If you want to learn how to speak and understand a new language, Simon & Schuster's Pimsleur Comprehensive is one of your best bets, though it may leave tech enthusiasts underwhelmed. The problem? It's an audio-only program, with just a PDF or two included. You won't find interactive exercises for writing, voice-recognition software, games, or online tutoring in this old-school program. The content, however, is excellent, and the structure is the clearest you'll ever experience. Pimsleur coaches you on pronunciation and listening without letting you get distracted by the written word. As effective and simple as Pimsleur can be, it isn't fully featured software in the manner of Rosetta Stone or Duolingo, PCMag's Editors' Choices for paid and free language-learning tools, respectively. If you've dreamed of studying a language while driving to work everyday, however, Pimsleur is one of the best language-learning programs out there.
If you need to learn a hard-to-find language, there's a good chance Pimsleur offers it. Pimsleur has courses in 50 languages, not counting English. Note that I do count different dialects, such as European Spanish and Latin American Spanish individually because they are different courses. The courses are Albanian, Arabic (Eastern, Egyptian, and Modern Standard), Armenian (Eastern and Western), Chinese (Cantonese), Chinese (Mandarin), Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dari Persian, Dutch, Farsi Persian, Finnish, French, German (German and Swiss), Greek, Haitian Creole, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Ojibwe, Pashto, Polish, Portuguese (Brazilian and European), Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Spanish (Latin American and European), Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Twi, Ukrainian, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
Rosetta Stone has about half as many courses, covering 28 languages, not counting English or British English. They are Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Pashto, Persian (Farsi), Polish, Portuguese (Brazil), Russian, Spanish (Latin America and European), Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog (Filipino), Turkish, Urdu, and Vietnamese.
Duolingo has a smaller selection by comparison with just 15 fully developed courses: Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, French, German, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, and Welsh. It also has another four language-learning courses that are in beta (Hebrew, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Vietnamese) and seven more in progress.
Pimsleur covers a wide range of languages, but if there's one you need that's not on the list, I recommend looking to Transparent Language Online. It has programs for more than 100 languages. Courses for languages that are not in high demand can be quite short, but a lot of them are robust.
There's one other program to try for hard-to-find language learning courses, though it's not nearly as good as our top picks. It's Mango Languages, which has programs for learning 68 languages, including some that Transparent doesn't (American Sign Language, Cherokee, Dzongkha, Igbo, Javanese, Malayalam, Punjabi, Shanghainese, and Yiddish). I don't recommend starting with Mango, but it is an option if you're in a bind.
Price and Packages Offered
Pimsleur Comprehensive costs $119.95 when you opt for the digital download version, which consists mainly of MP3s. From Pimsleur's online store, you can buy the downloadable zipped files and be on your way to learning a new language within minutes. Alternatively, you can buy packaged CDs with printed booklets or books (for courses that have them) from bookstores, travel shops, or online, but the downloadable option is cheaper. Many of the Pimsleur booklets available for free online.
There is a free trial for Pimsleur. You download the first lesson of most languages directly from Pimsleur's website to get a taste of the courses and how they work. Some public libraries carry CD versions of Pimsleur, too, which is another great way to try out the content before buying anything.
The $119.95 price is for a single Phase package, which includes 30 lessons that are around 30 minutes each. The lessons get a little longer as you reach higher levels. If you diligently do one lesson a day, as prescribed, you could finish all the material in a month. Realistically, you'll probably want to repeat a lesson here and there, which is recommended when you're struggling. At that pace, and completing a more realistic five lessons per week, this package could keep you busy for about six to eight weeks. Pimsleur also sells a shorter five-unit program for $21.95. That's only about a week's worth of content, though.
When you compute the value per day, Pimsleur is expensive. The more interactive language-learning programs tend to offer access to online material by time. You pay, for example, for a year's worth of access to the online program, and you can do as much of it as you want. Pimsleur instead sells you a fixed amount of lesson material. It's an old-school model for an old-school course.
Rosetta Stone is a very good value, because it's perpetually on sale. For example, a 12-month online Rosetta Stone membership has a list price of $299, but it regularly sells for $199. A 36-month online membership is advertised for $499, but expect to pay half that ($249). If you're sure you'll stick with language learning for three full years, the 36-month membership is an excellent option.
As mentioned, Duolingo is 100 percent free. Other programs could be free if your library offers them. For example, I've found major public libraries in the U.S. and Canada that offer online access for free to patrons for Mango Languages, Transparent Language Online, and even Rosetta Stone. As mentioned, many public libraries offer some Pimsleur content, too, though you may not find all the languages the services offers, or even all the levels of the more common languages.
Transparent Language Online is competitively priced and charges close to what Rosetta Stone does. An annual subscription for personal use costs $199.95 up front. If you'd rather not commit to 12 months, you can pay $29.95 per month instead.
Living Language has a Platinum package for $179, which gives you one year of access to the online course for the language of your choice, plus 12 e-tutoring sessions. The e-tutoring, or webinar-style classes held via video conference, add a huge amount of value to the course. Rosetta Stone also includes some e-tutoring, but not as much. Fluenz, which is somewhat similar to Rosetta Stone, costs $218 for levels 1 and 2 plus two years' of online access.
Yabla is a totally different kind of language instruction service. that teaches by letting you watch videos in the language being learned. It's available for a $9.95 per-month subscription fee or $99.95 per-year charge. Yabla is best suited to students who already have some experience with the language they want to study, in my opinion.
The Pimsleur Way
As I mentioned earlier, Pimsleur consists only of audio files and sometimes a companion book or PDF booklet. This means that there are no digital flash cards, voice-recognition systems, mini games, or any of the other interactive components that are common in language software. From a technology perspective, it's not a very well-equipped program. Note that PCMag evaluates language-learning software in part on their technology, not just their pedagogy.
