Japanese consistently ranks as one of the hardest, if not the hardest, foreign language for native English speakers to master. Its grammar and syntax are worlds away from the English language.
It combines 3 different writing systems, and there’s a deeply layered cultural setting that surrounds how the language is used.
Trying to fit all of that into a single Japanese course is next to impossible. There isn’t a single Japanese course that can do it. That being said, there are some great courses and tools that will help bring you at least part of the way to fluency. Pimsleur is one of those resources.
Pimsleur is not a perfect course but it is effective, especially for beginning Japanese students. The purpose of this review is point out some of the strengths and weakness of the Pimsleur courses, as they relate to learning Japanese.
This post doesn’t cover the common pros and cons of all Pimsleur language courses like portability, high price, its recall method, etc. You can find that info and along with a more in-depth review of Pimsleur in our Ultimate Pimsleur Review
Review of: Pimsleur
Use: Audio courses for learning foreign languages
With Pimsleur you will be able to speak at a functional level
Pimsleur Courses are expensive. Expect to pay $100+ for 1 Level
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
I Don't Like
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're pretty expensive compared to other audio courses. They also 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.
Starting at $19.95 for 5 lessons up to $107.95 for 30 Lessons
Pimsleur Japanese is geared toward beginner to upper intermediate students of Japanese. The courses focuses heavily on speaking and listening. They also incorporate a large amount of pronunciation too. If you want to develop any of those three skills then you should consider Pimsleur.
Pimsleur isn’t aimed at advanced students of Japanese; except maybe for ones that know a lot of Japanese but have trouble speaking it.
Also reading and writing are rarely emphasized at all. So you if you want to develop your skills in writing or learn any of the writing systems you should look for a different course.
One huge advantage of Pimsleur Japanese is that it breakdowns natural Japanese speech. Sometimes it can be tough to understand native speakers when then send a torrent of Japanese words your way.
Pimsleur does an excellent job of breaking down new words syllable by syllable so that your learn the correct pronunciation step by step until you can comfortably say new words and then new phrases.
One thing I love is that for long words or phrases Pimsleur will actually start with the last sound/syllable then work backwards until you complete the word.
This sort of “backchaining” method works great for difficult sounds and is actually a technique used to help Opera singers to correct their accent when they have to sing a piece in a foreign language (we talk more about this in our full Pimsleur review).
The quicker and more correctly you can pronounce Japanese words, the easier it will be for you to understand native speech. Most courses (even audio ones) neglect the all important aspect of pronunciation. Pimsleur is one of the few that emphasizes and teaches it well.
When it comes to actually helping you speak Japanese Pimsleur is a cut above other audio courses. There are some other solid Japanese audio courses out there (Japanesepod101 comes to mind), but none use the question/recall/answer method that Pimsleur is famous for.
Pimsleur courses engage you in what feels like a real Japanese conversation. It’s closer to speaking practice than a language lesson. Most other audio courses are just typical language lessons in audio format.
By and large Pimsleur leans toward formal (polite) interactions. The first level in the Pimsleur Japanese series will use exclusively polite language. You will see less formal scenarios and speech in the later levels though.
Just be advised that there will be phrases and words you use a lot in the course that you may not use as much in a real Japanese speaking environment.
For instance levels 1 and 2 use the “irassharu” form when you’re speaking to others. If you were actually travel to you probably won't hear this form nearly as much as you do in the Pimsleur course, except the usual “irasshaimase,” when you enter a store.
The emphasis on polite Japanese doesn’t keep Pimsleur from being an effective way to learn to speak the language. Once you grasp the conversational structures of the language it will be easier to change your speech between formal and informal. Worst case scenario you’ll just be super polite.
Pimsleur is renowned for teaching speaking and listening. It is not known as a great course for reading or writing. Pimsleur courses typically come with audio readings and and a transcription booklet to read along to.
This is fine if your language uses a latin based alphabet. It’s less helpful if your language uses a different alphabet (like cyrillic for instance). It’s even less helpful if your language uses any kind of character system.
Here's a little more info on the Japanese writing system
This makes a reading portion for Pimsleur Japanese difficult if not impractical. Other than a brief introduction to kanji, katakana, and hiragana the Japanese courses don’t provide much to help you with reading and nothing to help with your writing in Japanese.
The Japanese language is unique from many others because much of its grammar depends on your relationship with whoever you’re speaking to. It’s useful to know 3 or 4 ways to express verb, but it’s a whole different ball game knowing when to use them.
The polite and honorific forms in the language get tricky when you don’t have experience with the culture.
For instance, you may want to speak respectfully to your grandfather, but if you choose the wrong verb you could end up talking to him like he’s a customer at a store. You could have a fellow student who is younger than you but above you in level, do you use honorific language in that case?
To become fluent in Japanese there is an extra level of cultural intelligence that Pimsleur (or any audio course) won’t be able to help you develop.
I would recommend Pimsleur as a “survival guide” to Japanese. For someone who’s going to Japan soon, and needs to learn the basics of Japanese quick just so they can survive.
However for the beginner who plans to learn Japanese for the long run, this “can” serve as a good primer. If only it was cheaper. All in all a 6/10.
20+ minutes a day
Rocket Japanese 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 Japanese).
Rocket Japanese emphasizes more formal Japanese but does make a distinction between the various levels of politeness.
Rocket Japanese also has a hefty literacy component. Level 1 covers Hiragana and Katakana. Levels 2 and 3 focus on learning Kanji. This includes videos on how to actually write the characters
From $4+ per month
15+ minutes a day
Japanesepod101 features audio lessons in a podcast format. Lessons are great for grammar and vocabulary. Each lesson is designed around a Japanese 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 Japanese learning tool (it's also much cheaper too). The site features transcripts, an in-site flashcard system for learning kanji, 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 Japanese TV shows, movies, commercials, and more. It's a great way to push your listening skills and vocabulary.
Pimsleur has a strong reputation as an effective audio course, and its Japanese courses are no different. Working through all 4 courses of Japanese won’t make you fluent.
You’ll need to find another way to practice your reading and writing; and you won’t get the kind of cultural experience that can only come with living in Japan. However, you will have the ability to get by in basic, although polite, Japanese conversations.
Pimsleur offers the first lesson in their Japanese 1 course for free on their site. You can work through the lesson yourself to see if you like it.
I'm definitely an unlikely language learner. I failed Spanish in high school. I started learning German as a hobby while studying abroad. Long story short...and a couple languages later...I love language learning!
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