Pimsleur was once groundbreaking, but has it held up over time?
Pimsleur is one of the most famous and widely used language learning resources. Its methods help students to speak and understand a new language in an efficient manner.
The founder of this program is Dr. Paul Pimsleur, a famous researcher in the language field who focused a lot on studying memory and how this plays a role in the learning process. He developed the optimal spacing for information theory which is at the foundation of the program and has proven to be a key factor in the success of this program.
The optimal spacing for information is based on the principle that if people are reminded of new words regularly, these words are moving from the short-term into the long-term, or permanent memory. They say repetition is the mother of all learning – this couldn’t be more true!
This is what Pimsleur is all about – repeating what you learn over and over, making sure the information gets stored in your brain. While his research may have been groundbreaking when first introduced – it’s hardly novel in today’s language learning climate.
In fact, nearly every language learning tool nowadays uses a form of SRS (spaced repetition software). SRS basically means that things you don’t remember will show up more often, and things that are easy for you will come up less often.
Unfortunately, Pimsleur isn’t able to adjust to the user’s strengths and weaknesses.
These are the principles that guide the Pimsleur Method. Of course, you shouldn’t simply take their word for it. Let’s remain skeptical and take a closer look.
Pimsleur is an audio course
As the Pimsleur learning program is based on developing the ability to speak more than anything else, the structure of this resource is 95% composed out of audio files. The audio files are each 30 minutes long and they are structured as conversations.
They’re very convenient to listen to but because a large amount of the material requires you to focus and speak out loud, they’re not ideal for every occasion – unless you don’t mind being “that guy” on the subway. The way the conversations flow is easy to follow, easy to repeat and most importantly, easy to remember.
The modules also have a reading booklet that comes with special audio instructions and these ones focus on having the student read and repeat phrases and words, while also giving tips about how to pronounce the words correctly.
Try out a free lesson to see if it’s right for you before buying anything
In order to get started, you have to create an account on the official site and purchase the particular module you are interested in. Signing up is very easy, you just have to add your email address and choose a password.
The account dashboard offers a lot of options and settings to choose from. Once you have an account, you can choose your preferred language and ask for a free lesson to try it out.
Alternatively, you could sign-up for a free trial to Audible – Amazon’s audiobook service. Included in the free trial is two free audiobooks, which in this case, you could use for lessons 1-10 of Pimsleur.
On the same page, you can also see the packages available for purchasing. You’ll also select the reason for learning the language, but this doesn’t have any effect on the materials you’re offered in the free lesson.
Lessons and their structure
Pimsleur package includes modules based on the level of difficulty – level 1 to 5. Each module includes 30 audio lessons, each being 30 minutes long. There are also reading booklets included in the modules, which come with special instructions on what to read and how to do it.
Each lesson is based on a conversation that you have to listen to and repeat after the speaker. This process happens a few times throughout the lesson, giving the opportunity to the learner to verbalize the word or phrase.
It starts with simple words, clear examples of correct pronunciation, and then the speaker invites the student to repeat out loud what they heard.
As the lesson moves forward, new elements are introduced and explained – words, phrases, idioms and how they are grammatically built so the learner can understand the mechanics behind it as well.
Everything is logically explained and easy to understand and memorize. As you listen and repeat more, you are asked to repeat words that were presented at the beginning of the lesson and combine them with the new items of the lesson.
In education terminology, this is referred to as scaffolding and it’s highly effective.
For example, at the beginning of a lesson, they teach you how to say hello depending on the person you are addressing and the time of the day.
You’ll learn how to introduce yourself and say something else about yourself.
These words are repeated in the first few minutes of the lesson, then it moves on to teach you how to say where you are from, things you like and so on.
Towards the end of the audio lesson, you are asked to speak a few sentences about yourself, including all the elements presented in the lesson so far. It feels great to see how much you can actually remember and put-together by the end of the lesson.
This is the whole principle of these lessons, to repeat and combine what you learnt. The lessons do a great job of building on each other.
The degree of difficulty increases from lesson to lesson, however, you don’t feel exhausted from it, quite the contrary, you feel a personal level of advancement that gives you confidence and motivation to carry on learning.
This feeling of achievement may not immediately make you fluent in Italian, but it will give you the foundation and encouragement you need to keep going.
Other courses with audio lessons
There are a lot of other resources that offer plenty of audio files, such as Rocket Italian, which is
another often recommended learning tool.
However, Pimsleur’s lessons are a bit different, they have a different kind of “call to action” – they ask you to repeat sentences over and over, to make sure you get it.
What’s also different is the fact that Pimsleur brings up things presented previously, “forcing” you to remember and re-verbalize it.
Rocket Italian doesn’t insist so much on repeating. It is explanatory, but not repetitive. One method isn’t necessarily better than the other as students will need both lots of explanations and lots of practice.
