If you want to learn how to speak and understand a new language, Simon & Schuster’s Pimsleur is one of the best language-learning programs. Pimsleur gets in your head and stays there. It teaches pronunciation and listening like nothing else and the program has a stickiness that many competitors lack. With Pimsleur, you get your pick of 50 languages. There are programs for learning English, too. While it started out as an audio-only learning program on cassette, Pimsleur has come a long way in the last few years to build out its online offerings, including a version with interactive exercises for select languages.
However, you look at it; the core content is undeniably strong. It is especially good if you want your pronunciation to be spot on. Pimsleur is a top choice for language learners. To get a complete language learning experience, we recommend pairing it with one of our Editors’ Choices, Rosetta Stone ($36 for three months) or Duolingo (free). Those programs are better at teaching reading, writing, spelling, and grammar.
If you need to learn a language, there is a good chance Pimsleur offers it. There are 50 languages to learn with Pimsleur (listed below) for people whose language of instruction is English. The counts are bolstered by different dialects, such as European Spanish and Latin American Spanish separately, as they sell as different courses.
Pimsleur offers Albanian, Arabic (Eastern, Egyptian, and Modern Standard), Armenian (Eastern and Western), Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dari Persian, Dutch, Farsi Persian, Finnish, French, German (German and Swiss), Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish (Latin American and European), Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Twi, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
Additionally, there are English programs for speakers of 14 languages. English lessons are available with instruction in Arabic, Cantonese Chinese, Mandarin Chinese, Farsi Persian, French, German, Haitian, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.
If Pimsleur does not offer the language you need, try Transparent Language or Mango Languages. Transparent is best for people who are highly self-directed and can make their own way through the nonlinear program. Mango is not great by any stretch, but it offers quite a few languages that are considered boutique.
How to Get Pimsleur
You can get the Pimsleur language-learning program in several ways.
First, you can get online access to Pimsleur as a per-language subscription. You can download the free Pimsleur app for Android or Apple mobile devices and purchase a program through the app. Alternatively, you can purchase the same program from a web browser. Once you have a Pimsleur account and have purchased a language program, you can practice your language via an Amazon Alexa device, although we experienced problems with it in testing.
When you buy Pimsleur in this way, it works like any other online language-learning program in the sense that you can log in to your account from any device, and the app pulls up your course and remembers where you left off. That may sound like a given, but Pimsleur has not always been this up-to-date with its online presence.
The second way to buy Pimsleur is by purchasing MP3s that you can download and own forever. The lessons in the MP3s are the same as the audio lessons in the subscription, or any other way you buy it.
Third, you can buy CDs. Because the program has been around for decades, you can still buy some of the courses on disc, should you want to own something physical.
Fourth, you can often find Pimsleur available free through public libraries. Some libraries offer online access, so you can do your learning from home. Others still have sets of Pimsleur CDs that you can borrow.
The last way you get the program is from Audible.com. If you go this route, you own the Pimsleur program that you purchased in the same way you own any other audiobook that you buy on the platform.
Pricing and Options
Prices for Pimsleur courses vary. Before you buy anything, however, you can and should listen to the first lesson free. There is also a seven-day free trial if you buy Pimsleur as a subscription.
The subscription is the way to go. It costs $14.95 per month for the audio-only version and $19.95 per month for a version that includes interactive exercises (called Pimsleur Premium, available for Mandarin, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Latin American Spanish, and English for Spanish speakers). If you do the audio lessons as prescribed, one per day, you get the most bang for your buck this way. The price is a little high compared with other language learning apps, which tends to be in the range of $10-$13 per month.
Another way to purchase online access is to buy MP3s. These are packaged and sold in the same way that the Pimsleur CDs are. For example, Level 1 contains beginner content in 30 lessons of 30 minutes each. The most in-demand languages have five levels. A single level costs $119.95; generally speaking (some languages vary). However, if you complete one lesson per day as intended, it would only take you a month to get through Level 1. You can see how the subscription fee works out to be a better deal.
The price for CDs varies, too, and they usually are the most expensive, probably because they are not in high demand anymore. Level one Spanish on CD—, which contains the same 30 lessons that you get as the subscription, and the MP3s—costs $345.
Depending on the language, Pimsleur sells other configurations of its lessons, too, but as long as you know that the best value is in the monthly subscription, you really do not need to look through them all.
What Is the Pimsleur Method?
Pimsleur’s main lessons are audio files. If you get Pimsleur Premium, then you also get interactive exercises. The program also usually includes access to PDFs that you can download or booklets that ship with the CDs with a printout of all the words and phrases in each lesson. However, the core program is audio-based. You learn by listening and speaking out loud.
Pimsleur is named for Dr. Paul Pimsleur, an applied linguist who died in 1976. He spent years researching space repetition. Space repetition is a learning process that exposes students to an idea and then waits a predetermined amount of time until they receive the idea again or are asked to recall what they learned. The idea is to find an optimal series of intervals for maximum retention. As a result, the Pimsleur programs have extremely clear instructions. Each day, you are supposed to work through exactly one lesson, and you are supposed to do them all in consecutive order. There are even clear rules about when you should repeat a lesson instead of moving on. This structure gives you a clear vision of what you will be doing, how long it will take, and when you can expect to reach certain milestones, such as the end of a level.
