Pimsleur Review: Audio Doughnut or Earwax?
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Pimsleur has been around for years. A hands-free, on the go language learning tool. It promises to help you “Speak a language with a near-native accent in just 30 days.” Yay! That’s some promise, and not entirely unfounded as some of the more overzealous marketing efforts remind us:
Learn Chinese in an hour while you sleep!
Learn Japanese on the toilet!
A near native accent? Ok, achievable. Learn to speak with a “near native accent?” Pimsleur, I agree.
A funny name though, isn't it- Pimsleur- but it’s not just a brand name, it’s a surname. A surname of none other than professor Dr. Paul Pimsleur, who was a research fellow in applied linguistics. For all those who aren’t sure what that means, it means that he was a professional language teacher at university level. After having Used Pimsleur for many years, I can tell you that it shows.
This review will show discuss the Pimsleur app, why I think you need it in your repertoire, its unique features, how to get even more out of the app by using a few tricks, as well as a hack to get the app without paying for it.
Main Feature: Audio
Pimselur is essentially an audio course, and that’s exactly why it stands out. As a dedicated (aspiring) polyglot with a thousand non-language related life commitments, I need to learn how to squeeze more out of my day. Pimsleur comes to the rescue with its half an hour daily audio lessons for use in the car, shower, bus queue… anywhere you want. For me, I ALWAYS do my Pimsleur lesson in the morning when I do the dishes. What would otherwise be a horrible obligation now becomes an incredibly pleasing half an hour with a beloved foreign language:
Me: Bloody dishes (”scrub scrub”) urrgghh, pain in the ars%.
Me (scrubbing dishes): . . .
Pimsleur Dude: Say, ‘Where is St. Jaques Street?’
Me: Où est le rue….la reo…..la r…. (panics) dah!
Pimsleur Dude (interrupting): Où est la rue St. Jacques, s’il vous plaît?
The structure of each Pimsleur lesson is a well crafted nugget of pedagogical brilliance. Each lesson starts of with a short dialogue between a man and a woman. The lesson is usually too difficult to understand first time around, but it repeats for a second time. Here is an example of a typical Pimsleur dialogue:
Man: Excuse me, do you speak Spanish?
Woman: No, I don’t speak Spanish.
Man: I speak a little English.
Woman: Are you Spanish?
You’ll notice how short it is, but don’t be fooled by its brevity as there’s a lot going on in each dialogue to flesh out a 29 minute lesson. What happens during the next 29 minutes is the essence of the course and a true breakthrough in second language acquisition.
The breakdown consists of a thorough explanation of the dialogue. It does so by focussing on:
1) Bottom up learning
3) Spaced repetition
4) Gradual introduction of L2
1) Bottom up approach: As a teacher of 15 years and counting, there are few methods that I take home from the textbooks and materials I come into contact with. I’m extremely fussy, and should be as the students are paying for the best teacher that I can be. I don’t want to use sub-par methods and am constantly trying to scour the field for the best available ways to teach. I have my own stock of methods, a toolbox of tricks and hacks that I pull out when the need arises. On a given day, I won’t use more than 5-10 of them. However, Pimsleur introduced me to a method over ten years ago that I still use to this day, and not just now and then, but all the time.
Imagine you’re an English learner learning the word elephant. How should the teacher teach this? The Pimsleur, bottom down approach, is simply marvellous. After explaining what the word means in your native language, something like this happens:
Pimsleur Dude: Say “-phant”
Pimsleur Dude: Say “-la-”
Pimsleur Dude: Now say, “-lephant”
Pimsleur Dude: El-
Pimsleur Dude: Elephant
This happens with most new words, and then it happens again at the sentence level, with Pimsleur Dude always assuming his ultra-casual tone while inducing panic stricken tests:
Pimsleur Dude: How do you say 大象?
Pimsleur Dude: "Elephant", good. How do you say 能看到？
Me: Can walk.
Pimsleur Dude: "Can see". Great, now say 能看到一头大象.
Me: There's a monkey- no, elephant in my living room.
Pimsleur Dude: "Can see an elephant." How do you say 我能看到一头大象?
Me (in ceremonious jubilation): I can see an elephant!
Once you have learned the information passively (you can recognise the foreign language), you are asked to PRODUCE the foreign language. It’s generally easier to recognise something than to produce it yourself:
Pimsleur Dude: Now say, “I can see an elephant”.
2) Timing: You may have noticed in the above examples that I was often rather flummoxed after being asked a question. This is actually quite true for about 80-90% of the lesson, however this is what makes it exciting and fun. The Pimsleur Dude gives you barely enough time to spit out your answer before his fluent friend butts in and provides it. So, imagine you’ll need 5 seconds to actually say the answer; he’ll give you seven. There’s little margin for error; this method keeps you on your toes and the gamification factor is great.
3) Spaced repetition: I’ve spoken a lot about spaced repetition before on CI Polyglot, but the basic premise is that we forget things on a curve. So, while information is clear in your head for the first day or so, it begins to go fuzzy after several days until you’ll ultimately forget it. Pimsleur uses scientific spaced repetition to review information no more and no less than you should:
Day 1: How do you say “I can see an elephant”?
