Pimsleur is one of the longest standing and most popular audio courses out there for learning a foreign language. Their language courses and method are unique, have a strong academic background, and a real reputation for bringing results.
Historically some of the biggest critiques of Pimsleur focused its hefty price tag and lack of reading materials. In the past those really were some noteworthy weaknesses in the course.
In 2019 Pimsleur rolled out its new multi-platform subscription, allowing language learners to full access to all of the Pimsleur courses for a single language for a monthly subscription.
The company also introduced an awesome and effective reading portion to their course, making it a holistic way to learn a foreign language (Here at LiveFluent we're huge fans of learning a language holistically).
We were fans of Pimsleur before (it's always been an effective way to learn a language through audio), but now after the recent update we're even bigger fans.
At the end of this review you should be able to tell if Pimsleur is the language course for you. Enjoy!
Review of: Pimsleur
Use: Language courses for self-study based on the Pimsleur Method.
Proven method of using audio conversations
Each audio lesson is around 30 minutes long.
Ease of Use
Simply listen to the audio and follow the instructions
Divided into consecutive levels that build on each other
I Don't Like
- Sometimes over emphasis on formal language
Summary: Pimsleur is an audio language learning course organized by level and made up of 30 minute lessons. The levels are designed to be worked through once a day lesson by lesson.
Pimsleur’s method is a well researched and organized approach to language learning that uses techniques based on actual linguist and psychological research.
It’s not a substitute for speaking with a real person but as far as language courses go it comes pretty close. Pimsleur also focuses a lot on pronunciation were most other courses tend to overlook it.
But Pimsleur is much more than a collection of stock audio phrases. The course is literally designed to get you thinking, reading, and producing your own answers in your target language.
If you buy the audio courses outright their price is a little high, but with the new version you're given full access to any single language for a monthly subscription, so you can pay as you go or even stop the subscription once you've met your learning goals.
If you work through it actively and consistently your speaking, reading, and listening abilities in your target language will improve, and probably at a faster rate than with some other well known courses.
Pimsleur’s website offers a free week of full access to their course. Working through the lessons is the best to find out if Pimsleur is a course that’ll work for you, so definitely check out the free one week trial.
Is Pimsleur right for you?
Pimsleur courses are good for beginners to upper intermediate students. You’ll want to consider Pimsleur if you’re looking to improve your speaking, listening, reading or pronunciation skills.
Their courses excel at teaching each of these aspects of a language. If you already have a high speaking level then the courses become less useful (though you could still use them for accent and listening training).
Pimsleur is a great way to practice a language while doing something else like walking, waiting, or (in the case of a video you'll see later in this article)...juggling fire. If you have a busy schedule or mobile lifestyle these courses could be a godsend. Pimsleur isn’t perfect, but even with its flaws it’s still one of the most effective language courses out there.
What is Pimsleur?
Pimsleur is a primarily an audio based course for learning foreign languages. It uses a sort of call and response approach to learning, where the user is presented with a phrase in their target language along with its translation and repeats after the audio. Pimsleur focuses on speaking, listening, a good deal of pronunciation, and even reading.
Where did it come from?
The Pimsleur language program was the brainchild of the late Dr. Paul Pimsleur, who developed a series of courses language learning courses in the 1960’s. Dr. Pimsleur was a scholar with a background in both linguistics and psychology.
He did performed a great deal of research in the area of language acquisition, studying how both adults and child learn languages. His primary concern was how people learned new languages.
His first language courses (published under a different name) were based on his beliefs and findings. In the end Dr. Pimsleur was a better scholar than he was a salesman. He was unable to market the courses and gave the rights to a private organization.
The rights to his courses changed hands several times over the decades, and the original course was revamped or repackaged several times as well.
Now fast forward to the present day and Pimsleur is a near household name when it comes to language learning. Out of traditional language learning courses for native English speakers only Rosetta Stone is more well known.
Though it may have been repackaged and renamed at various times, the Pimsleur courses have stayed true to the original method developed by their creator. The course is still audio based and still follows a method of call, recall, and response.
