Update: Pimsleur was an important part of my first couple months of learning Spanish. You can see how I did after twelve months of studying the language in my post titled Learn Spanish in a Year – Project Results, which includes a video of me speaking.
At the time of this writing, I’m actively studying Spanish, with the goal of conversational fluency. I’ve been using the Pimsleur Spanish courses for the past few months.
But do they work?
I’ll give my verdict below, but let me give you some background info first.
I studied Spanish for two academic years in high school. My teachers were great and the textbooks were all right, but after two years I couldn’t do anything with the language. Before I started studying again, I couldn’t even remember if I was supposed to say buenas días or buenos días. (It’s buenos días, by the way.)
Recently I started studying Spanish seriously, on my own. I’ve been using some free online courses and doing quite a few things, but one of my main studying activities was going through the Pimsleur courses. I’d usually go through the courses in my car, during my commute to and from work. So far I’ve completed all of Pimsleur Spanish Level 1, all of Level 2, and over half of Level 3. (Update: I’ve finished all of Levels 1, 2, and 3. My final verdict remains the same as what I wrote here.)
The Pimsleur Method
I could go into the details of the Pimsleur approach in depth, but honestly it’s summed up pretty nicely at the Pimsleur website.
Each lesson lasts thirty minutes, and you’re encouraged to complete one a day. Sometimes I’d do two, and sometimes I’d have to skip days altogether.
Basically, with the programs, you start each lesson listening to a short dialogue. Then you’re asked to participate:
- You’re given a prompt to say something in the target language. For example, a narrator might say something like, “How would you say to a close friend, ‘I would like to go with you’?”
- You’d say the answer aloud. In this case, you’d say, “Me gustaria ir contigo.“
- After a pause, a native speaker would say the correct answer, and you’d be able to hear whether you got the answer right. You’d also be able to hear if you pronounced everything correctly.
There’s a reading component, but honestly, the meat of the program is the verbal part I described above.
If you think this sounds kind of like flashcard drills, you’re right. Sometimes it feels like you’re going through a phrasebook and drilling the phrases over and over again. To Pimsleur’s credit, though, it’s a little more sophisticated than that. The program becomes harder as you go along and uses spaced repetition to encourage long-term recall.
Usually, I’m able to do the lessons sequentially without any problem, but once in a while I have trouble with a lesson – usually because of tricky grammar constructions – and I have to repeat it.
This program has plenty going for it:
- It’s entirely verbal. What sets languages apart from, say, computer code is their verbal component. Our brains process and internalize languages via auditory cues. In simpler terms, we “hear” a language’s rhythms and intonations, and that helps us learn it. Pimsleur’s verbal-based approach really takes advantage of this. [Update: I explain this in depth in my book Language Master Key: How to Unlock Your Brain’s Ability to Learn Any Language. You can read about it here.]
- Your pronunciation will improve. The programs are paced in a way that forces you to pay attention to your pronunciation. It’s hard to mess up too bad when you’re hearing yourself against native speakers.
- You’re encouraged to learn grammar intuitively. Some tricky grammar points are explained, but for the most part, you’re coaxed to figure out the grammar on your own. I really feel that picking up the pattern by yourself (and even subconsciously) is
a moreeffective method than learning via grammar text books. It mimics the way we learned grammar as children.
- Lots and lots of repetition. You’ll hear the same things over and over again, which is good for retention.
- Learning in chunks. Rarely will you learn a word by itself. Instead, you’ll usually learn how to say a word as part of a phrase or sentence. If you are in a conversation, you’ll actually be able to use the words you know.
There are some things I’m not crazy about:
- It gets boring. Sometimes, I really had to power through to finish lessons. Repeating the same phrase over and over again might be good for retention, but it’s not a great way to keep my attention.
- It’s slow. I’m not sure, but it feels like you learn 10 new words or phrases a day, and review several others. I feel like this could be ramped up a little, which would speed the learning up.
- It’s a little pricey. You can drop a few hundred bucks on these courses. If you can, check your local library for the Pimsleur courses on CD.
- It has a limited, somewhat odd vocabulary. Since you’re only learning a few new words a day, your vocabulary by the end of the course isn’t great. Also, while levels 1 and 2 focused on somewhat general vocabulary, level 3 seems to be focusing on business Spanish. I mean, business Spanish is useful, but it’s not my main focus.
- I had trouble recalling some things. I did a lot of studying with other materials, and Pimsleur was best at reinforcing materials I had learned via other sources. When I learned something through Pimsleur alone, I had a little trouble recalling it.
Are the Pimsleur Spanish courses worth it?
Yes, absolutely. I’d recommend them to anyone. But Pimsleur is not a panacea. Keep in mind that:
- You will not become fluent after completing Pimsleur Spanish, even levels 1 through 3.
- Alone, it will give you a limited vocabulary.
- It can be dry and a little slow.
But it’s still an excellent tool. In particular, I’d recommend that you use Pimsleur Spanish to:
- Learn how to put together sentences using the words you know
- Improve – even vastly improve – your pronunciation
- Give yourself a way to learn during your commute
- Learn the basic sentences you’ll need to survive in a foreign country
If you want to try out the program without buying the whole enchilada, the first 16 lessons are available at Amazon: Pimsleur Spanish Conversational Course – Level 1 Lessons 1-16 CD: Learn to Speak and Understand Latin American Spanish with Pimsleur Language Programs (English and Spanish Edition)
That’s an affiliate link, meaning I get a commission from Amazon if you buy the product, but that hasn’t influenced my review. I really do think Pimsleur has a lot going for it.