The Problem With Pimsleur

The marketing teams of long-term self-improvement projects (diets / weight loss and language acquisition, namely) have an incredible advantage over the poor public. Namely, their products can promise the world on the assumption that so few consumers will actually follow-through with their regimen that results become meaningless. You didn’t lose weight? Oh, well did you cheat on your diet? Then it’s your fault, not ours.

In the case of Pimsleur language audio classes, I can’t expect that all too many people took their class every day, for 30 minutes a day, for the (30×5=150) one hundred and fifty days of instruction “near fluency” would take. Well, I did. And, being unsatisfied, I waited a few months and did the entire thing again. And I couldn’t possibly be more frustrated with the experience – especially because it sounded perfect. I drive a lot, and an audio-only, 30-minutes a day, class sounded like exactly what I needed.

Some background: I took two years of Mandarin Chinese in college, spent a very lonely semester studying abroad in Taiwan, and gave up on learning Chinese. Then, about three years later, I decided to re-commit myself to learning the language. I liked the challenge. Before going to the gym, every day, I would walk around my park for 30 minutes, speaking out loud and following every bloody instruction the Pimsleur folks gave me. About halfway through the course, I began having serious doubts about their “methodology,” but I persevered. I trusted and kept with it. What a mistake.

Allow me to start with the simplest example of all unplanned, I actually got a job in Shanghai shortly after finishing the Pimsleur course. I was thrilled – a chance to become fluent! Within a day of living in China, I realized that the most common greeting was *not* “ni hao ma?” (Are you good?) as I had been taught, but actually the colloquial “ni chi le ma?” (have you eaten?). Now, our audiobook overlords had individually taught me each of these words; they’re all very basic, but they never once introduced them as a sequence of greeting. In other words, the program ill-suited me for the cognitive structure of daily conversation.  To draw a connection: if an English language program, with a focus on US American English, purported to teach you “near fluency,” they should introduce the greeting “what’s up?” at some point in their curriculum. Separately teaching the words “what” and “is” and “up” would not suffice.

This is a minor quibble, however, in contrast to the unthinking, unplanned, and poorly executed plan of study the course presents. In particular, I have the following issues:

1) Starting at around Unit 3 (of 5), the vocabulary and grammar stops building on itself. Instead, every 2-3 sequential courses reference each other, then the relevant vocabulary is rarely ever again brought up or discussed. What’s the point of learning the word for “hotel” in unit 3 (slightly before midway in the program) when it’s so rarely used for the next 75 sessions?  You’ll learn the words for “pants” and “warm” and “elevator” and even “sashimi” and “environment,” but they will only be used for 30-90 minutes (1-3 lessons), then discarded. The program never tried to re-introduce the vocabulary at irregular intervals to keep the brain sharp.

2) Likewise, by unit 3, the program could and should have been entirely in Chinese. An American voice saying “now say” or “in this section” or “the word for” or “please repeat” could and should have been entirely in Mandarin. There’s absolutely no excuse for forcing the brain to think in English while trying to make it absorb Chinese.

3) If they had any sense, they’d have switched up the voice actors every few lessons, and the speakers in units 4-5 should have been someone other than eloquent 20-year-olds. Older people in China have different intonations, patters of speaking, and verbal tics than do young professionals (as I’m sure is the case across the world), and maintaining perfectly elocuted vocabulary with trained actors does nothing to help the listener prepare for the real world. 

4) Perhaps it’s integral to the much-touted “Pimsleur Methodology,” but never once switching up the patter of presentation seems to be a serious drawback. Each lesson starts with a minor dialogue session, but offering dialogue throughout the lesson, at irregular intervals, would help engage the brain more directly. It would also offer opportunities for older vocabulary words to re-appear. Likewise, it would foster one of the most basic skills required for conversational communication: a practice in context clues to decipher meaning.

5) In my experience, the key formula for learning is basic: stress + rest = growth. By mandating a 7-day a week schedule, instead of something like 6 days a week, the brain isn’t given time to absorb the information.

6) No reasonable person could argue that the entire language is covered in 5 units; they need at least 7, possibly more. Promising linguistic competency, and then stopping the program objectively short of that goal, is little more than fraud.

I invested significant amounts of money into the Pimsleur program, and while it was a helpful supplement, I urge you to avoid the mistakes I did and invest your time and energy elsewhere. (Where? If I knew, I’d tell you!)