Pimsleur Mandarin Course: Evaluation

Over the past month I’ve completed the Pimsleur Mandarin 3 audio course. This is the 3rdpart of a 4 part series. The section I will talk about (part three) totaled 30 lessons, with each lesson clocking in at 30 minutes.

I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a Pimsleur course for ages. Two things held me back: First I didn’t have a mobile device on which to play them (I don’t own an mp3 player because I’m kind of a minimalist, and until recently I didn’t own a smartphone because I’m convinced they make you dumber); second, they’re expensive. The 30 audio lessons cost me $120. So about $4 per lesson, which I guess isn’t really that much. But it’s the big upfront payment that just seems kind scam-ish (when I tried to buy, only US residents could buy smaller chunks of 5-10 lessons). The smallest number of units I could buy was 30 for the above-mentioned $120. This was particularly annoying, since I’ve already been learning Mandarin for 6 months, and wasn’t sure if level 3 would be too easy or too hard. Regardless, I decided to give it a try. I downloaded the mp3 files and the course manager app.

How it works

The mp3 files actually include an explanation of the Pimsleur method. I didn’t bother listening to it until I was about half-way through the course, and that was a mistake. Understanding the theory, in this case, is helpful: Once upon a time there was a dude called Dr. Pimsleur who knew a lot about languages (his titles/accolades in the audio explanation file run to a good 45 seconds, giving the intro the tone of a Scientology brochure, which was unfortunate). The gist is that language acquisition is primarily aural. So as you listen to audio instructions telling you to say things or answer questions, you are supposed to say them outloud, thereby inducing some funky mind-juice which ingrains the language. Deep down, it’s a similar theory to Rosetta Stone, in that it is about learning in a more ‘natural’ way, rather than by endlessly writing verbs like a robot. The key difference, of course, is that you don’t see pictures, you just hear conversations.

Perhaps the key point from the ‘how it works’ bit is the concept of ‘graduated interval recall’. This kind of thing really floats my boat. Not just because it makes sense for language learning, but also because it makes sense for learning loads of other stuff in life. It’s all about memory, and memory management. As is rightly pointed out, the cornerstone of language learning is remembering the stuff. The concept wasn’t really new to me, but it was cool hearing it explained in such a nice, cohesive fashion. Here’s the blurb on it, which is pretty self-explanatory:

Dr. Pimsleur’s research on memory was perhaps one of his most revolutionary achievements. He discovered that if learners were reminded of new words at gradually increasing intervals, each time they would remember longer than the time before. He documented the optimal spacing for information to move from short-term into long-term, or permanent, memory. This theory is at the base of all the Pimsleur programs.

So a key thing about Graduated Interval Recall is that you’re only supposed to listen to one lesson per day, and you’re supposed to do it on consecutive days. Apparently that’s the quantity and frequency that is optimal.


I learned some new things during the audio courses. The difficulty was probably a little easy, but not annoyingly so. The main point I would say is this: if you have a time during the day where you are unable/unwilling to study, Pimsleur courses are great. I take the Beijing subway to work which is pretty much the 9thcircle of hell. I don’t even have space to read a book. So the Pimsleur courses have been an awesome use of what otherwise is dead-time. However, I really can’t imagine myself sitting down and JUST listening to a Pimsleur course. I sometimes listen to one whilst cleaning my apartment though. The audio lessons have also supplemented my Chinese language classes really well. And that’s, my second main point, I don’t feel that on their own these courses will really move the needle for you agreat deal.They will definitely help, but I’d view them as supplementary learning to classroom teaching and careful personal study. Language-learning maven Benny Lewis wrote a pretty damning report on Pimsleur, which basically said it was only good if you were a married business man travelling for work. I thought that was needlessly harsh (though we are comparing different courses – he tried the Hungarian course). Whether you’re a married businessman or a surfer bum, you’re still going to want to ask about cultural stuff, what you’re up to and other fairly generic topics which crop up in the lessons.

There were two noteworthy, like, alarmingly awful errors in this course though! The course advises you to call female colleagues xiao jie which for at least a decade now has been a common slang term for prostitute, and says that asking when you shuang chuang means ‘when do you go to sleep’…which it does, but more commonly is used to describe having sex. So for some uninformed users, that could lead to some awkward moments (especially the xiao jie comment, OOF.). So, a word of caution there.

A lot of people would argue that you should just listen to the radio and watch TV, and you should do that too. However, particularly in the early stages of learning a challenging language like Mandarin, watching TV is really tough, and listening to the radio is maddeningly hard. So Pimsleur is a good halfway-house. You probably learn more from it too, since every sentence uttered in the foreign language is translated back into English. There’s never any ambiguity. This does mean, however, that you wouldn’t want to buy the 1stpart if you’ve been learning for longer than 3 months. If you’re approaching HSK level 4 standard (spoken), even level four of the course will probably be too easy.

As for me, I’ll be buying the 4thpart. Part three has helped me, and it makes life on the subway 100 times better.