In the recent survey about the “best” courses, Pimsleur came out on top, both among the best and the worst.
Despite almost a decade of learning languages, I have to admit that I had never tried the Pimsleur approach. I was under the impression that audio based learning wouldn’t work for me, as I considered myself a “visual” learner. But this was nothing more than a lazy excuse based on preferences – there is little evidence of it being true for most people.
Another reason I wouldn’t use this course is because it’s very expensive (just part I of any given language is coming up as US$230 on Amazon for example), but the previous tenant of my flat in Budapest left quite a lot of Hungarian learning material, including Pimsleur’s Hungarian, so it was time to try it out! (You can also get it in some libraries, and of course many people tell me they have used the pirated versions).
This post is an honest and frank look at the course I completed and it is not a some blog post about how Pimsleur is a scam, etc. I’m not affiliated with Pimsleur in any way (as I have my own ways of approaching language learning), so this isn’t a sales pitch, as I will be very critical of it. I am presuming that it would have content similar to the Hungarian course in other languages like Pimsleur Spanish etc. too.
The Pimsleur language learning system is an audio based course that presents phrases in the target language first, and then in your mother tongue for you to translate into that language.
It was developed based on research carried out by linguist Paul Pimsleur several decades ago. The course being sold by Simon & Schuster comes in 30 half an hour sessions, or in smaller units of 10 half an hour sessions. I went through the 30-lesson course over a month and feel I have a pretty good understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the system.
Hungarian only has a 15 hour course, but other languages go up to 45 hours. Obviously I can only base what I’ve gotten out of this course for the purposes of this post based on the 15 hour course.
The audio presents words and phrases to you, with their translation, either said in isolation or in a suggested context (the audio tells you to “imagine you are at a restaurant in central Budapest” for example). There is then a pause for you to repeat the phrase, or to recall a previously learned one from memory. The audio then gives you the answer so you can confirm you were right or learn it better for next time.
The system is almost entirely audio based. There may be some reading material for particular units, but even those are to be read while listening to the audio that gives instructions on how to proceed. The vast majority of what is said to you will never be written down in any form, so this is really forcing you to get used to the spoken language and not being able to read it at any time.
This system has the following advantages and disadvantages, in my opinion:
Some advantages to this system
As I said above, I am not used to using a system like this so I actually found several advantages here that I was not expecting and that I will attempt to integrate into my own language learning method in some ways. There were other advantages of this course overall which included:
Pressure to recall, even from audio. Having not used audio courses before, I had this simplified idea that they were just mindless listening and repeating (which unfortunately this mostly was), but this course also gave me a short time-frame to produce the phrase/word that actually sparked pressure to recall that I wasn’t expecting. You genuinely feel disappointed if you don’t come up with the phrase correctly and this encourages you to focus and try harder later.
Of course, this “interactive” aspect makes focused listening way more useful than worthless passive listening. I did genuinely learn the phrases that were given to me (although only as a parrot would – see below), and any I didn’t learn were my fault rather than the course’s.
Repetition of previously learned material. What you learn in one unit does indeed come back in later ones, thus reinforcing it in your memory. This is effective, but I prefer a well structured spaced repetition system myself.
Learning long words back to front. This may sound weird, but I actually do think this is a clever way to learn long words now that I’ve tried it. Some languages do have words that are quite a mouthful, and saying the last syllable, then the second-last followed by the last and continuing to add another one on, always before, was actually an effective way to be able to say the word. I’ll be doing this more often in future.
Hearing native-spoken pronunciations and intonations. A language like Hungarian has a different rhythm in the language, so I used the opportunity to learn to improve my pronunciation and sentence rhythm by hearing the answer to how I should have said something. In a purely reading course you will never have this advantage. Although I tend to combine reading courses with listening to podcasts or simply speaking with people.
Perhaps one of the biggest advantages of this system is how it focuses on trying to make a language natural. The contexts seem a little fake, but at least it provides them and creates a mini-story each time. This is way superior to other courses that just present the information as vocabulary and grammar.
At the start of each lesson a full conversation between two speakers is given, and by the end of the lesson you do actually understand all components of the conversation. This is quite an achievement and makes the system all the more impressive. Explanations are useful and non-technical so you get the basic gist of some grammatical concepts, as well as the vocabulary itself.