The Pimsleur method
So what exactly was the method that Dr. Pimsleur developed? According to Pimsleur’s site the four pillars to their method are: Graduated Interval Recall, Core Vocabulary, Principle of Anticipation, and Organic Learning.
Graduated Interval Recall (GIR)
Dr. Pimsleur did a lot of research on human memory. From it he concluded that if you were shown the same new word at graduating intervals you would be more likely to remember the word after each time you saw you it. So instead of introducing you to new words and phrase once or twice, you would work with them multiple times over weeks or months.
If you think this is starting to sound like a Spaced Repetition System, you’re absolutely right. The Pimsleur courses were one of the first, if not the first, language learning courses to incorporate a sort of spaced repetition approach. Dr. Pimsleur didn’t discover SPSs, but he was one of the first to apply it to the field of language acquisition.
A little more info on SPSs for those who are interested
How is GIR used in the Pimsleur courses?
Anytime you’re given a new word or phrase in a Pimsleur course it’s a safe bet that you will come across it again multiple times. However, the courses won’t be cramming the words down your throat everyday either.
You can expect a gradual progression of vocabulary when using Pimsleur. You’ll use newer words more often, while the more familiar ones will be slowly emphasized less and less.
Core vocabulary is the idea that there are words that are more important to learn than others, and that you should spend most your effort learning them instead of less useful words.
The importance of a word in determined by how common it is in the language you’re learning.
The goal here is to give your mind less material so that it can more easily master it. Once you get a hold of the core vocabulary then you can move on to other parts of the language.
How is core vocabulary used in the Pimsleur method?
The words and phrases in the Pimsleur course are designed to give you the most relevant vocabulary first. If you work through the course as recommended (once a day), you will gradually move through the most essential words and phrases in your target language.
Principle of Anticipation
When we hear someone say something (question, phrase, etc) our brains instinctively process the information and we come up with a response, almost without thinking about it.
Pimsleur is available for over 50 foreign languages
The principle of anticipation says that this process of hearing and anticipating it what helps us understand and speak in a foreign language, especially when we’re given feedback on whether our answer was right or wrong.
Basically if you were learning English and I taught you the phrase, “This is a dog”. You would better remember and understand it if I asked you “What is this?” (pointing to a dog of course), and you then gave the correct response.
In contrast to many traditional language classes which will tell you “this is a dog”, and leave it at that; Dr. Pimsleur believed that you would remember and understand the phrase if you had to hear the question, recall the answer on your own, say it out loud, and then receive feedback.
How the principle of Anticipation is used in the Pimsleur courses
You’ll be required to repeat and recall every phrase you here in the Pimsleur course. After you’ve heard the translation of a word, the speaker will ask you a question in the target language followed by a brief period of silence.
You have a few seconds to remember and say the correct phrase out loud. After the silence the speaker will repeat the correct answer to the question.
Words are learned better in a real life context versus in isolation, that’s the idea of organic learning in a nutshell. So instead of learning “cat”, “Dog”, “bird”, it’s a lot more beneficial if you learned these words in the context of a conversation, like maybe a talk with your friend about his new pet (Which to my knowledge is not a conversation used in the Pimsleur courses. I just used it as an example).
How’s organic learning used in the Pimsleur courses?
Each lesson is built around a conversation between two people. More than that though, each conversation is prefaced by a detailed description of where the speakers are and what they’re doing.
The course will literally invite you to imagine yourself in the speaker's’ situation. The situations can be anything from talking to stranger on a bus in Russia, to making plans with a friend over the phone in a hotel lobby in Mexico (depending on your target language of course).
What do you get in a Pimsleur course?
Languages by level
The Pimsleur courses are divided into levels, for example Japanese 1, Japanese 2, etc. Each level is made up of 30 lessons, and each lesson is 30 minutes long (so each level is essentially 15 hours long). The levels are consecutive. If you were new to Japanese you would start with level 1 and work your way up.
The number of levels varies from language to language. Most of the more popular ones have 4-5 levels (Spanish, French, Japanese, Mandarin, etc), while some minority languages only have one (Ojibwe, Irish, Haitian Creole, etc) .
