I`m quite familar with Pimsleur audio courses, and feel well-qualified to share my opinion on them. In a nutshell: they`re mostly great but they cost an arm and a leg . Almost literally. Well, not really. But they cost a lot. If you buy the CD version, it costs about $350 per level. A typical course for major languages has 3 levels (some have 4 or 5), so you can easily spend over $1000. These days they have downloadable mp3s which can save you over half the purchase price, but it`s still a lot.
But that`s common knowledge so I won`t dwell on it. Below you can see a video of me talking about Pimsleur with a focus on Pimsleur French (though really everything I say applies to all courses). I edited that video to death because it was 30 minutes long at first. So here I`ll just outline what`s in the video and focus more on a couple points that I edited out of the video but are still important.
- Pimsleur teaches you the phonology of the language (very important at the beginning)
- It teaches and drills the basic sentence structure
- It uses graduated intervals (ie. Spaced repetitions) to aid internalization
- It has a lot of repetition that leads to automaticity (but in a way that isn`t just listen & repeat)
- Pimsleur courses create an overarching visual context for the language you`re learning.
What I mean by the last point is Pimsleur courses are very clever in the way they make use of your visual imagination. The narrator walks you through a number of situations where you are interacting with others, sometimes coaching you on what to say next, but other times giving you contextual information that helps you imagine the scene you are in.
When you have a real experience using language, the language takes on greater meaning than if you had just read it in a book at face value and “understood” it. It becomes encoded using all of your senses, deepening your understanding of the language. Also, it creates an association between the language used, and that situation you were. So the best way to learn is always through experiences with the language. But the next best thing is to vividly imagine while studying, because you can emulate that effect by tricking your brain into thinking it had a real experience. In a tutoring context, roleplays can help with this – and in an audio context Pimsleur does a pretty good job of it.
A lot of programs have short little situations that you imagine, but what I like about the Pimsleur lessons is that you are imagining a situation – or a series of situations linked together in a chain – over the course of the whole 30 minutes, and ultimately over the course of the whole program.
- Audio alone is sometimes not enough, especially when you can`t perceive the sounds on the audio file.
- Many people are expecting to learn more than they actually do (ie. It doesn`t make you fluent).
- A lot of the language learned is unnatural and too limited to apply to a real situation.
The last point is a common complaint that I hear, and have wondered about myself. You go through a number of situations drilling and practicing a lot of language that is limited in complexity, it`s aimed at beginners. So when you are in a real life situation, what you know may not be enough to deal with the situation, and you might not be able to understand what the other person says back to you, because they won`t be speaking with the same “graded language” that you learn on the CD.
The is a real concern, but it`s an issue with all materials aimed at beginners. You have to learn basics before you can have advanced level interactions. That`s unavoidable, but the basic language you use will still be useful in the real life situations. You just need to learn the basics along with adaptability, and you need experience using the language in an uncontrolled context so you don`t freak out when you don`t understand. How do you do that?
Pimsleur is great, but you need to supplement Pimsleur with other materials and learning experiences. Above I mentioned that you need to get experience from the start using the language in an uncontrolled environment, which you can do through conversational tutoring, or having a language partner, or going out and experimenting with the language.
It`s important to build the skills necessary to get past language barriers and figure out how to communicate and get things done. When you don`t understand, how do you clarify? If you want to know how to say something, how do you ask? When the other person says something that sounds to you like JDFHSDJHFSJ;LSKLIIJKKDJFKDH, how can you keep yourself together? When you hear a phrase that sounds kind of like one you`ve learned, but has some different sounds in it, should you just guess the meaning or should you ask what it means? When you forget a word, how can you paraphrase it so you keep on communicating?
These are the kinds of things that you naturally learn when you get experience in uncontrolled situations, but will freak you out if you have finished 5 levels of Pimsleur and never had an uncontrolled conversation. Even though what you learned with Pimsleur is valuable, because you are thrown way more out of your comfort zone than you ever were with Pimsleur, you may look back on it as useless. So ideally you should get experience speaking the language in real situations concurrently with using Pimsleur. In today`s age of the internet, this is easier than ever.
I also recommend that you study with visual materials concurrently with using Pimsleur (not during your Pimsleur lessons, but during the same time period). Because the auditory and visual systems feed information to each other and you can`t use one optimally without using the other. Some people argue that babies don`t use visual materials, so neither should we. But as soon as we start reading at around age 4 or 5, we begin taking in a huge amount of information through our visual modality. That`s a topic I`ll take on another time, but for now I`ll just say: Pimsleur is great but you should supplement it with other things to get a fully-rounded basic in the language.