The Pimsleur Language Learning System

Several decades ago, an applied linguistics researcher named Paul Pimsleur designed a unique and highly effective language program. Called the “Pimsleur Language Learning System”, the program took a user from a pure novice level, to a level of basic conversational fluency. Each language generally features three levels, with an easily noticeable progression in difficulty as the course goes on. The program is indeed quite effective, but it is also quite pricey. This guide is going to give you some advice on how to get the absolute most out of the program, as well as explain and review it’s advantages and disadvantages.


The claim is that Pimsleur will bring you to fluency in the target language. This is somewhat misleading, though it is true in a certain context. What Pimsleur will essentially do is (1) develop your aural comprehension to a level where you can understand fluent speech fairly well and (2) develop your ability to have a fluent, albeit relatively simple, conversation.

Aural comprehension is developed through repeated hearing exposure to the language; the fact that the program is entirely audio helps this. As the courses progress, the speech you are listening to will come closer and closer to a realistic and fluent speed, and if you pace yourself well through the lessons you will rarely find it too difficult to keep up. After finishing the course, you certainly will need more experience with listening, but your understanding of the accent, the seperation of words, and the sound of words will be particularly good.

The ability to have a fluent conversation is not the same as the traditional meaning of “fluent”. A fluent speaker of a language is estimated to know somewhere around 4000-5000 words, though a high level of comprehension comes at around 2500 words. Pimsleur’s first problem is that it does not teach nearly enough vocabulary. You’ll learn all of the survival words, and then some, but if you wish to be precise or delve into any level of complexity, you’ll need several outside sources. To get to the point here, what you will get from Pimsleur is the ability to fluently discuss the ‘basics’ of everyday life. For instance, in a restaurant you would be well-equiped to handle all of the formalities. You could order, have small talk with your friend, and so on, but once the conversation moved beyond the realm of simplistic chatting, you would find difficulty.


My favorite aspect of Pimsleur is that although it boasts a ‘natural’ method (ie. learn in the same manner that you learned as a baby), it does not ignore the fact that it’s users are no longer babies. Although grammatical explanations are not in depth, you will have new concepts and grammatical changes explained to you. For instance, in the German course you’ll hear an (initially) odd word “einen”. Until it’s first use, we had only been exposed to “ein” and “eine”. When we hear this new word, we aren’t expected to just “absorb” its usage, such as in the Rosetta Stone program, but rather we are given a brief explanation of the -en change that masculine articles undergo as direct objects. You won’t find words such as “Nominative Case”, “Accusative Case”, etc., but you will find a practical explanation of any grammar.

Another excellent aspect of Pimsleur is that it is perhaps one of the best introductions to a language. Finding an “entry point” to a complex language can seem like quite a task, but the benefit on Pimsleur is that it’s a very well-paced and easy-to-follow course. Once you complete the course, you’ll have a practical understanding of grammar (and this goes back to the “natural method” idealogy) as it has been relayed to you through ~900 hours of lessons. From here, your main task will be finding a detailed explanation of the grammar, and doubling (ideally tripling) your relatively tiny vocabulary.


Pimsleur has a few relatively minor disadvantages, but they are amplified by an extraneous problem: the price. The first disadvantage has already been mentioned, and that is the limited vocabulary. The vocabulary that you do learn is learned quite well, but for a program that boasts fluency, it is lacking quite a bit. The other problem is the lack of reading material. There is a reading workbook, though it is so painfully simple that they should have just left it out. Reading is a valuable, and ultimately necessary for a fluent user of a language, and it can also clarify the differences between similar words. With a language such as Chinese or Arabic, a reading unit may prove to confuse the user, but with the majority of languages written in Western script, it is useful.

These issues aren’t particularly bad on their own, but the pricing of the program amplifies the damage of the problems. An entire course (I-III) will ultimately cost about 500 or more dollars, and that’s at a good price. For such a large price, one should hope to leave the program and not feel as though they must rush out for a dictionary. One should be able to finish the program and have a more thorough understanding of the written language. And heck, one should leave the program and be able to go into some appreciable level of depth on at least some topics!

How You Can Get The Most From Pimsleur

*This is the most important part of this article, so pay attention well. Here is my method for using Pimsleur in the most effective manner possible.

Don’t begin with Pimsleur. Although Pimsleur is designed for the pure beginner, you will gain more from it if you get even the mildest introduction to the target language. Become familiar with some common words, take a look at sentence structure and grammar, and then get started.

Don’t use Pimsleur alone. Tying into the previous piece of advice, it is very important that you supplement Pimsleur with something additional. Generally a good time to begin supplementing is when you’re 2/3rds of the way through the first level. Start learning in mild-moderate detail how the grammar works, and if possible look for fairly basic readings.

-Don’t buy Pimsleur. At least, don’t buy it without trying it out for free. Most libraries hold copies of these courses, and I highly advise borrowing at least the first level from a library.

Don’t stop with Pimsleur. Although making it through all three levels will put you ahead of most students of a language, you need to appreciate that your level is still that of a relative beginner. A dictionary needs to be one of your first priorities, and you need to be resourceful. The internet itself is an almost endless library of information, and it’s invaluable in regards to language.

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