I've had my experiences with the Pimsleur Language Program myself - it was one of the first courses I took in my journey as a Portuguese speaker, and then again as an Italian speaker. This is in no small part due to how the way it was marketed to me back then: the underlying premise of becoming fluent in a few months' time in just 30 minutes a day of daily practice.
Well, 5 multilingual jobs after and a career as a freelance translator and writer 8 years after I took the entire Pimsleur Portuguese course, and around 5 years after I took the same course for Italian, I've come to a decision as to whether the Pimsleur method works or otherwise. But that's beside the point - I'm not here to flog the course and say it is the answer to all your language learning prayers. Because it isn't.
Far too often, in the world of language learning, you'll find aggressive marketing campaigns designed to reap the maximum benefits from product endorsements and other marketing methods - which tends to tilt the scales towards a particular product, or against it. And frankly, I'm sick and tired of it. And that's what I'm here for - to provide you a background on whether the Pimsleur method is right for you before you shell any hard-earned money out.
Hopefully after this discussion you'll come closer to a decision to whether it is what you need for your language learning journey - or if it isn't the right course for you.
That being said, the Pimsleur Language Programs are among the most well-regarded language courses out there in the market today, and that's not just hype - and not just because it's been endorsed by polyglot bloggers the world over. Much of it has to do with its pedigree from one of the world's foremost linguists - Dr. Paul Pimsleur himself.
Personally, I used to have a hard time with listening comprehension and pronunciation, which is a common lament among language learners starting out - especially if you're the type who learns primarily in a self-directed, autodidactic manner. And Pimsleur did wonders for me in this particular aspect of language learning.
Will it do the same for you? Well, as always, it depends - and we're just about to find out whether it is in the following sections.
A Brief Background on Dr. Paul Pimsleur and the Pimsleur Language Programs
The Pimsleur Language Programs were named after Dr. Paul Pimsleur, linguist extraordinaire, who started out with the first program of its kind back in 1963 - starting with French, Greek, Spanish, German, and Twi (!). These were audio-based, self-directed programs that only required the learner to follow a strict regimen of doing one 30-minute lesson per day and only progressing to the next lesson only when reaching a certain threshold of being able to answer and follow the course correctly. That's quite a heavy pedigree, huh? Your Rosetta Stone, Babbel, and Rocket Languages are but mere lightweights compared to the historical pedigree that the Pimsleur Language Programs have, being in use for over 50 years. Hey, if it's been around for 50 years and still relevant and in use today, it means they must be doing something right.
How Does the Pimsleur Method Work?
Simply put, the Pimsleur Method works through four core principles. First, as the course itself says, the principle of anticipation - it's not like your garden variety audio course where all you need to do is mindlessly repeat whatever the course tells you to, but rather to stimulate your brain's language center to fire and find a way to say the phrase that is being asked of you. You can't mindlessly and absent-mindedly just listen to it and repeat it without thinking - rather, this approach forces you to think on your feet and to be actively listening all throughout the lesson.
Second, it works with spaced interval repetition - that is, certain set intervals wherein something learned will quickly vanish from your thought and discarded by the brain as unnecessary knowledge unless you repeat or think about it; this is based directly on Dr. Pimsleur's own theories on language acquisition. This will ensure that you retain the vocabulary you are thought before they lapse into your mind's purgatory.
Third, it works by combining grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary through its audio courses - especially through your listening. After all, we acquire language mainly through listening - how many of us have acquired our English from watching TV shows, or by listening to our teachers and parents? Pimsleur asserts that based on these examples, you yourself can learn a totally foreign language even as adults. It's a course that's meant to be completed, and as part of a broader language learning regimen, one that you don't just do for a couple of weeks in preparation for a business trip.
Lastly, the Pimsleur method aims to build your core vocabulary - that is, the most common words a person uses everyday. Yes, you may know all sorts of esoteric words or archaic phrases, but in the final accounting, much of what we say in our day-to-day lives revolves around a certain set of words we repeat. Instead of learning how to say, "the cat is white" or "the man drinks", you get to learn practical, applicable vocabulary you could use right away, instead wasting your time on vocabulary you'll never use.
How is the Coursework Structured?
