main body of the app is quite professional-looking and the pictures that are included are of high quality and are very attractive.
The key selling point for this program is the audio lessons, so it should come as no surprise that the audio is top-notch. Large portions of each lesson are spoken by native speakers, giving you plenty of quality listening practice. These speakers are both male and female and speak with different accents, which always makes things more interesting.
Before we dive into the structure of the lessons, I want to give you a quick summary of what sets Pimsleur apart from other language programs.
The Pimsleur Method
As I mentioned in the beginning, this program is based on the studies and principles of Dr. Pimsleur. He based his studies on the idea that memory is the most important aspect of language learning. He speculated that if he could better understand memory then he could unlock the secret to language learning.
This led to the discovery of Graduated Interval Recall. Dr. Pimsleur discovered that people remembered words better when the words were presented to them at gradually increased intervals.
Sound familiar? If you have been a language learner for any amount of time, this is probably a method you have encountered before under the name of spaced repetition. Spaced repetition is one of the most common and effective methods of teaching a new language.
Another important discovery made by Dr. Pimsleur was the Principle of Anticipation. He observed that when we are having a conversation, our minds are automatically anticipating how we should respond as we listen to what is being said to us.
This process is so automatic that we don’t even realize that it’s happening. Dr. Pimsleur noticed this phenomenon and decided he could use it to his advantage when teaching languages. So he designed lessons that included both Gradual Interval Recall and the Principle of Anticipation to create scientifically effective lessons.
These lessons may not match every language learner's style, but they are definitely effective. Now that you know the foundation of the program, let’s take a deeper look at the program itself.
Signing Up For Pimsleur
Getting started with this app was so easy, I hardly had time to think about what I was doing before I was starting my first lesson.
The signup process is very easy and your first lesson is free. You simply have to enter your country of origin and then enter your email address and create a password. As soon as you log in, the app will ask you what language you would like to learn.
They have over fifty languages to choose from, including Russian, Japanese, French, two dialects of Chinese, three dialects of Arabic, and many more. They also offer fourteen English courses in different languages including Russian, Spanish, Farsi, and Korean.
Once you choose your target language, the app will take you directly to the first lesson in that language course, so you can begin immediately. I found this quite pleasant compared to many other programs that offer free trials but require you to start a full account, including entering your payment information, before you can try it out.
After you’ve listened to your first lesson you can also go through and look at everything associated with the lesson such as the reading portion, the review exercises, and vocabulary lists. All of this is part of your initial free lesson, so you can have an in-depth look before having to pay.
Pimsleur Lesson Structure
If you start your account through their website, you will be greeted with a one-minute audio clip about Dr. Pimsleur’s Golden Rules of Language Learning. This short clip explains that the lessons are designed in such a way that they build on each other and should be taken in order.
The Golden Rules also mention that some lessons may be more challenging than others, so you should feel free to listen to a few of them more than once. That being said, you should only listen to one lesson a day and you should not try to take notes or look anything up while listening to a lesson.
That may seem a bit odd to those of us who are used to taking notes during lectures, but the reason for this lack of note-taking is quickly explained. The idea is that you should simply focus on the lesson and not worry about anything else while you’re trying to learn. Don’t worry, you will not have trouble remembering the content of the lessons.
Each 30-minute audio lesson will include plenty of opportunities for you to listen to native speakers and repeat what they say. Other portions of the lesson will involve you responding to the instructor in your target language. There are pauses integrated into the audio specifically for this purpose.
This brings us to Golden Rule Number One: Always respond to the lesson prompts out loud. Responding to a recording may make you feel a little silly at first, but it is an integral part of the process.
Remember that Principle of Anticipation that I mentioned earlier? Well, this is where that principle comes into play. As you listen to the lesson, you become accustomed to automatically responding in your target language.
This is also where you will notice the spaced repetition element of this program. You will not be repeating the words once or twice, but over and over in different ways and in different contexts. Not just in the current lessons, but in the upcoming lessons as well.
Taking A Lesson
Each lesson will begin with the teacher setting the scene so you can imagine yourself in the scenario. For example, they will say, “Imagine a man sitting on a bus next to a young lady. He wants to politely start a conversation, so he says…” and a dialog in your target language will follow.
This is a fun way to start each lesson because it instantly makes you feel more involved in the situation and it provides you with real-world scenarios where you can use the words you’re about to learn.
You’ll listen to the dialog and then the instructor will slowly go over each word and sentence. Some of the more difficult words will be broken up into simple syllables which are then combined, making it easier to achieve proper pronunciation. This is the part where you get to respond to the recording.
You’ll be asked to repeat each sound and word multiple times. You’ll also be asked to respond to different scenarios. For example, the instructor will say, “How would you politely start a conversation with the young lady?” And there is a pause so you can respond.