Some people may prefer to avoid the explanations altogether or to get the explanations from other sources, such as a textbook or a teacher. Alternatively, as you advance past the beginner level, it may be worth considering Glossika as a suitable alternative.
The reading booklet isn’t sufficient
The reading booklet is a pdf document file that contains words and phrases mentioned in the audio lessons.
There are usually two audio files that come with it, where the speaker asks you to open the booklet and read out loud the words or phrases from the document.
You are also reminded of the correct pronunciation of them. This is just to reinforce what you heard in the audio lesson and to give you the chance to repeat and solidify your knowledge.
While it’s nice to see them move beyond strictly audio-based content, the reading sections do feel a bit incomplete compared to the rest of the course.
A few complaints
The lessons and dialogue often focus on very formal language.
Pimsleur is definitely a bit old-fashioned and this is reflected in the fact that their lessons focus more on the formal version of “you.” While it’s never bad to be polite, such formal ways of speaking can be out of place in some scenarios.
The dialogues, which are for the most part still relevant, can feel a bit outdated at times.
They also don’t necessarily fit what you personally need to know. This isn’t a unique problem with Pimsleur – most language learning platforms will end up teaching some things that you’ll not likely need to know.
Most language learners aren’t men on a business trip, but that’s exactly who Pimsleur was designed for.
You won’t learn enough words despite spending a long time using Pimsleur.
While it’s great that they drill these words and phrases and force you to produce them with prompts, the fact is, that even after using Pimsleur for awhile, your vocabulary will still be quite limited.
If you use Pimsleur as your sole resource, this can be a problem. After all, knowing the meanings of lots of words is one of the most important parts of learning a language.
Another problem that isn’t unique to Pimsleur is that to really learn Italian, you’ll need to take what you’ve learned and apply it in real conversations. It’s also helpful to get feedback on your pronunciation. italki is excellent for this. You can find skilled and committed teachers for less than $10 per hour.
Pimsleur is expensive, but you can save ~50% by using Audible
Pimsleur isn’t cheap, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be prohibitively expensive.
When buying directly from Pimsleur, there are a few different options to choose from – depending on how many lessons you want and in which format. All packages are a one-time purchase.
Here is a list of available lessons and their pricing:
- Buy the complete course
- $575 for the software
- $550 for MP3s
- $1190 for CDs —-> What?!? I don’t understand why CDs are so expensive. My best guess is that it’s a way to make more money from old people who don’t understand what an MP3 is.
- 30 lessons plan
- $150 for the software
- $119.95 for MP3s
- $345 for CDs (that’s some expensive plastic)
- 5 lessons plan
- only available for MP3s – $21.95
4. Audible Subscription – Full Course for Half the Price
- Using Audible will actually be quite a bit cheaper than purchasing directly from Pimsleur. First, you can get two free audiobooks with a free trial of Audible. This could be Italian 1 – Lessons 1-5 and Lessons 6-10.
- Next, if you want to continue, you could subscribe to Audible. There are different subscription plans below
|Plan||Cost||# of Credits|
|Gold Monthly||$14.95 per month||1 per month|
|Platinum Monthly||$22.95 per month||2 per month|
|Gold Annual||$149.50 per year||12 per year|
|Platinum Annual||$229.50 per year||24 per year|
- Given there are 150 total lessons divided between Italian 1 – Italian 5. Each level contains 5 units of 6 lessons. So for example, you can get Italian 1 – lesson 1-5, then 6-10, then 11-15 and so on. This comes to a total of 30 separate lesson packages. With the free-trial and the Platinum annual plan, you’ll have enough credits to cover 26 of the 30 total lessons for $229.50. The final four units could be purchased individually or with two additional months of a Platinum subscription. This would bring the total cost of Italian 1-5 to $275.40 compared to the original price of $550 – basically 50% off the total cost!
5. Check your library!
- Given Pimsleur’s popularity and age, lots of libraries have copies available that you can check out for free. There’s no need to pay for something that’s available for free.
While Pimsleur isn’t perfect, I haven’t experienced a better way to stimulate the speaking process while starting to learn a new language.
By constantly being asked to repeat words and phrases, and forcing you to recall what you’ve learned, you’ll make real progress. The way the program is built the learner gets confident and comfortable in starting to speak and it doesn’t take a lot to get there!
The lessons are very fluid, if you pay a bit of attention to it it’s impossible not to memorize information.
Pimsleur will not be a magic bullet that makes you fluent simply by listening to the program. You’ll have to be active in the learning process. Having said that, the program definitely works and will get you speaking Italian rather quickly.
The weaknesses of the program, such as a limited vocabulary, or high price tag can be overcome by supplementing your studies with other resources and looking for alternative methods to gain access to Pimsleur.
It’s not perfect and it’s not for everyone either. But, it will give you a solid foundation to build upon and guide you in the early stage of learning Italian.