Being a course that has been an ongoing work for over 50 years, you could expect a rigid structure to follow. Each language course is broken down into three levels, 30 30-minute lessons each, which are meant to be taken once a day in order for you to get the most out of the benefits of the course. You are tasked to listen to actively listen to a native speaker pronounce phrases and sentences in the language you are learning, usually in the context of a situation or a dialogue, which is then followed by its translation in English. You are then supposed to repeat what the native speaker just said, and/or answer any questions the facilitator asks of you. Take note however - you are only to move on to the next lesson if and only if you can respond to questions and answer them as quickly as possible to 80% of the lesson content. You have to be honest with yourself in this regard, otherwise you will miss out on the benefits of the coursework. Several other language courses have used this method, but Pimsleur undoubtedly has it down the best - it seeks to build your working vocabulary as fast as possible. The key is not to give up so easily - you will find your confidence growing as you take the course, and it should do your pronunciation wonders.
What Languages are on Offer?
This is where the Pimsleur Language Programs blow their competition out of the water - they offer a staggering 50 languages (64, including the specialized English courses for speakers of foreign languages) for you to learn. That in itself is amazing - they aren't just limited to generic Arabic courses, for instance - they offer Egyptian Arabic, Standard Arabic, and Easter Arabic. They offer Eastern Armenian and Western Armenian. Eastern European languages. Middle Eastern languages. Semitic languages. Creole. Romance languages. Afro-Asiatic languages. No matter how exotic your taste is for languages (and we all know you can't learn just one), Pimsleur has it for you.
* Unmatched ease of learning: The premise is simple - all you need to do is to actively listen for 30 minutes a day. You can work on your French in preparation to migrate for 30 minutes a day on the treadmill or on your commute. On your flight or on your lunch break. The possibilities are endless when you can simply sync the lessons on your smartphone.
* Efficient 30-minute lessons: You don't have to spend hours on end staring at a computer screen clicking on various bells, whistles, and widgets - Pimsleur Language Programs are aimed to maximize the 30 minute daily courses you will be taking. More killer, less filler.
* Impressive focus on vocabulary acquisition: If you're only planning to learn a language just for the sole purpose of being a tourist, this course is not for you - this course is meant to be taken up by serious language learners who want to understand how everyday language in the target language works, and it does an impressive job of supplementing your learning.
* Expect your pronunciation to improve by leaps and bounds: I agree with this wholeheartedly - if you learn something from the Pimsleur language courses at all, improve your listening and your pronunciation with it. This cannot be stressed enough - you can be a grammar whiz who can read complex contracts, but it will all be for naught if you can't speak or be understood in the target language.
* Training in the formal language: Pimsleur prepares you to deal with everyday situations you would encounter, say, living in the country where your target language is spoken. That being said, you will learn how to speak formally and politely, which always help especially if you are learning a language for more serious matters such as business or work. This could be a good or a bad thing, but it is almost certainly a good thing for beginners to start with.
* Grammar is studied as you learn to speak the language: There isn't too much focus given to hard and fast grammar rules - they are glossed over on to give the learner an overview, but those expecting to learn the nitty gritty of verb forms and sentence construction will be severely disappointed, as it is a course meant to improve your listening and conversational skills.
* Gets tedious after a while: Take it from me - I've done the Pimsleur Portuguese and Italian programs myself. It DOES get tedious after a while, especially considering that the dialogues do not differ much from course to course. Not for learners who can't stand doing nothing else but actively listen for 30 minutes everyday, which isn't a rarity in this social media fueled world we all live in today.
* No focus on writing or reading comprehension skills: This will probably be the biggest drawback this course has, as there is little to no content that will help your writing skills, and its reading supplements are rather lightweight compared to other courses. This is primarily the reason why learners who prefer a visual style of learning will have a problem with the course in general - as a tradeoff for the listening comprehension and conversational skills you should be able to improve.
* Course content differs with more exotic languages: This is understandable considering the number of courses that Pimsleur offers, but is nonetheless a downer - but not a dealbreaker. We can understand why there is much more content for its Spanish course than for its Swahili course, which should be a concern for learners or linguists who want to take up a lesser-known language. But in the end, at least they offer it!
In the final accounting, the Pimsleur Language Programs are a great course to take - if only to improve your speaking and listening skills. Because these are skills that aren't given enough attention to by language learners in general, and is far too lacking in other programs of its ilk. Granted, you shouldn't expect to be truly fluent after completing an entire Pimsleur language course, but you should come out of the experience (or ordeal) with much better diction and pronunciation than when you started - and that is worth its weight in gold, and the price tag it comes with. I suggest everyone who is serious about getting far in a language to take this course at least once in their journey, and then apply what you have learned through good old language exchanges on networks like italki or busuu. It doesn't work if you don't do it in real life! Highly recommended.