My Thoughts on Pimsleur Mandarin

I completed all 3 levels of Pimsleur a few months ago, and have occasionally revisited lessons at random since then. I thought I would share my opinion on the course while it’s still fairly fresh in my mind.

I know Pimsleur has a lot of advocates and a fair share of critics.

I lean more towards the first camp of people, I think it provides a great foundation to be built upon, but it certainly doesn’t do what it advertises (though truthfully what language learning product does?)

I actually miss Pimsleur, I miss the very instructional aspect of it. The 30 minute lessons allowed me to get into a routine, telling me to listen and repeat, say this, say that. When it was over I actually felt a little lost, and I still haven’t found another course that has a similar format (though I think I know the reason for this).

I could easily set goals for myself, such as finishing two levels each day and re-listening to an older one.

The spaced repetition element also cannot be underestimated. Though some might find this laborious, I believe it was essential for me to learn the material as well as I did. If you told me right now in English to say a sentence in Chinese used from any of the three levels, I’d say there’s around a 90% chance I could recall it with ease.

Pimsleur does a good job at getting you into the habit of speaking out loud. A lot. A habit important to keep up for the sake of getting a feel for the language and pronouncing better. Lot’s of out loud repetition also greatly improves remembering too.

The course gradually builds up grammar by drilling it into you without explaining it too much, you learn it through examples more than anything. I think this is great for beginners because otherwise there’s just too much going on when taking into account tones and pronunciation.

The “golden” rule of grammar (that is, subject first, when, where, how, followed by the action) is hammered home throughout the first two levels, and now forming sentences on my own I rarely get this muddled up.

A bit unrelated to the review but here’s a video explaining this grammar rule really well.

Pimsleur is on the whole an audio-only course. This can be a disadvantage if you let it be, but I turned it into an opportunity to burn into memory the correct tones and pinyin spelling. How did I do this? I wrote EVERYTHING down, in pinyin, along with the English translation for every word and sentence.

I didn’t just write down new words or phrases, but wrote them down when they were repeated, which is more than a few times. This is tiring and requires a lot of effort rather than passively listening, but I’m so glad I committed to doing that early on.

A 30 minute lesson would usually take me an hour and a half to do it this way. Lot’s of pausing, and at the beginning, lot’s of rewinding.

For this reason, I’m relieved Pimsleur doesn’t try to teach you characters. A few might disagree but I think for people new to the language, pinyin is far more important to learn than characters at the start.

I began lightly studying characters with other resources at the same time I was working on Pimsleur Level 3, which was when I was felt I had fully grasped the romanization of the language, being able to distinguish the sounds from each other and knowing how to spell them.

The audio is extremely clear and at a good tempo for a beginner, it’s nowhere near native speed, but it does get faster as the lessons progress. There’s no way I would have been able to learn pinyin accurately if the recordings started out at a fast pace.

My biggest dislike of Pimsleur is the limited vocabulary, I think this gives you a false sense of confidence when it’s over. You may be able to rattle off a bunch of questions and statements, but they’ll be confined to a small number of subjects. Trying to talk with a native speaker is a shock if you’ve just finished Pimsleur.

With my first attempt I asked a simple question, I think it was “What do you do for work?”. The reply I received was 99% incomprehensible, it would have been 100% if he had decided to leave out ‘ wǒ ‘ which is quite common to do.

Having some false confidence isn’t such a bad thing for the new language learner though, I find it quite daunting to speak in a language other than my own, but after Pimsleur I felt ready to start having lessons over Skype with a native Chinese speaker, which the thought of doing was terrifying when I had just started the course.

That being said if you don’t lack confidence I’d recommend going for it as soon as possible, I wish I had been able to build up the courage earlier!

There’s a few words included that are of questionable usefulness to a newcomer, typically place names, but on the whole you do get to truly be acquainted with a decent number of verbs and adjectives that I now find myself using frequently in my lessons with a native speaker.

When I compare Pimsleur to Assimil, the main thing I notice is that Assimil uses more “realistic” dialogue, yet the prompting for repetition makes it much harder to remember. This may be different with volume 1 of the course as I’m only referring to the second, but I can’t see it being much different due to the format of the audio and accompanying book.

If you are disciplined to frequently replay previous lessons and have a good strategy for learning material then I’d probably recommend it over Pimsleur, though no reason doing both would not be beneficial.

The other beginner course lots of learners recommend is the FSI: Standard Chinese A Modular Approach. I began with this actually before Pimsleur, but I had the same problem as I did with Assimil of not being able to get words and sentences to stick.

I’ll hopefully have time to get reviews done of FSI and Assimil when I’ve spent more time with them (currently working on some of the later modules of FSI). My girlfriend laughs at some of the outdated language used in the ancient FSI audio tapes, as well as the female Chinese speaker’s rather unattractive voice.

Anyway, to wrap up this review of Pimsleur, I’d definitely recommend it to anyone that wants to start Mandarin. It’s not too difficult and gently introduces you to the basics of the language, which I’d argue is important for a language so vastly different to English.

If you can stick through it to the end, you’ll be in a position to tackle harder courses with greater success, as the core of Mandarin has been etched into your brain from all the repetition over 45 hours worth of lessons.

I have the belief that easy rarely equates to beneficial, but I’d give Pimsleur a pass for making accessible something that seems overwhelmingly inaccessible to a newcomer.

Be warned though, after it’s over the hard work really begins.

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