In each program, an English-speaking narrator or instructor gives directions while one or speakers that are more native provide information in the language you are learning. The English-speaking instructor never uses foreign words, but he prompts you and guides you through the lessons.
The secret sauce is in the intervals. In between hearing a word for the first time and being asked to recall it and say it again, you learn other words and phrases. Therefore, when you are asked to remember something is key. You are constantly recalling words and phrases that you learned earlier or in past lessons. As you progress, a few days might go by when seemingly out of the blue the narrator will ask, “How do you say, ‘I would like?'” and you have to pull it from memory, even though you have not been prompted in a while.
It takes maybe five or six lessons to truly get into the swing of Pimsleur. Once you learn how it works, you trust that vocabulary and concepts will repeat a few times, so it is okay if you do not nail it on the first go-around.
The Experience of Using Pimsleur
Ours the most memorable experience was using it to learn enough German to be polite and order food when traveling. It took a few months, but we picked up enough and still remember quite a few words to this day. We tried Pimsleur again most recently for Mandarin Chinese.
The program uses both listen-and-repeat and call-and-response patterns. The call-and-response portions challenge you to think about what you need to say, so you are not just parroting the entire time.
Every lesson opens with a short dialogue. By the end of the lesson, you hear the dialogue again and can now understand it because you spend the majority of the lesson learning the words and phrases that make up the dialogue.
After the dialogue, you get into the heart of Pimsleur. It goes like this. An English-speaking narrator says something like, “Here’s how you say ‘I speak English’ in Mandarin. First, just listen.” Then you hear a native speaker say the phrase a few times. The narrator follows up with, “Now listen and repeat,” and the native speaker goes syllable by syllable through the word or phrase, eventually saying the whole thing several times with pauses in between so you can repeat it. Finally, the narrator says, “How do you say, ‘I speak English’ in Mandarin?” and a pause indicates you should say it aloud. That is how it goes when you are learning new words.
Later, the lessons get a bit more complicated, but the basic setup remains the same. Words, phrases, and grammatical constructs you learn in the early lessons pop again later. Everything that you learn comes back again. The more times you repeat something, the longer the interval until it resurfaces.
In the early lessons, you spend a lot of time breaking phrases and words into sounds. Pimsleur talks you through the sounds very slowly, getting you to master the right basic sounds.
What we like about this method is that there is no chance we could be tripped up by looking at letters and sounding them out as if they were English. For example, a Spanish ‘v’ does not sound at all like an English ‘v.’ Without seeing the letters, there’s no way to get confused.
With Chinese, the English-speaking instructor tells you to notice rising and falling tones as well as different pitches, but you do not get extensive lessons on all the tones up front. Rather, you get a short interjection explaining that tones are important, and that you should make your pronunciation sound just like the native speakers’. From time to time, the instructor adds new information about tones, but you never diverge from the core lesson to get a deep dive on tones.
Where Can You Do Pimsleur Lessons?
We took to Pimsleur easily, perhaps because audio-oriented. We listen to many podcasts, and so it is already fairly routine for us to find 30 minutes per day when we can listen to a lesson and speak aloud while doing so. That said, you do need to focus your attention on the lesson.
You can do it while commuting, walking a dog, cooking, folding laundry, or any other time and place that works for you. As long as you can really focus on the audio, you can do it anywhere. It is possible to download the files so you can play them offline, so you do not even need an internet connection to study. There is even a driving mode in the mobile app that simplifies what is on screen so that you only see a few buttons, like pause and skip forward/backward. While some people can focus intently on audio while driving, please do not use Pimsleur while driving if it will distract you from the road.
Unless you specifically sign up for Pimsleur Premium, you do not get interactive exercises. That is in part why we recommend pairing Pimsleur with another app, such as Duolingo or Rosetta Stone. Keep in mind that your lessons across the two apps will not run in parallel. Therefore, you might learn different words and principles of grammar in one app but not the other. Regardless, using two apps will allow you to develop proper pronunciation through Pimsleur, and learn reading, writing, spelling, and grammar more formally with the other.
As mentioned, Pimsleur provides free PDFs and booklets with its audio courses. They are largely optional. If you skip them, you do not miss anything you need to go through all the core lessons in your level.
If you do use them, you can listen to a companion audio file that coaches you through the material. In the Chinese course, for example, you see both pinyin and Chinese characters for individual sounds and later full words. The audio files remind you how to pronounce words as you read them and study their forms. This part of the course is much more self-directed than the rest of it.
Should You Study With Pimsleur?
Ours personal learning style favors audio, which may explain why get along so well with Pimsleur. We like being able to learn anywhere with my phone and a pair of earbuds. Pimsleur fits lifestyle easily. Also like that, the program tells you exactly how much language learning you should do every day and when to repeat a lesson. The expectations are super clear. Some other programs do not provide a regimen, and you are left deciding for yourself how much time to put in.
Pimsleur’s content is stellar and memorable. If you do not mind that most courses are not interactive (except for Pimsleur Premium), then it is a wonderful way to learn. To get a little more interaction, try adding Duolingo or Rosetta Stone to your learning routine. If you do not like Rosetta Stone’s style, look at Fluenz, an interactive program that shares some similarities with Rosetta Stone but uses a completely different teaching approach.
Excellent for learning to speak and understand spoken languages
Programs for 50 languages, plus ESL courses
A primarily audio-based service, with PDFs; doesn’t teach reading or writing
Digital version with interactive exercises only covers eight languages