This is an innovative and entertaining approach to language learning. The focus is so strongly on oral communication that they have you speaking all throughout your very first lesson.
Yes, you will be saying the same words over and over, making it feel repetitive and a bit redundant at first. But, when you get to the end of your first lesson and can already understand a short conversation in your target language, you’ll begin to appreciate the lesson structure.
More Lesson Details
As you progress through each level, the lessons will become more challenging, but if you listen to them in order and take your time, you shouldn’t have trouble keeping up.
One cool feature of this program is that even though the longer lessons may make it seem less accessible, it can actually be more accessible than other popular language apps. Since the main lessons are strictly audio, you don’t have to focus on your phone to enjoy a language lesson.
For example, you could listen to a lesson while you take a walk, wash the dishes, or fold laundry. They even have a driving mode so you can listen to lessons while you drive. You can also download lessons, so you can still listen when you don’t have WiFi or cell service.
As long as you can listen and pay attention, you can squeeze in a language lesson! Then, later when you do have time to play on your phone you can just do the practice exercises.
Each of the main language courses has five levels, containing 30 lessons each. Since each lesson is 30 minutes long, completing the entire course will take you approximately 75 hours.
If you stick with it and do one lesson a day you could potentially finish an entire course in just five months. Imagine being able to speak your target language conversationally in just five months? Sounds pretty good, right?
I don’t usually pay much attention to the big promises that most language programs make about being able to learn a new language in just a month or two months because learning a new language takes time. That being said, I think five months of consistent study resulting in an upper-intermediate speaking ability is a pretty reasonable expectation.
One of the things that Pimsleur has been criticized for is their lack of practice exercises. Thankfully, they have addressed that issue with this app. Although the practice exercises are not as fun or addicting as other apps, they are functional and effective.
There are four main ways that you can practice what you have learned in each lesson: Flash Cards, Quick Match, Speak Easy, and Speed Round.
The flashcards are much like what you would expect. You get to choose whether you would like your native language shown first or your target language. Each card has an audio clip of the word so you can both read it and hear it.
Once you flip the card over, you can say whether you got it right or not and that will determine how often that card comes up the next time you use this feature. There isn’t anything life-changing here, but flashcards will always be a handy way to build up your vocabulary, so why not use them?
This is just a little multiple-choice quiz about what you’ve learned so far. You will be presented with a word or phrase and then you simply match it to the answer.
One of the cool features of this exercise is that each phrase in your target language has an accompanying audio clip, so if you don’t recognize the written words yet, you can still answer based on whether you recognize the spoken words.
Speak Easy is another way Pimsleur helps you to work on your pronunciation and conversational skills. This allows you to relisten to the native conversation you just heard in your lesson. The conversation is broken up into sentences, allowing you to listen to and repeat each sentence one at a time.
You can play the whole conversation or just focus on one phrase depending on how you want to practice. You’re not graded on this, it’s just there for the extra speaking experience.
This is the closest thing you’ll find to a game on this app. It’s basically just a translation game where words will drop down from the top of the screen and you have to choose the correct translation before running out of time.
It may not be the most complex practice exercise, but it’s fun enough and only takes a few seconds to brush up on what you’ve learned so far.
You can access each of these exercises from within the lesson page or you can access them from the app's homepage under the “Practice” tab. All of these exercises become more interesting and more challenging as you complete more lessons.
After completing each lesson, you will gain “Skills” which offer another way for you to review what you’ve just learned. The Skills you gain from the lesson will be split up into different categories, such as “Meet + Greet” and “Survival Skills”.
You can click on each Skill from within the lesson screen and it will show you the phrases from that lesson that fit into that category. You can either just read and listen to each sentence or you can click Review and go through a quick mini quiz about those phrases.
You can also access your Skills from the main home screen for even more review opportunities. The more lessons you complete, the more Skills you will have. Once you have completed a fair number of lessons, the Skills section becomes a great place to practice everything you’ve learned.
You can also save words and phrases from your Skills to review later on. Everything that you save will go into your “My Saved Vocabulary” section which you can access from the main screen under the “Me” tab.
You will find your lesson downloads and Bonus Packs in this section as well. Bonus Packs are extra sets of flashcards that you get after completing a certain number of lessons.
Again, none of these features are revolutionary or particularly exciting, but effectiveness is more important than flashy games and these exercises are definitely effective.
Pimsleur Reading Practice
Another big complaint that previous users had about Pimsleur was that it lacked reading practice, so they’ve added an entire reading segment to the program. Your first lesson will not include a full reading lesson, but most of the other lessons will include at least some kind of reading segment.
This program approaches reading as a completely separate part of language learning, which I find interesting. This is based on the premise that none of us learn to read as we’re learning our first language. We always learn to speak first then we learn to read later, thus reading is a separate part of language learning.