Where this system fails: Irrelevant context
Despite its advantages, I don’t think I will be using Pimsleur in future language missions (even if I come across it as free again). After fifteen hours of focused learning I feel like I would have progressed way more in my Hungarian if I had spent that time on other tasks. It’s a clever idea, but hardly revolutionary compared to the competition.
For example, the context of 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 prioritised 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 prioritisation seems like a clever marketing strategy for several decades ago when most people travelling for short periods would indeed be businessmen. In this day and age anyone can travel, so why focus on just one demographic? I feel like it should be called Pimsleur-for-married-businessmen. If it was tailored to other types of people, it would be way more interesting, with different versions for different purposes of travel, but this would be asking a lot of any course.
The context I would tend to use the language in was totally off. For example, since I tend to socialise with my age group in all of my languages, I have little need for the formal “you” (usted in Spanish, vous in French, Sie in German, ön in Hungarian) beyond pleasantries in shops and with the elderly.
The entire course (even pleasant conversations) used this formal you (apart from a quick mention in one unit) and that would create unnecessary distance between me and those I meet in social events if I were to use it. I imagine in popular language courses with three times as much audio they cover informal usage, but I didn’t get what I personally needed from my fifteen hours, so I’m not confident about the following thirty hours.
Tiny amount of words learned in large amount of time
While I have learned to appreciate audio-based courses somewhat thanks to this experience, the fact that I can’t “flick through it” to get past irrelevant vocabulary (for my current level) means that I am even more likely to waste time. With a book or software course at least you can skip through the current lesson after glancing to see that the words covered in this one should be low on your priorities.
If you skip an audio lesson you may indeed miss words that you immediately need to learn, and no written or preview summaries means you don’t know what is going to get covered. The sample conversation at the start of the lesson is a good scope to get a vague idea, but other things are covered.
I am of course more of an independent learner, and use courses as I see fit. An audio course like this takes away some of that freedom as you must go through it in the right sequence. This is actually an advantage for learners who prefer for the course to do all the work for them, but I encourage people to analyse what they are learning and adapt the course to their needs rather than vice-versa.
The criticism of not having the right vocabulary “for me” could work for any course, but Pimsleur deserves it more than any other because of the extremely restricted amount of vocabulary it teaches. This one-size-fits-all insinuation that the particular words it’s teaching you are the most helpful ones is very misleading. The entire contents of my Pimsleur course could have been covered in just two or three chapters of most good book-courses.
After fifteen hours I feel like I’ve learned nothing more than basic pleasantries and personally-irrelevant phrases from this course and I’m glad I was applying my own learning strategies simultaneously or my Hungarian would be next to worthless. While the repetition does drill it into you sufficiently, working on efficient learning strategies to better use your memory would give you the same content much quicker. A system based on repetition as the main learning strategy is immediately inefficient in my opinion.
Even if I had stuck to just Pimsleur, there is no indication of where to go when you complete the course. You’d have to simply buy some book-based course and start over again. I don’t see any potential to continue learning once you finish the course unless you start with a different one.
Way too fake
The “context” is way too fake to be practical. Being told to “imagine” that I want to ask my husband if he is hungry before saying the phrase just doesn’t cut it.
Then there is the huge amount of English in the course. Most of the audio is actually English! I feel like that imbalance would suit English learners more.
Later in the course “listen and repeat” is changed to the target language, but apart from that you are mostly just following orders to translate material from English to the target language. This mentality will always slow you down. It is turning the listeners into walking dictionaries – I couldn’t say any of the phrases unless I phrased it in English first. I didn’t learn how to ask where the bathroom is in Hungarian from this course, I learned how to react correctly if someone said “Say Where is the bathroom in Hungarian”. The course produces parrots rather than potential conversationalists.
It was somewhat nice to listen to, but all this English, and cleverly asking questions that (of course) I know the answer to gave an enormous false sense of security. This trick is something so many courses do to make you feel like you are making a lot of progress and this is why they are so highly praised among progressing learners, even if they don’t actually bring you far at all.
There is no way you can get beyond the absolute basics in a language following this course. Perhaps there are longer versions than the 15 hour ones, but I can just see that teaching a tiny bit more at the same rate. Twice barely nothing is still barely nothing.
