Twenty years ago, when I was nine, the Internet was a relatively new thing. Getting online meant unplugging the phone and using our dial-up connection. The world has changed a lot in the last twenty years. The Pimsleur Method has not.
Old but effective?
There’s nothing inherently wrong with Pimsleur – just like there’s nothing wrong with that Kodak camera that’s been collecting dust for years in your closet. They both still work. They’re both effective at doing what they’re meant to do. The biggest difference between the two is that people aren’t paying top dollar for those old film cameras. However, Pimsleur products, despite being from an earlier generation, are still some of the most expensive language learning products on the market today.
There are five levels in the complete Pimsleur Mandarin course. They start at the absolute beginner level and work their way up. Each level contains 30 lessons and about 16 hours of material. They’re audio based and meant to be studied for 30 minutes each day. There are also transcripts that you can use for extra help – but really, it’s best to think of this as purely audio-based lessons. You won’t learn any characters.
Learn Chinese in five months, only studying 30 minutes a day?
The pace can feel tediously slow at times. Very few new words and phrases are introduced in each lesson and they often won’t discuss different ways to use the new vocabulary. They say after the five levels you’ll reach an advanced intermediate level of fluency. This sounds like some marketing BS to me. This is only studying 30 minutes a day for five months. There’s just too much to learn and that’s not enough time spent studying to reach that high of a level.
You’ll really need to use additional resources to supplement your studying.
The lessons are slow and boring
You aren’t just listening to the lessons – you’ll need to actually be participating in them. A lot of the time is spent reviewing the words that you’ve learned. The host will prompt you by asking, “how do you say ___” or “Do you remember how to answer?” These make it so you have to consciously think of the answer and actively study. You’re supposed to practice speaking by answering the question out loud. The lessons do go a bit slow though and you may feel yourself getting bored with answering the same questions over and over again.
Why you shouldn’t use Pimsleur
The first and obvious reason not to use Pimsleur is the price. It’s ridiculously expensive. For MP3s of all five levels, it’ll cost $550 and the CDs are $1190. Do people really pay an extra $640 to get the CD versions? Let’s just say it costs $550 for argument sakes. With that money, you could get…
One year of The Chairman’s Bao to practice reading Chinese characters. This is would be $64 if you use the promo code “tcbalr20” which will give you a 20% discount.
The Beginner Conversational Course from Yoyo Chinese. This would be $116 if you use the promo code “10NRES” which will give you a 10% discount.
It’s not as if Pimsleur has so much material either. All five levels only come out to 80 hours of lessons. Chinesepod alone easily has significantly more material.
It’s slow and not particularly fun. A good way to lose interest in learning Chinese is by using study methods that aren’t enjoyable. Granted, any way you study will be hard and not particularly fun in the beginning. However, Pimsleur takes it to another level of blah.
It’s all audio. I personally enjoy learning the characters and it feels really rewarding when I’m able to read things in Chinese. I also feel like learning the characters really aids in understanding the spoken language. There are so many similar sounds in Chinese, especially for beginner students who are still figuring out tones and pronunciation nuances. For me learning characters has been a very productive use of time.
For an audio course, there’s not much focus on pronunciation. There’s a short description of the sounds and similar sounds found in English in their lesson transcript. This is completely lacking though. It might have been okay ten or fifteen years ago when better resources didn’t exist. But nowadays, there are much better resources for learning pronunciation.
What’s good about Pimsleur?
The lessons will give you a good base and foundation in learning Mandarin. They aren’t passive and they push you into participating in the lessons.
You’ll get a lot of repetition of certain words and phrases that you’ll be able to comfortably use later on when the situation arises.
They’ve been around so long that there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to find a used copy at a decent discount or a free one from your library. I wouldn’t judge you for trying to find a pirated copy online either.
If you were planning to move to China in the early 2000’s, Pimsleur might have been my top recommendation for learning Chinese. Fortunately, things have changed significantly since then and learning a language is no longer the financial burden that it once was. Nowadays, nobody should pay full price for a Pimsleur product, but if you can get your hands on one for cheap or free – it may be worth trying.