Pimsleur Spanish Program: The Definitive Review

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.

Published August 10, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Great review Ryan. Very fair and it gives those wondering about Pimsleur a great understanding of what they will get. And, if available at the local library, how could you not try it out? I used it a bit for Turkish and it was a good start. Not everything by any means, but a good start.

    • Thanks Aaron! Yea, I do think it is a good start, especially for a complete ignoramus in the language, which I was.

      • Kees

        Good review Ryan. I can tell you being trilugual and I’ve gone through most of Pimsleur’s Spanish I,II,III,and IV now, that it will not get you to fluency. It will get you where you can have good basic conversations about nothing specific. The problem is that you still need to learn much more vocabulary and much more tenses with verbs. But having said this, it’s a great way to learn. I can’t really think of a better way to learn the language, unless you live in the country and even then I feel you should have some basis to start off from. Otherwise you’ll just walk around, frustrated that yo won’t understand anyone. However if this course went through maybe Spanish 15 or so, then you would be fluent. So, it’s just not enough to really consider yourself fluent. But you can buy it on eBay, use the CDs and then after having gone through the courses, sell the CDs again and you won’t be out of too much money.

        • Haha yeah, if they made it up to Spanish 15 it would be great! And that’s a great idea about getting it off ebay… There are ways to get programs like these without spending a lot of money.

  • One of my readers analysed Pimsleur out of curiosity and found that their 30 hour program actually amounted to TWELVE MINUTES of non-repeated native-audio. The vast majority of the program is English translations and instructions and over-re-used native audio.

    This to me is comparable to the empty space within an atom; what you’re buying is made up of vast amounts of nothing.

    You will indeed understand those 12 minutes perfectly after the full course, but that’s all you’ll understand and that’s the main reason why you’ll never reach fluency using the course (although I gave other reasons when I checked out and reviewed their Hungarian version).

    But yes, it’s better than nothing, and the advantages you raised are important.
    Good review!

    • 12 minutes! Egats! No wonder it didn’t take me very far… The empty space is definitely not worth the price, but if I can find it in a library, I’d consider using it for a couple of weeks on a future language project.

      Thanks for the comment, Benny!

  • Good point, Adam. I do think Pimsleur helps you to come up with responses and PRODUCE something, rather than just click some pictures. But as I said above, I think it is best to slam through it in a few weeks rather than taking extensive time with it.

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Pingback: How To Learn Spanish Fast | Ryan Goes Abroad()

  • dgish

    I just now clicked on the “Language professors hate him” ad and watched their interminable video. Internet marketing, it seems, banks on the idea that once they’ve consumed a large chunk of your time, you’ll place an order to keep it from being time wasted. Pimsleur’s claims are fantastic and it’s difficult to find reviews that don’t smack of being gamed, so yours was a welcome find. The course does seem to have some value, but I’ll definitely check the library before anything else. Thanks for a great review.

    • Yea, the marketing of language products seems to be really overdone these days… Thanks for reading and taking the time to leave a comment!

  • How’s the Rosetta Stone? This any good?

    • Waste of money in my opinion.

  • Brian

    Ryan- Some of your points on Pimsleur or well taken, but I think some of them definitely miss the mark. I very recently traveled to the Dominican Republic where the majority of the people that live there don’t speak English (Even people that work in the resorts); so Spanish there is very helpful- almost a necessity. I have tried Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur, and I can tell you that Pimsleur is much easier and more useful in terms of being able to learn/speak Spanish- even with locals in a Spanish speaking country. I have only completed the basic Spanish series and I was able to speak enough to get around easily and understand most of the locals (Which means I have only completed 10 lessons; just think what I can do if I complete Spanish levels 1-3- 90 lessons of Pimsleur).

