Prior to trying out Pimsleur French for this review I had never used it before but had often heard people swear by the Pimsleur method of learning languages. Upon trying the first lesson, I was immediately disappointed however at the lifeless presentation and overall blandness of the teaching style coupled with the endless repetition. Unfortunately all of the various levels copy the exact same format and consequently, I did not find the lessons very enjoyable or inspiring to follow.
Despite these negative aspects, I do believe though that a beginner would quickly begin to feel comfortable using a number of useful phrases and that their speaking and listening comprehension would improve. The repetitive, boring and uninspiring audio lessons do however make you engage with their approach and you have to pay full attention to the 30-minute lessons to make it work. Consequently, you will retain information better than when using apps such as Memrise or DuoLingo which don’t take up so much mental effort.
While beginners will improve, I am pretty sure that it is impossible to gain fluency or even become an advanced learner through these lessons. This is because the whole method relies on an endless sequence of listen and repeat lessons. This repetition will help you memorise phrases, sentences and particular words but you will never gain an understanding of the grammar and consequently how they can be used in other settings. Reading too takes a backseat in the Pimsleur course and unlike other French language resources, the cultural context barely features.
For the prohibitively expensive price that Pimsleur Levels 1-5 cost; your time and money is best spent elsewhere.
Overall, Pimsleur French has five different levels that slowly build up the learner’s vocabulary, fluency and understanding of the French language. The levels progress gradually in difficulty and each one contains 30 lessons that are about half an hour in length. In total there are around 16 hours of course material per level and Pimsleur suggests doing one half an hour lesson per day. If you did somehow manage to work your way through from Level 1 all the way to the end of the 5th one that would mean you had worked through 76 hours of spoken French practice.
Each lesson and indeed level follows the exact same format and as such, I feel it would take a minor miracle for someone to persevere right through to the end. Unlike other learning platforms that offer more variety when it comes to learning French, Pimsleur is simply a succession of audio lessons and no other learning method is offered. While some may find it beneficial to learn a bit about the culture of the country of the language they are learning or a little bit about the grammar or how to read, for instance, Pimsleur is proud of their method and loudly trumpet how successful it is.
The ‘Pimsleur Method’ is based on anticipation, core vocabulary, active participation, learning in context graduated interval recall and organic learning. So what does this actually mean when it comes to the lessons? Well, it means that as they have come up with an apparently foolproof way to learn a language, no matter how boring and monotonous it is, if you stick with the lessons you will actually learn French. Now while I can see beginners becoming more confident in their speaking and comprehension skills, the tedious lessons may prevent many people from engaging with the material.
So what can you actually expect from the lessons?
Getting started with Pimsleur French Level 1 is really easy. Once you have access to the resources you just simply click play on the MP3 file and within five seconds you’ll be listening to your first French conversation and ready to go.
After the narrators have gone through the conversation in French at a normal speed, an English narrator takes you through a series of short explanations and questions regarding the material. The conversation is broken down into short digestible segments and the audio is slowed down or repeated over and over again to make it clear. There is also an emphasis on pronunciation. Strangely though they sometimes repeat the last syllable of the word first; with pardon, for instance, they keep repeating don, don, don before going on to the par part before it.
The English narrator then asks or tells you to say a word or a phrase in French. The pause following his question is intended for you to speak what you think the appropriate French would be. Following the pause and your spoken answer, the French narrators fill in what the correct answer was. As you have to remember the content that has already been introduced, listen to the narrator’s question in English and possibly also in French and speak what you think the appropriate response is; the lesson makes you engage and think about what you have learnt. In this respect, the lessons are quite good as you really need to be focused on them to progress. Without your full attention, it becomes quite hard to follow what is going on.
While there are some short explanations proffered about the grammar and makeup of the language, the Pimsleur Method dictates that by listening and repeating and recalling the vocabulary already used language learners will certainly progress using this format. The early lessons are very repetitive and they definitely hammer home the vocabulary used. They aren’t the most riveting or entertaining lessons (in fact I would say they are among the most uninspiring I have ever heard) but the sheer amount of repetition means that beginners will probably feel comfortable with some basic phrases quite soon after using the resource.
Although language learners will soon have built up a wide variety of useful phrases and words to draw from, the conversations have a prescribed manner about them and it could be a challenge to know how to use them in other contexts. This is because you are not offered any in-depth analysis of the material. In this respect, the expectation is that through repetition you will learn the grammar, vocabulary and intonation of the language. In addition to the audio lessons, there is a reading booklet that accompanies each Level. This is next to useless however and really the whole focus is on the audio lessons.
Pimsleur slowly introduces new words and phrases and it is really up to the learner to decide when they feel that they are comfortable with the material and ready to move on. The whole onus is on the learner to be dedicated enough to engage with the lessons and pay attention to what is going on. With the recent gamification of language learning, Pimsleur’s approach can feel a bit outdated and unfortunately they do not go out of their way to make the material in any way fun and enjoyable at all.
If you manage to make your way through the first lesson of Level 1 well, there are another 149 lessons awaiting you which progress ever so slowly in difficulty level. You will not have reached fluency by the end however as Pimsleur ascertains that the materials they provide you with will only take you as far as upper intermediate. While the lessons do get harder as they delve into more complicated vocabulary, grammar and sentence structure, the fact that you are paying at least $550 for the five levels means that they should take you a bit further than just high-intermediate.
The lesson format remains the same throughout the five levels with only the complexity of the conversations and the corresponding questions changing in difficulty. The speed increases and the pauses for you to speak are not so long but apart from that, lesson 150 will look very similar to lesson one.