This does seem like a sensible approach, but I’m glad they decided to go ahead and integrate reading lessons into the program. Many students find that reading their target language greatly improves their ability to comprehend it, so this will be a helpful feature for many users.
The reading lessons come with plenty of audio assistance to help you learn the sounds of your target language while you’re learning to read. This is something that is sorely lacking in many other programs, so I was quite pleased to see this method in practice here.
No matter what language you’re trying to learn, you’re bound to encounter sounds that are not familiar to you. In-depth lessons concerning the sounds of the language will not only improve your pronunciation, but it will also improve your listening skills. Knowing the sounds of the language will help you to recognize words faster, even when they are spoken quickly the way natives often speak.
Another benefit of combining the reading lessons with audio clips is that it helps you to read in your target language. I know that sounds a bit redundant, but let me explain.
If you’re learning a language that uses the Latin alphabet, such as Spanish, French, or Portugues, your brain will automatically want to read the words in English, using English sounds.
With Pimsleur’s reading lessons you will learn to associate the letters with the new sounds, making it easier for you to sound out new words properly when you encounter them. It will also improve your writing skills because you’ll be more likely to sound out words properly.
One extra feature that I wanted to mention is the mini cultural lessons. These really don’t have much to do with the actual program, but I think they are a nice touch.
Almost every lesson comes with a short blurb concerning some interesting cultural facts. I appreciate this detail because it helps to remind students that learning a language isn’t just about understanding new words, it’s about understanding a new world.
Although they aren’t super in-depth, I think these cultural tidbits could encourage more students to delve further into the unique culture surrounding their target language.
Drawbacks To Pimsleur
No matter how popular a language program is or how interesting it is, there are always a few drawbacks. To be honest, there isn’t too much to say about Pimsleur from my perspective, but there are a couple of things that other users find frustrating.
The Lessons Are Too Long
Pimsleur’s long lessons seem to be the biggest point of contention when it comes to whether people love or hate this program. Personally, I think the lessons are well constructed, they just aren’t designed for modern learners.
Most modern learners are used to everything being taught in quick bursts, much like how we learned as young children. When was the last time you watched a children’s program that stayed on the same subject for more than a few minutes at a time? Our brains have been trained to expect a subject change every few minutes, making a 30-minute audio lesson seem a bit tedious.
That being said, the lessons are 30 minutes long for a reason. These are in-depth pronunciation and vocabulary lessons meant to get you to a lower-intermediate speaking level in 30 days. Each lesson meticulously goes over the subject matter, making it easy to remember so you can move on to the next lesson with ease. This would be hard to accomplish if the lessons were only five minutes long.
There Isn't Enough Grammar
The second issue often mentioned by other users is the lack of grammar lessons. This program does focus strongly on conversational skills, meaning that grammar takes a backseat. I would definitely say that if you plan on becoming fluent you will need some supplemental materials for learning the grammar side of your target language.
On the other hand, if you just want to enjoy basic conversational skills without the stress of in-depth grammar lessons, then this is the program for you.
There aren’t too many other programs that can compare with Pimsleur as far as this lesson structure is concerned, but there are a few other great options out there if this program doesn’t sound right for you.
If you’re looking for an app that offers quick easy lessons, but can also get you to at least an intermediate speaking level, then check out Busuu. This app has a lot of great features, including the ability to connect with language learners from around the world for helpful insights and language assistance.
Have you always wanted to learn Japanese or Chinese, but don’t know where to start? You should try Lingodeer. This fun app is perfect for beginners and it was designed specifically to teach Asian languages.
If a longer lesson format sounds promising but you want more gamification, you should check out Fluenz. This program offers a well-structured lesson plan with audio and video lessons as well as some fun practice exercises that feel more like games than homework.
No single language program will be perfect for everyone, so don’t hesitate to try a few before you settle on the one that works best for you.
Pimsleur Review: Final Thoughts
Overall, I would say that Pimsleur is a good choice for anyone who is seriously interested in becoming conversational in their target language.
The app is easy to navigate and the lessons are even easier to enjoy. You can listen while you do your chores or exercise or even while you're driving to work. You can’t get much more convenient than that.
The practice exercises may not be life-changing, but they are simple and effective which is all they really need to be.
Although the longer lesson format might be a bit on the dull side, this program offers lessons that are scientifically designed to help you learn your new language faster. You can’t argue with science, so I say it’s at least worth a try.
I would not recommend purchasing the lessons, just because they are still a bit pricey, but the subscription program offers the perfect solution. At $20 a month, you could complete the whole program for just $100 which is significantly less than many other language programs.
The simple sign-up process and free first lesson make it easy for you to try it out and see if it will fit your learning style. Whether you choose Pimsleur or one of the many other great options out there, just remember to never stop pursuing your dream of speaking a new language.