Many people including me have used the Pimsleur language program to learn a foreign language. Here I am going to give you my super-definitive, 1300+ word review of the Pimsleur Spanish program, and by the end of it, you will have a good idea of what to expect.
Why I Am Uniquely Qualified
In 2010, I completed the entire Pimsleur Spanish series with little to no Spanish background whatsoever. Shortly after I finished the program, I traveled to Colombia where I attempted to communicate with natives. This provides me with a unique perspective because I experienced first-hand how well the program prepares you to speak and understand Spanish in a foreign country. Pimsleur was one of the primary programs I used for Spanish acquisition (the other was LiveMocha), so I am in a good position to tell you how far it may take you towards learning your foreign language.
In summary, I in no way attained fluency through the Pimsleur Program. I did, however, attain a certain degree of functionality in the language that served as a good base for proper pronunciation and for survival when I finally got on the ground.
What Pimsleur Spanish Is
The Pimsleur program consists of 90 audio recordings that are each about 25-30 minutes long. The idea with the programs is to listen to a native speaker of Spanish for proper pronunciation, and to respond to the questions asked in the recording.
The program uses graduated memory recall, which is a method of recalling new Spanish words and expressions in different intervals. This makes learning the new words easier and more fluid than simply staring at a list of words.
The audio exercises involve listening and repeating after a native Spanish speaker, and then trying to respond appropriately in Spanish when prompted. The complete Pimsleur program also comes with a reading booklet with short reading exercises to enhance your pronunciation of written Spanish and train your reading skills.
At several hundred dollars ($USD), the program is very pricey for Levels I, II, and III. As an alternative, you can most likely find it at your local public library if you live in the US. And you can probably find it to download illegally from the internet.
What Is Good About Pimsleur Spanish
One thing I liked about the Pimsleur Spanish program is the ability to hear a native speaker’s voice repeat things over and over. Especially early on in the program, I focused on pronunciation (as directed). As a result, I have a fairly good accent in Spanish and have subsequently been complimented on numerous occasions by Colombians on my accent… Very often they cannot tell I am from the US, and a few times I have even convinced people (temporarily) that I am from Colombia.
As a side-effect, when I now hear Americans speaking Spanish with a terrible Gringo accent speaking Spanish, I almost feel like I am going to explode. I literally feel like my Spanish is getting worse as I listen to the terrible way they say their Rs– for goodness sake, tap the R, don’t round it off!!
So, Pimsleur is a really great way to develop a good accent if you work at it. Think about it… If you were going to develop the accent solely by practicing with natives, you would have to ask them to repeat a sound over and over again until you repeat it properly. This can get annoying both for the native speaker and for you! It is also very boring, unless of course you are practicing with a significant other…
Truth be told, natives helping you with pronunciation will happen anyway, but you want to learn as many elementary phonetic skills on your own as possible. For example, if you are having trouble saying your “r”s, you might want to think about shutting yourself in your room and practicing the sound until you get it. You might become annoying to people if you keep practicing one sound ad nauseum when you are in a social context.
Another good thing about Pimsleur is that it covers some of the most common areas of traveling in a foreign country, like how to order food at a restaurant, how to ask for directions, how to arrange to rent a car, how to count money, etc. This makes it much simpler to understand once you arrive in your destination.
I had to adjust some of these phrases when I made it to Colombia, however. For example, in the program you are taught “la especialidad de la casa” is how to ask for the special in the restaurant; and while there is nothing too terribly wrong with that expression, the expression more used in Colombia was “el menú del día“, or the menu of the day. Also, as another example, more people in Colombia have used the word “carro” for car than “coche.”
Over all though, I was happy that I had learned some functional vocabulary– much better than long boring vocabulary lists which contain words you may or may not use. Rest assured that once you arrive in the country you will use the majority of words you learn in the Pimsleur program.
Also, the Pimsleur program thankfully did not steer clear of irregular verbs. Some of the more common irregulars (tener, decir, ir, ser, estar) were all covered, and practicing with these was of very good benefit because they are used so often. (If you know Spanish already, you know what I mean! )
Where Pimsleur Spanish Fails
As far as what it can not do, let me just say with as much clarity as possible:
Going through the Pimsleur program will NOT get you to fluency. Not even close.
I went through every single audio recording from levels I, II, and III at least twice, some more than that, and I was not even close to fluency when I arrived to Colombia. The fact remains that you have to practice with natives, engage with the culture, learn idioms and common phrases, and consume the local media. You have to interact with natives, PRODUCE your own responses, and listen to UNSCRIPTED Spanish.
When I got to Colombia I had a terrible time understanding natives, and I spent a lot of time wishing I had done more interaction with Spanish speakers in the time already gone by. Pimsleur will not get you close to fluency because it provides no real social context for practice, and is still a “program,” separated from your actual life and verbal flow. You need to find native speakers of Spanish to practice with and learn from if you plan to get anywhere near fluent.
A Proper Use Of The Pimsleur Program
Basically, this program is great to have in the absence of practice partners, for the purpose of getting the basics of proper pronunciation and some survival vocabulary. Realistically, it can’t do much more.
As cannot be stated enough, the best way to learn a language is to actually speak to native speakers, and to converse with actual human beings. The Pimsleur program, of course, does not offer human beings, but only recordings. Because of this, it is limited in its usefulness.
Like I said above, however, it remains useful for really good practice for what we might call your “middle time.” You can listen to the recordings while driving, while waiting in line, or while working out. Typically in these places you aren’t conversing with other people anyway, so Pimsleur is a good choice here.
The Final Word
In no way does Pimsleur get you to fluency, but I recommend it because it enables you to practice speaking during times when you don’t have a practice partner, or during times when it would be impractical to have one. It also gives you ready-made practice material so you don’t have to worry about coming up with things to say, which is helpful when you are a complete ignoramus in the language.
In the future, I think my plan will be to crash through Pimsleur in 3 weeks or less to improve pronunciation and gain some survival vocab, but much time beyond that will be better spent elsewhere.