As aforementioned there are massive gaps in the Pimsleur teaching method as grammar, the cultural context, reading and actual conversation practice are barely explored, if at all. Not to mention that on top of all that the method of learning is deadly boring too. The learning approach also only caters to auditory learners and completely disregards how visual learners, for example, might find the material.
The Pimsleur Method attempts to explain away the lack of attention placed on French grammar by reasoning that you learnt your mother tongue’s grammar by simply repeating and mimicking the rules unconsciously until it eventually stuck. This is also the reason why there is so little emphasis placed on learning how to read; we first learnt how to speak out mother tongue and only later learnt how to read it.
While many people will struggle to embrace the Pimsleur learning approach, there are probably just as many who swear by its methods; as always it depends on how you prefer to learn a language. For instance, I myself do not respond well to this type of approach but I know that my father would probably really enjoy the learning method as he likes repetition and audio lessons over visual cues.
Another issue is that the lessons are more geared towards formal settings and while you do get immersed in real-life scenarios, there are other resources that can provide you with a more authentic look at how French is used in the modern world.
In essence, beginners certainly will find that they have quickly built up a range of common vocabulary and useful phrases which they can use. This will help learners to feel confident right at the start of their journey and encourage them to practice even more. The fact that you need to be dedicated and focused to get the most out of the interactive audio lessons is also a plus point; by constantly interacting with the material you will quickly feel comfortable with a number of scenarios in a short space of time.
As one of the most popular language learning resources out there, Pimsleur must be doing something right. The tried and tested approach will help improve your speaking and comprehension skills but you need to know that that will come at the detriment of your reading skills for example. By focusing solely on speaking and listening, however, it does ensure that you will be able to do both of them to quite a good level if you somehow manage to get through the interminable repetition.
For me though the negative sides of Pimsleur outweigh the positive because, even if the audio lessons are very well done and nicely presented, at the end of the day they are quite dull to listen to and make for uninspiring learning. The lifeless monotony of the lessons and the insane prices they are asking for what is an outdated product make it impossible to recommend it as a French language resource.
With so many gaps in what they teach, you would have to use Pimsleur along with a number of other resources to really master French. Consequently using Pimsleur seems nonsensical despite the fact that you will learn how to speak and understand French. This is because you would also have to spend money on how to read, write and actually have conversation practice with real-life people. The high cost to both your wallet and your sanity means that the repetitive lessons are just not worth it.
Plans and Prices
Pimsleur’s payment options are very confusing and almost endless in their variation but they all have two things in common: they are expensive and overpriced. Pimsleur’s reputation precedes it and is possibly the reason why, in the face of such stiff competition, its courses are still so prohibitively expensive despite their outdated learning method.
For people looking to try Pimsleur French before deciding on whether to buy it, you can access the first 30-minute lesson for free on their website. Alternatively, another option is to buy 5 lessons at a time – this will set you back $21.95.
For French Level 1 which consists of 30 language lessons in MP3 format, it costs $119.95 while the CD version of the same lessons costs $345. Each level (so 2, 3, 4 and 5) thereafter costs the same amount for the MP3 or CD versions containing 30 lessons each. Accompanying the MP3s and CDs are a booklet containing what is gone over in the audio lessons. The written material is so sparse it appears as an afterthought and is consequently not really worth having.
To save a bit of cash on the Pimsleur lessons, you can also buy bundles of varying Levels in either MP3 or CD format. For example, the French Levels 1 – 3 containing 90 lessons in MP3 format costs $335 and $695 for the CD version. For the complete course consisting of Levels 1 – 5, it costs $550 and $1190 respectively for the MP3 and CD versions.
On top of all this, there is also the Pimsleur French Levels 1 – 5 Unlimited Software option!
This costs $575 and has a couple of extra features that the normal levels don’t include. It seems like an attempt to modernise the ancient Pimsleur approach as it includes reading lessons, flashcards, 30 ‘speak easy’ conversations and an interactive phrase game among other things. This is an interesting move away from Pimsleur’s previous declarations that their tried and tested learning method was foolproof. Amusingly, thirty high-resolution travel photos are included to ‘inspire and enhance your cultural education’.
Ultimately I can’t recommend any of these options as the lessons are boring, repetitive and don’t actually cover that much content. While beginners will initially progress quite quickly, the course will never help anyone to attain fluency. For such steep prices, French learners are much better off looking elsewhere and, even if it were free, you would still have to use it alongside other resources as so many gaps are left untouched in the Pimsleur Method.
Amazon and Audible
While I myself did not particularly enjoy Pimsleur’s teaching methods, reviews on Amazon are a lot more positive. This may, however, be because they bought a cheaper version of the course from the site rather than from the expensive Pimsleur website! As a tried and tested brand, Pimsleur must be doing something right to still be such a prominent name on the language learning scene.
Another alternative is to access the lessons through an Audible subscription. By signing up for a free trial, you can get the first 10 lessons for free.
If endless repetition sounds like fun to you then Pimsleur French just might be the course you’ve been looking for! While the half-hour lessons do interminably stretch out what in reality is only a short piece of dialogue, you will end up speaking and understanding French to a decent level. By making you engage and interact with the lessons, Pimsleur ensures that you will retain a lot of the information you go over unlike some more modern apps where you spend five minutes on the material and then you’re done.
Despite the fact that you will improve your spoken French and your listening comprehension skills, there are just too many negatives to the Pimsleur approach to be able to recommend it. With no in-depth analysis of grammar or sentence structure you may find it hard to transfer the vocabulary and phrases to other contexts and on top of that, you won’t be able to read or write. As Pimsleur can’t even guarantee that you will progress further than upper intermediate, the boring, dated and uninspiring lessons coupled with the exorbitant prices means that you should look elsewhere to learn French.