Ask someone which language is the hardest for native English speakers to learn and you’re very likely to hear “Chinese Mandarin” alongside other notoriously difficult languages like Japanese, Korean, and Arabic.
While it’s up for debate whether or not Mandarin is the hardest of all, you can’t deny that it presents some unique difficulties to English learners.
It’s writing system, pronunciation, syntax, and tones are all markedly different than the English language. This makes the idea of an effective Chinese audio course sound well...unlikely. But there are some good audio courses out there. One of the most well-known is Pimsleur.
Pimsleur has a mixed reputation in language learning circles. Whether or not it’s good depends on who you ask. We take an in depth look at the Pimsleur method in our Ultimate Pimsleur Review.
In this article we’re specifically going to look at Pimsleur Chinese (Mandarin). We’ll look at what’s unique about it compared to other Pimsleur language courses, and we’ll point out the pros and cons of using Pimsleur to learn Mandarin.
Summary of Pimsleur Method
Review of: Pimsleur
Use: Audio courses for learning foreign languages
With Pimsleur you will be able to speak at a functional level
Monthly subscription for $14.95
Each lesson is 30 minutes
Ease of Use
Lesson are simple: just listen and repeat when prompted
Pimsleur courses are well designed and structured to teach you a foreign language
- Actually gets you speaking & listening
- Functional vocabulary
- Emphasizes pronunciation
- Easy to use
- You can switch between languages
I Don't Like
- Formal language
Summary: Pimsleur courses are known as some of the best audio courses for learning to speak a foreign language.
Their method includes a question/recall/response technique that is very effective for helping you internalize the basics of a new language.
Many people who use Pimsleur cite a marked improvement in their speaking abilities.
Pimsleur is also one of the few language courses that focuses heavily on correct pronunciation. This helps a lot when trying to remember new words in a foreign language.
However Pimsleur courses also have their drawbacks. They tend to use highly formal language that is too respectful for most day to day situations. The courses are also sometimes criticized for teaching limited vocabulary.
Monthly subscription for $14.95
In addition to Pimsleur’s usual strengths and weaknesses, there are some pros and cons that really stick out in their Mandarin courses:
Great for core Mandarin grammar
Surprisingly Pimsleur is quite effective at teaching you the core grammar and sentence structure of Mandarin.
There is a sort of “golden rule” of sentence order in Mandarin that’s markedly different from English: The subject comes first, then when, where, how, and finally the action.
More info on the Golden Rule of Chinese grammar
In the early levels of Pimsleur Mandarin you’ll be using sentences with this structure again and again until it begins to feel natural.
The best part is Pimsleur doesn’t take much time to explain the grammar as you learn new words and phrases. Instead of explicitly telling you the grammar you’re using, the courses simply give you the phrases and you often use the grammar without realizing.
After the first couple levels of Mandarin courses you’ll develop the habit of thinking in the order of subject, when, where, how, action when saying a sentence.
It Reinforces clear pronunciation
The Pimsleur method centers heavily on pronunciation, which is pretty helpful no matter which language you’re learning. But with a tonal language like Mandarin it becomes even more important.
Every Pimsleur courses breakdown phrases and words into single syllables. Starting with the last syllable you repeat each sound one by one until you build back up to the entire word or phrase.
This approach helps isolate each sound in the Mandarin language and trains your mouth, as well as your ear, so that you can speak and hear Mandarin more fluently.
Pimsleur Mandarin will also point out the rising and falling tones in Mandarin, especially when they change the meaning of a word.
More info on Chinese tones
You get to practice the tones syllable by syllable. This is a powerful way to develop your Mandarin accent; and as far as I know Pimsleur is the only Chinese audio course that uses this technique.
The native speakers in the courses also hit the balance between speaking too fast or too slow. They’re fast enough that the dialogues are challenging and sound natural, but they’re slow enough that a beginner to intermediate student doesn’t feel overwhelmed.
Language is often formal
Pimsleur errs on the side of politeness and formality. This means that the phrases and vocabulary you use in the course is often super proper and formal sounding.
This isn't necessarily the worst problem to have as a Chinese learner, but it is something to be aware of.
What other people are saying about Pimsleur Chinese
Pimsleur does a good job at getting you into the habit of speaking out loud. A lot. A habit important to keep up for the sake of getting a feel for the language and pronouncing better.
Lot’s of out loud repetition also greatly improves remembering too.
The course gradually builds up grammar by drilling it into you without explaining it too much, you learn it through examples more than anything.
I think this is great for beginners because otherwise there’s just too much going on when taking into account tones and pronunciation.
In total, I can admit that I actually appreciate the easy start that I got with Mandarin from this program. In spite of my language-every-year confidence, I was fairly intimidated by Mandarin, and after eight half-hour lessons I fear nothing.
The grammar is quite easy, and the tones aren't nearly as difficult as I feared they might be.
With that said, after completing the entire 4-CD course over 8 days, I have a vocabulary of only approximately 50 words, and that's far too inefficient for me.
I know from experience that I can learn upwards of 25+ words per day when I first get started in a new language.
Alternatives to Pimsleur Chinese
20+ minutes a day
Rocket Chinese is built around recorded audio in the form of dialogues. The dialogues have English explanations and usually teach the language in "chunks" or phrases versus individual words (this is great for conversational Chinese).
The Rocket Chinese method isn't quite as gradual as the Pimsleur method. Overall Rocket French is a more comprehensive course that does a good job of incorporating speaking and listening, as well as reading and writing.
It even features "how to" videos for writing Chinese characters.
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Chineseclass101 features audio lessons in a podcast format. Lessons are great for grammar and vocabulary. Each lesson is designed around a Mandarin conversation between native speakers, and the teachers do a great job of keeping things engaging.
While it's not as structured as Pimsleur it's still a substantial Chinese learning tool (it's also much cheaper too). The site features transcripts in pinyin and traditional or simplified characters, an in-site flashcard system, and many other useful features.
Starts at $15 per month
5+ minutes a day
Fluentu is a site that helps you learn a language through native videos. Use in site flashcards, captions, and games to learn new words in context while watching Chinese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more. It's a great way to push your listening skills and vocabulary.
In you’re serious about speaking Chinese then you’ll definitely want to consider Pimsleur. Their courses are ideal for learning functional vocabulary, core grammar, and correct pronunciation.
If you’re passionate about reading and or writing Chinese then Pimsleur won’t have much to offer you.
Pimsleur offers one week of complete access to all of their courses for Mandarin Chinese. Listening and working through the courses is a great way to test drive their method and see if their course is one you’d be interested in. Best to see for yourself before you buy anything!