The anatomy of a Pimsleur lesson
Pimsleur lessons are built around conversations. In each lesson there is an English narrator and two or more native speakers. First, each lesson will begin with the narrator setting the scene for the lesson’s conversation. He’ll describe the location and the particulars of what’s happening, then tell you to imagine it yourself. After that you hear the full conversation in your target language twice.
Then the lesson will break the conversation down into parts from phrases, to words, and even down to syllables of the words. The narrator will tell you what a word means then a native speaker will say the particular word or phrase. After that the native speaker will come a period of silence, during which you are to repeat what was said.
The conversations are almost always built around a series of questions and answers. As the lesson progresses the narrator will ask you questions in English while you respond in the target language. Then the native speaker will ask questions completely in the target language and without any translation. This cycle repeats for the duration of lesson.
The narrator will sometimes interject to point out something about grammar or pronunciation from time to time, but by and large the majority of each lessons is centered on the conversation.
As you work through the lessons and levels the narration will use less and less English. Also the earlier lessons and levels usually feature more emphasis in pronunciation than the later ones. As you work through the higher levels you’ll see less words broken down to the syllable level.
Each level of Pimsleur also includes a reading component, which in the newest version of Pimsleur is like a miniature reading course in itself. Each reading lesson contains a list of written words and phrases and accompanying audio.
A lesson will usually focus on one or more specific aspects of the written and spoken language (such as stressed vs unstressed syllables, vowels, pronunciation rules, etc).
In the first level of the reading portion of Pimsleur, you are taught the phonetics of the language, and are gradually introduced to its new sounds and symbols.
The phrases and words you encounter this level, aren't necessarily ones you'll recognize from the audio conversations. This because at level one you're not reading for meaning, so much as you're reading to become comfortable with new sound and written systems.
After level one you start to reading for meaning, and you will start to see more overlap between the readings and audio conversations.
3 formats 3 prices
Pimsleur courses are currently offered in 3 different formats: CD, Mp3, and a monthly subscription.
Monthly subscription: $14.95 for all levels
Pimsleur now features a monthly subscription option. For $14.95 per month you get access to all of the available levels for your specific target language through the Pimsleur app (available on tablets, phones, and computers).
This by far our favorite option, as it's the most affordable and provides the most flexibility. You can pay as you go and stop once you've achieved your language goals.
CD purschase format: $345 for 1 level
CDs are the most expensive format. If you choose to purchase a single level of a Pimsleur course on CD it will cost $345. The course will come with 17 CDs: 15 CDs each with two 30 minute lessons, as well as 2 CD’s with the readings. Some minority languages only have 1 level with lesson than 30 lessons and are cheaper.
Pimsleur also offers bundled discounts where you can buy 2 or more levels at a discounted price per level. The bundle options change depending on the language.
Mp3 purchase format: $119.95 for 1 level
Mp3s are the cheapest format for Pimsleur with a single level costing $119.95 (excluding minority languages). Instead of audio CDs you will get instant downloads of the audio mp3 files. Course booklets are available as PDFs.
The Mp3 format also comes in various bundle options. You also have the option to purchase 5 lesson sections from any level for $21.95. You also keep your audio files perminately with the mp3 purchase option, with the monthly subscription option you lose access to Pimsleur if you cancel your subscription.
Which Languages are offered?
Pimsleur offers courses in 50 different languages, not including their ESL course. They offer all the most popular languages, the majority of of the the less popular, and even some languages that it could be hard to find courses for. Here’s links to the specific language courses we’ve reviewed:
Our Language Specific Pimsleur Reviews
Pimsleur is also available for purchase on Audible, Amazon’s audio book service. You purchase 5 lesson sections from any level for $20-$30, or for $14.95 if you have a membership to audible. Note on Audible Pimsleur is purely audio and does not come with a reading component or other bonus features found in the full course.
A lot of people don’t know this, but many public libraries have Pimsleur courses. It’s a good idea to see if your local library has the course you're looking for. Why pay when you can use the course for free?
So does Pimsleur work?
What we really like about Pimsleur
Pimsleur’s active participation is what really separates Pimsleur from the majority of language courses. For some reason the short amount of time you have to respond pressures you to think and speak quickly in your target language.