Day 2: How do you say “I can see an elephant”?
Day 5: How do you say “I can see an elephant”?
Day 10: How do you say “I can see an elephant”?
. . .
4) Gradual introduction of L2: Another great thing about the method is its gradual introduction to using your target language as the mode of instruction, which means you'll gradually be wheened off mother tongue and begin hearing foreign instructions in their place:
How do you say . . . ?
Now listen to the conversation.
Listen and repeat.
The above instructions will gradually begin to transform into the target language, but very slowly so you are not overwhelmed. A great touch to the course.
5) Flexibility: You can almost do the lessons anywhere you wouldn’t be able to study normally, and I would like to personally thank Pimsleur Dude for his considerate warning:
“You can learn anywhere you like, but I do not recommend doing the reading lessons if you are driving.”
Thanks! But as I said before, Pimsleur is a solid method that helps me get in half an hour of daily French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, etc, while doing the dishes. I have a host of other methods to help me learn langages throughout the day, but Pimselur really comes out on top for a hands-free audio course (and I’ve tried a few).
6) Very short lessons: The dialogues are very short and are a perfect length. I find that keeping a catalogue of doodle-ogs is a great way to get more out of the lessons. You can also build some CI Clouds out of the sentences quite easily to flesh out the language.
7) Appearance and user experience: It’s a sleek and sexy app, there’s no denying it. The audio player has a few great features, but the most important is that it remembers your location if you decide to stop half way through.
The Pimsleur app also comes with an array of additional features that I don’t always use. Still, it’s nice to have them available:
1) Reading: Pimsleur IS NOT a reading course, so don’t expect much reading here*, but you still need to focus on pronunciation. Each lesson comes with a simple tool to focus on 20 or so words. Simple.
2) Flash cards: I don’t like flash cards, but a lot of people do. Pimsleur has the basic features you’d expect from a flashcard system, including L1-L2, L2-L1, skip, etc.
3) Quick Match: A quick matching quiz.
4) Speak Easy: This is a great feature that is missing from the old Pimselur. The whole dialogue is written down. This makes it perfect for writing methods, such as Scriptorium.
5) Speed Round: Fun game which challenges your reaction time.
When to Use Pimsleur:
Many people decide to use Pimselur from day one. This is perfectly doable and all the power to those who choose to, but I personally find this quite frustrating trying to produce a foreign language when I’ve had little or zero exposure to it. What I find much more effective is to use Pimsleur as a platform to help me activate my passive knowledge. For example, I’m doing a lot in French at the moment and have decided to start at lesson 1, even after doing a fair amount of work in French in 2020. This means that I know everything in the dialogues, or at least 95%, but I still have trouble speaking them out. Pimsleur is excellent for helping you to activate passive knowledge. However, this is my own personal preference and many would be able to jump straight in.
Room for Improvement:
My biggest concern with Pimsleur (and the most common one for the vast majority of learners) is it’s insistence on teaching personal pronouns in Romance languages from the get go. As many know, with the important exception of French, Romance languages don’t tend to require a personal pronoun such as I, you, he, she, it. Pimsleur has you use these a lot. A similar thing occurs with Japanese.
However, this is a small concern and not a huge functional problem.
Cost and Getting Pimsleur for Free (or Cheaper than Normal)
Unfortunately for us, Pimsleur isn’t free**. There are a few options to get the method, ranging from the mega expensive to completely free. Here they are:
Billionaire’s choice: You can own your very own Pimsleur course for $550 (just over £400). That’s a lot of money and the majority of the human race simply cannot afford it. If you can, all the power to you!
Subscription 1: For $25 pounds a month (about £18), you can get your Pimsleur course with all of its bells and whistles (see Extra Features above). A much more reasonable choice than the billionaire’s choice above.
Subscription 2: For $19 dollars a month (about £14 pounds), you can get the audio without the other features. I think you really don’t need to pay the additional $6 (£4) for extras. If you do want access to flashcards or the dialogue, you could just make them yourself, or write out the dialogue and send your writing to a Facebook group such as CI Polyglot. I’m sure there will be someone out there who will help you mark it.
Almost free: Library! Don’t forget that libraries usually stock Pimsleur courses, and if not, you can actually ask them to get one in. You can get a CD course on rental for a few dollars or pounds a month. You may need to buy a cheap CD player, though, but you’d save money in the end**.
Free: OK, you can actually get the course for free for 7 days by subscribing to their free trial below. If you do, you could actually put some time aside and go crazy in your language by studying the course intensively for a week. This will be hard, but doable.
Pimsleur is a wonderful hands free learning tool that delivers on its promise. It’s a great way to squeeze more out of your language learning day by activating your dead time. It comes with a lot of features, but the only one that’s really necessary is the main audio programme, which is both scientific and engaging.
Pimsleur can be pricey, but there are ways around it to reduce the cost. Even with a subscription, the price is very reasonable for the serious learner.
Have you used Pimsleur? What do you think of it? Do you agree with my review? Would you like to add anything? Comments are welcome!
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*Reading is absolutely essential in learning a foreign language well. If you are interested in this essential skill, you may want to read more about reading methods in a foreign language here.
**Actually, that’s not quite true. If it were, then it wouldn’t exist.