That said, having tried many different kinds of interactive language-learning software, I have found that more technology is not always better, and Pimsleur holds up quite well against the competition. It's not great if you want to learn to read and write a language, but if you want to speak and understand, it can actually be better in some regards than programs that have you look at text while you're learning.
The best example I have for this is my time using Pimsleur to learn a little German. Because I was only hearing German and speaking based on what I heard, I never got tripped up by German spelling. I used Pimsleur and nothing else to study German for months, and I could confidently say a few words of greeting, give directions, and order food by the time I arrived in Germany.
But as soon as I tried different programs for learning German (Duolingo and Mango Languages in my case) where I could see the words, my pronunciation became muddled. I was confused about the letters 'v' and 'f', and I also wondered where all those subtle 'r' sounds had gone (it turns out I had been interpreting the end of ö as a soft 'r'). Umlauts suddenly became a concept I had to process, whereas with Pimsleur, I didn't even know they existed. I just parroted words until I got comfortable saying them. It didn't matter how they were spelled. And my pronunciation was pretty good, I think. Now it's more confused, as I think more about the words instead of just saying them.
In addition to using Pimsleur Comprehensive in German (Phase 1), I've also gone through all of Spanish Phase 4, and I more recently tried a few Korean lessons for variety's sake. In all the programs, you hear more than one native speaker, which gives you an idea of how words might sound slightly different when spoken by different people.
The programs follow a call-and-response pattern, with some listen-and-repeat mixed in, too, but it challenges you to really think about what need to say. An English-speaking narrator says something like, "Here's how you say 'I would like' in German. First just listen." Then you hear a native speaker say the phrase a few times. Then the narrator says, "Now listen and repeat." The native speaker says the phrase or part of the phrase again, several times, with pauses in between so you can say it out loud afterward. Finally, in the call-and-response phase, the narrator says, "How do you say, 'I would like' in German?" and a pause indicates it's your turn to speak again. That's how it goes when you're first learning new words. Keep reading, because it gets more interesting.
Pimsleur's secret sauce is that the different prompts happen at very specific intervals. In between hearing the word for the first time and being asked to say it, you'll learn other new words and phrases. When you're asked to remember how to say something is the trick, and it's a big reason Pimsleur recommends you complete one unit and only one unit per day. The time between your lessons matters as much as the time between the first exposure to the words and the first request for you to recall them. These call-and-response moments happen throughout the program, so you're always recalling things you've learned earlier in the current lesson as well as in past lessons. In the later exercises, a few days might go by when seemingly out of the blue the narrator will ask, "How do you say, 'I would like?'" and you have to pull it from memory, even though you haven't been prompted in a while.
In the early lessons, Pimsleur spends a lot of time breaking phrases and words into sounds. It talks you very slowly through everything you say so that you master the basic sounds. The listen-and-repeat exercises go syllable by syllable and build on one another.
In addition to the clarity you get in learning to speak a language by listening alone, Pimsleur also excels at structure. Every packet of MP3s you download contains an audio guide and a PDF explaining how the course works and the rationale behind the Pimsleur way of learning.
Pimsleur is named for Dr. Paul Pimsleur, an applied linguist who died in 1976. He spent years researching how long students remember new information and at what intervals they need to be reminded of it for maximum retention to take place. As a result, the Pimsleur programs have rigid guidelines I've hinted at above. Each day, you're supposed to work through exactly one unit, and you're supposed to do all the units in consecutive order. You can always redo a unit you've completed, but you should never listen to two new units in a single day. The structure gives you a clear vision of what you'll be doing, how long it will take, and when you can expect to reach certain milestones, such as the end of a Phase. At the end of every single unit, the English-speaking narrator reiterates the rules.
In my experience, the program works very well. I took to it rather easily for a few reasons. For starters, I like the flexibility of fitting a 30-minute audio program into my life. It was easy to make time to study while I was slowly walking my dog every afternoon. She's old and lazy, so I was not distracted. But I could just as easily do a lesson while commuting or while folding laundry. If you think the Duolingo mobile app lets you study anytime, anywhere, just wait until you try audio-only learning. Because you download the MP3s, you never have to be online to use Pimsleur, whereas other apps only have limited capacity to download a lesson or two at a time.
What you give up, however, are all the interactive methods of learning, such as flash cards, games, speech-recognition and feedback systems, and connecting online with other students. If you're learning a language that has a different writing system and you want to learn how to read and write, you might be better off with a program like Rosetta Stone or Transparent Language. Transparent has an Alphabet Explorer section that I used to learn a little Urdu, and it was absolutely vital for me to work through those exercises before looking at fully written words.
Mobile and Desktop App
If you do go for the digital download option, Pimsleur offers a Pimsleur Course Manager app for both desktop and mobile devices that helps you keep track of your progress. You can see which lessons you've completed and save space on your computer by only downloading the current and next two or three lessons.
The iPhone and Android versions of the app, simply called Pimsleur Course Manager, look almost identical. However, the mobile app doesn't sync with the desktop app, which is a shame.
The lessons are MP3s, though, so you don't have to use Pimsleur's app. You can play the files on any app that supports MP3s, including iTunes.
Should You Buy Pimsleur?
My personal learning style favors audio, which may explain why I get along so well with Pimsleur. I like popping in my earbuds and studying while I walk my dog. It fits into my lifestyle very easily. Pimsleur will likely also appeal if you spend a lot of time in a car or train commuting. If you don't mind that Pimsleur Comprehensive isn't interactive in the software sense, then it's a great product. If you're craving more interaction, I recommend trying Duolingo first, PCMag's Editors' Choice for free language-learning programs. If you can't find what you need with Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, our top pick among paid programs, is probably your best bet.