My first exposure to Pimsleur was their level 5 Spanish course. I had been learning Spanish for sometime. I knew a lot of words and the majority of the important grammar rules but I hadn’t really practiced the language enough to speak it as well as I should have.
The Spanish 5 course ended up being just the right difficulty for me. After a 30 minute lesson I actually felt a little tired. My brain had been working fairly hard to come with up the correct responses. It was similar to feeling I would get after a difficult conversation with a native speaker. That’s the feeling I get when I know my skills in the language are getting stretched and becoming stronger.
I was honestly surprised to get such a language workout just from an audio course. I’ve had some experiences with other audio based courses and if I wasn’t careful I’d tune out and start casually listening. With Pimsleur that’s just simply not possible.
Donovan, a language lover and polyglot also had a similar experience with the Pimsleur active participation method:
"...instead of playing a word to get you to remember it, the audio series asks you how to say something or to respond to a native speaker.
The beautiful thing about this is that it never allows you to become a passive listener.
You’re actively involved in what you’re listening to and the presenter of the series keeps you on your toes because you need to respond at various intervals.
This active recollection is powerful at getting you to recall and use the language just as you would often have to do in real life situations."
Use of context & imagery
Pimsleur always teaches you words in the context of a conversation against the backdrop of what could be a real life scenario. This is huge help when it comes to both understanding and remembering a foreign language. Your brain remembers better when it can make connections with a new word.
Surprisingly the narrator does a good job describing the scene. It’s actually quite easy to imagine what he describes. He paints a vivid picture in your head of what’s happening. It’s these mental images that help cement your new vocabulary into your memory.
The conversation also provides a great context for new words. No word or phrase stands alone. This is hugely refreshing if you come from a background of formal courses. Typically in a language textbook or class you're taught a grammar rule and then you're given a list of unrelated example sentences.
Because you can’t readily use those sentences, and because they aren’t tied together through a story or event, you forget them quickly. Not so with Pimsleur.
Emphasis on pronunciation
Pronunciation is often overlooked in language learning. It’s seen more as a luxury rather than a necessity. But in my experience being able to pronounce sounds and words correctly makes it much easier to hear and understand them in speech.
Pimsleur’s early focus on correct pronunciation helps you develop your accent as well as your ear. Both aspects don’t even appear in many other language courses.
I also love that Pimsleur teaches pronunciation through backchaining (I don’t know what the correct term is). Backchaining is when you take a word that is difficult to pronounce and break it down syllable by syllable starting with the last syllable and ending with the first.
You slowly link each syllable together one by one until you can say the whole word. I’m not sure why but this technique helps take the edge off of tricky pronunciations. I do know that opera singers are taught to backchain when they are trying to nail the accent of a song sung in a foreign language.
Pimsleur is an audio course broken up into 30 minute lessons. It was literally designed so that you could practice on your time. Pimsleur recommends that you try to work through a single lesson on a daily basis for the best results.
It’s not hard to think of ways to squeeze the needed 30 minutes into your daily schedule. I love courses like this because it helps you fill in those seemingly random gaps of time throughout the day with valuable language practice.
What we don’t like about Pimsleur
Context of the Traveling businessman
A common complaint about Pimsleur is that the words you learn are not that useful in real life. The original courses were designed for the travelling businessman.
At the time it made sense because businessmen were probably responsible for the bulk of international travel. But present day that’s simply not the case.
"...the context in use was completely irrelevant to me. If you are a married businessman with children, planning to do some shopping and eating out in restaurants, then Pimsleur (at least the Hungarian version) is perfect for you.
If you are anyone else then you will learn things that simply should not be prioritized in the early stages.
For talking about my family, I would personally need to say brother and sister way more than wife/husband/son/daughter.
I never learned the words I wanted to use in the early stages."
This image of the travelling businessman affects the vocabulary and scenarios presented in Pimsleur, especially in the early courses. In the early levels you are almost exclusively put in situations where you are talking to strangers in a very polite yet formal way.
If the language you’re learning has any distinction between formal and informal grammar or words this could be frustrating.
Take a language like Spanish for example. Spanish has a formal pronoun for “you” as well as an informal one. To give you rough idea of how that works you use the formal “you” in situations that you would say “sir” or “ma’am” in English. You can see how learning only the formal usage could be problematic.