    There are couple of things you mentioned that may be the reason you didn’t find it more effective. You say that you can listen to the CD’s while you workout or while your driving- the Pimsleur program mentions that your definitely not supposed to do this. How can you effectively listen, learn, and speak the lessons if your doing this while driving?- There is no way you can do this and have effective, quality time for the lesson; and really retain what you have learned. Also you mention expecting to be fluent within a short amount of time- this is really unrealistic unless you are really gifted as far as learning a second language; with any software program. Think about it; people in native countries have been speaking Spanish since they could talk- And you expect to be completely fluent with all the nuances and variations of local Spanish speakers? -Does this sound reasonable?; it doesn’t to me. You make some good points in your review, but I think you did not follow the instructions in the course and you seem kind of impatient; learning a language is a journey and a process for most people- it takes time (Except for approx. 5% of the population who are naturals at this; I’m not one of these people).

    • Hey Brian, thanks for the comments. I’m not trying to know all the nuances of the language in a short period of time, but to be functional in the language as fast as possible, i.e. I’m trying to reach basic fluency. I wrote on Fluency vs Proficiency here .

      I’m glad you had a good experience with Pimsleur and Rosetta, but in the first 10 lessons of Pimsleur, I’d estimate there are a maximum of about 250 very basic words and phrases, with only present tense of verbs. It’s very repetitive and they don’t even cover all the numbers. I have a hard time believing you “understand most of the locals”, just from that material alone.

      Nevertheless, good luck on your language learning journey! 🙂

  • Joseph Bradfield

    Wonderful job on the review. Thank you. And I agree. No one “program” makes a person fluent. It’s just not the way language acquisition works. You need to attack a language, using every tool at your disposal. Disregarding the marketing fluff (and who but an ignoramus buys something for its marketing, right?), even Pimsleur’s first 8 CDs helped. How? By instilling confidence that the language is not beyond you. You can do this! — Look. I’ve had to work in villages in northern Quebec a couple times. There was no English. I was lost and frustrated at grocery stores and coffee shops. Everything was French. At my motel, the clerk could help me a little — but even then when I thought he understood me, my card got billed twice for my room (I had already paid online).

    Even though I already speak and read Spanish, it didn’t help. I was completely intimidated by the fast-paced, vowel-y, phlegmy language. But a little into the Pimsleur CDs I started to smile because, yeah, I *can* do this.

    I’m about to start Level III, and at this point, yeah, I’ve gotten impatient. My pronunciation, though, just makes me beam. So now I’ve begun the attack EVERYONE does to learn a language (same way I learned Spanish). I’m broadening vocabulary and phraseology for my areas of necessity (mining and construction) to become professionally proficient. And my accent and pronunciation will continue on from a good, good base.

    Dr. Pimsleur worked from a very simple premise, really: languages are ORAL. The written part is a code to recall the oral language (though I believe after a 1000 years of being a literary language, writing has long since also played a part on shaping the oral language).

    That’s it. It BEGINS with aural proficiency. Then upper level fluency follows.

    As for writing in French? Oh god help me. I think the only solution there will be to read and read and read. (Even though English is no joy for foreigners to match spelling to sound, I had no idea how delicate some of the distinctions could be in French — but that’s a different matter, and *should* come after oral proficiency has taken root).

    Final assessment: I love Pimsleur for what it does — and it does exactly what I expected. But I’m not a fool and I’m not lazy. I never expected a set of CDs to be the end of the process. It’s only a solid entry to it.


    • Well said, Joe! 😀

  • Garret

    I really like the fact you used it and then tested it out by going to a foreign country, that adds authority to your review because not everyone does that and they think their program is good when they haven’t tested it out in real life. Cheers!

    • Thanks!! 🙂

  • verdant autumnal

    I thought Pimsleur was great – it’s expensive, but most libraries should have it. The biggest problem for me was after finishing all of the Pimsleur levels, I was still not able to even follow simple conversations in real life. I tried watching spanish tv, but everything went too fast. I did find a few audiobooks that helped a lot with making that transition though. My favorite by far was “Conversational Spanish: Intermediate Collection” by Silas Brazil. By the time i finished that series, I could understand people speaking to each other in the local grocery store at top speed! now i use spanish movies with english subtitles, and that helps a lot.