Personal preference for reading / seeing words
As I said near the start, the visual vs audible learners argument tends to just be an excuse for people not wanting to try out a new method, and I do genuinely want to improve my learning techniques. My experience so far has mostly been visual – that’s how I learn vocabulary. I even try to visualise how a word is spelled in the middle of a conversation, as this ultimately helps me improve my reading too (albeit obliquely). This is easier than it sounds because all languages I have learned so far are entirely or pretty phonetic (unlike English).
Because of this I felt a lot was missing from a course that didn’t tell me how to spell words. I found it quite hard to remember words suggested to me when I couldn’t see how they would be spelled, and several times I simply had to pause the audio and find the word in a dictionary to see what it looks like. When you hear an unfamiliar language, it can help to put it in a familiar context, and since Hungarian (luckily) happens to use the same writing system as other European languages, I would like to take advantage of that.
Although this technically isn’t a criticism of the Pimsleur method, since it openly embraces focusing on the sounds of a language for the purposes of prioritising the basics of conversation, I have to admit that I do depend on being able to read a language, even if my focus is clearly to speak it ultimately. In any language mission, reading is a crucial aspect for me – I’d be as good as illiterate in the target language otherwise.
So I would personally have to adapt myself more to a purely listening course, and that’s just a frustrating extra step for me. I heard words several times in this course that I had no way to make any mental association with. They were just noise to me – but this just shows my own reliance on non-audible-repetition to learn words.
Since so many successful learners use Pimsleur, perhaps it isn’t an issue for them. Or perhaps they combine it with other courses in such a way as to progress in a useful way. But I still can’t see this content getting you anywhere beyond the absolute basics.
It is perhaps an excellent way to help you get by (albeit in very restricted situations) for a weekend trip, but if you have long-term plans with your target language you will absolutely have to combine it with another course to make any real progress. That sounds fair enough, as many people do use several courses at once. But for the steep price, you would expect it to be more encompassing.
Like any course, no matter how flawed, this can teach you something. It helped me with my sentence intonation for example, and did teach me a couple of basic words. So I could technically say that Pimsleur “helped” me on my path to attempt to be conversational in Hungarian.
This exaggeration of its contribution is one reason I feel a lot of successful learners mention it as useful. It gave them “something”, although I can’t see how it could possibly get you up to intermediate level.
It is indeed a nice way to start a language, and the comfort involved and the feeling of achievement can be important to many learners, so this emotional boost could actually be a big contributor to success and even make it a very useful way to begin learning a language. But in terms of actual content, it falls short.
So, taking the advantages from this, I do think I should integrate audio learning more into my approach, but using phrases that I am likely to need. To do this, we can all create our own personal “Pimsleur” courses for free. This is how I would do it:
- Write out some words and phrases that you are most likely to want to say in the early stages of getting by in a language. Many of these will already be present in some cheap phrasebooks, or listed on some websites, but some will be specific to you. Translate these new ones yourself if you feel ready, or using Google Translate and then run them by a native. If you don’t know any then use lang-8 to have natives correct it for free so you know there are no mistakes.
- If it’s a single word, check it out on Forvo. If it’s a phrase, type it into Rhinospike. In either case you will have a native say the phrase to you. Download this result.
- Use the free tool Audacity to create an MP3 of the audio, with the phrases you downloaded repeated and with your own voice recorded between these segments as explanations as you see fit.
- Copy to your MP3 player and enjoy, referring to the written form of all words you aren’t sure of to help you to learn them quicker.
There you have it – your own personal Pimsleur without spending a penny. For hardcore users: try Gradint, with which you can craft your own 30 minute, pimsleur-style podcasts from your own audio. A fair warning: it is very far from a nice user experience, but the idea is great.
I still think actual exposure to natives would get you way further (meet up with them, or talk with them online), and I have yet to find a single advantage to course materials that you listen to or read alone, which another human being can’t provide.
Due to how little this particular course helped me progress beyond the basics, I can’t recommend Pimsleur to serious language learners. If you are a businessman on a weekend holiday however, it was made for you!
Don’t agree with my frank review? Did you use Pimsleur and come to similar conclusions? Let me know in the comments below
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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