While it’s great to be polite, and you will probably meet strangers in your foreign language, you are likely to find that the informal usage is used just as much if not much more than the formal one.
Pimsleur does cover the informal usage but it’s not until the later levels of the course.
The other problem with the context of the traveling businessman is that not as many language learners are likely to relate to it. In most conversation scenarios you’re arriving on a bus or plane, shopping for souvenirs for your wife and children, or sorting something out at hotel.
The language you learn through these scenarios is useful but it I think Pimsleur should update their course a little to meet the more modern needs of a language learner. We’re not all international businessmen on a short trip away from our wife and kids.
Courses move fast
Another common problem with Pimsleur is that the beginner levels move through the language fast. If you’re completely new to the language then you will find yourself pausing and replaying the lessons quite a but.
This becomes a problem if you’re learning a language with a difficult pronunciation system. While Pimsleur does break down each word by syllable, sometimes it feels like it quickly glazes over any difficult sound. You are told to listen and repeat. Pimsleur offers little more help than that.
It would be nice if the early courses came with a sound system primer that broke down the most difficult sounds of the language, and taught you how to physically make the sounds. Common mispronunciations made by English speakers would also be very useful.
Some courses sound artificial
The quality of voice actors and dialogues vary from language to language. While there are some pimsleur courses that sound pretty good like Russian, Irish, Korean, and Spanish.
There are some that sound painfully artificial like Thai and Arabic. This affects the course effectiveness a little (you don’t want to be mimicking a monotone native speaker), but the main drawback is that it makes working through the course drier and more boring than it needs to be.
Best way to use Pimsleur
Once a day every day
It’s best to use Pimsleur the way the course itself recommends: listening to a single 30 minute lesson a day, each day. Remember that the courses are designed to introduce you to a language consistently overtime.
You’ll want to work at consistent pace to get the most out of these lessons. Don’t try rush through them, listening to 4 or 5 a day. It won’t have the same effect. Also if you miss a day, don’t let the missed day turned into a missed week.
There’s a lot of reviews out there of people who tried a level 1 course for a few weeks and then complain they didn’t learn much in their target language.
To see significant results with Pimsleur you’re going to have to work through at least a couple levels of a language. At times the course may feel slow but trust the design.
Remember that Pimsleur emphasizes the mastery of a few but important parts of a language, versus a sheer volume of words. If you trust and work the system you will see your abilities in your target language improve. All foreign languages take time and consistent practice to learn, whether you’re using Pimsleur or not.
Do something else while listening
If you sit in chair and work through Pimsleur you’re likely to get bored fast. Listening while you walk, clean the house, or commute makes a huge difference.
I prefer to use Pimsleur while I walk at a local park. The walking path is secluded enough that I don’t feel dumb repeating phrases out loud. I’m not sure why but the added movement helps me focus more and keeps me engaged.
Alternatives to the Pimsleur Method
20+ minutes a day
In comparison to Pimsleur, Rocket Languages is the new kid on the block (RL came out in 2004). There are over 12 different Rocket Language courses, and each 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, making them highly practical for conversations.
Though audio is at the center of their method, Rocket Language courses also focus on reading and writing too. If your language has a different script the course provides a custom keyword and even features videos on how to hand write letters or characters (this is great for languages like Arabic or Japanese).
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 native TV shows, movies, commercials, and more. It's a great way to push your listening skills and vocabulary.
$6+ per hour (varies between teachers)
30 minute or 1 hour lessons
Italki is an online market place that connects language learners with language teachers for one-on-one language classes via video or audio chat.
You can connect with language speakers from around the world and practice your speaking skills.
*with a purchase of $20 or more. After your first purchased lesson a credit of $10 will be added to your account
Pimsleur is an effective audio course that will help develop your listening, speaking, reading and pronunciation in a foreign language.
The courses' history and reviews stand as a testament to their effectiveness. In terms of daily language courses with a low time commitment Pimsleur is one of the best.
Pimsleur offers a week of full free access to their courses on their website. You can check it out here and see for yourself if Pimsleur is right for you.