Pimsleur review: is Pimsleur the right French learning app for you?

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Is Pimsleur the best French learning app? That depends significantly on you.

Every language learning app features a particular approach, strategy, and design, which  means it might appeal to some learners and leave others cold. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the Pimsleur app.

Let’s take a look at the Pimsleur French app and see if it could be a good fit for you.

What is Pimsleur?

A man seen from the chin to about the lower belly. He is holding a tablet that he has just touched or will touch, as his hand with a slightly extended index finger is hovering over it.

Based on a language learning method developed by Dr. Paul Pimsleur in the 1960’s, and available in one form or another (cassettes, CD’s, downloads, etc.) since the 1980’s, Pimsleur is a language learning app you can use on your computer or mobile device(s).

Pimsleur wrote an entire book about his theories on language learning, but what it essentially comes down to is the fact that for Pimsleur, languages are best learned through listening and repetition, as opposed, say, to writing or grammar exercises or reading.

Pimsleur isn’t the only linguist to believe this, and when you think about it, it makes sense; after all, we learn our native language(s) this way.

But while many other apps (including French Together) might make listening exercises a priority but have other resources, the Pimsleur Method relies heavily — or in some cases, entirely —  on audio learning and the repetition of words, sounds, and syllables, with little or no print or visual resources.

How does the Pimsleur app work?

Closeup of a woman's mouth in profile. Her lips are parted, as if she is going to speak.

The Pimsleur French app comes in two forms. This is very important to be aware of.

Both versions of the Pimsleur French app consist of five learning levels. These roughly cover from beginner to around the B1 or B2 CEFR levels. Each Pimsleur course level includes 30 audio lessons of around 30 minutes each. Learners are advised to do an entire 30 or-so-minute lesson per day, consecutively.

Each Pimsleur lesson typically starts with a short dialogue. Most of these seem to use native speakers, although I came across a few speakers who sounded like they might not be native French speakers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, since not every French-speaking person you talk to will have a standard French accent or be a native speaker.

You aren’t necessarily expected to understand the dialogues in the lessons at first. Typically, they will be broken down, phrase by phrase or sentence by sentence, and explained or put into context in some way. You’ll be asked to repeat certain parts or maybe asked how to say certain things. If you are used to French Together, this focus on dialogues will feel familiar.

Then, there’s usually a big shift. Suddenly, other words, sounds, or even concepts like new phrases will be added. You’ll be asked to practice (or, if you’ve heard them in previous lessons, review) them.

This is all a part of Dr. Pimsleur’s beliefs on language acquisition. On the plus side, it certainly keeps you on your toes. But at times it might feel like it’s given you whiplash, or even that you simply wanted more practice with what you were working on and now you have to move on to something else.

Luckily, you can easily pause and/or replay the lessons, which is helpful. But if you were to strictly follow the method, I get the impression that you wouldn’t do this.

Once you’ve finished the day’s lesson, that’s it.  Well…unless you have the Pimsleur app’s premium version.

Remember how I said it’s very important to be aware that there are two different versions of the Pimsleur app? Here’s why. The basic app consists only of these audio lessons, with a guide to Pimsleur’s method, but no other learning or practice material.  On the other hand, the Premium app consists of those same audio lessons with support material like flash cards, fill-in exercises, speaking exercises, and more. There are even grammar lessons for selected concepts (these are mostly in the form of audio recordings).

An additional benefit to Pimsleur Premium’s extra features is that some of them allow you to slow down the speed of audio recordings. On the other hand, the main lesson’s speed can’t be slowed down, which, while it does follow Pimsleur’s beliefs, can be a huge disadvantage, especially for an app so focused on listening and pronunciation.

Another thing that you won’t find in any version of the Pimsleur app are lesson transcripts. This is a deliberate choice, since the Pimsleur method is all about oral and audio learning. There are some advantages to this method – for example, it will probably make it easier for learners to correctly pronounce French sounds and words. But on the other hand, since French spelling and French pronunciation are often so different, many users may not end up knowing how to spell the vocabulary they learn.

And then there’s the issue of verb conjugation. Like some other French learning apps that rely on example-based learning, the Pimsleur app doesn’t go out of its way to explain and clearly lay out verb tenses and conjugation rules. But most of the apps that operate this way at least let you see the conjugated verbs you’re using in written form. Not so for the Pimsleur French app. When you think about Dr. Pimsleur’s theories, it makes sense, but it’s not practical, especially for a language like French, where verb endings can differ widely but still be pronounced the same way. (And speakers are expected to know them.)

Is the Pimsleur app right for me?

People who want to focus on French pronunciation and don’t care much about things like grammar, writing, culture, and everyday conversational French will probably love the Pimsleur French app.

For instance, at times when trying it out, I imagined that I was an actress who’d gotten a part in a French film and had to say my lines of dialogue as clearly as possible. Knowing that there was an app that could help me do that would be a godsend and I’d relish the often repetitive exercises of going over different sounds and phrases.

….But I’m not an actress, nor has perfect French pronunciation ever been one of my top goals (not that it’s not a good thing to strive for).  

Instead, I’m a visual learner who likes to understand the workings of a language (especially a language that follows rigorous rules, like French), the culture behind it, and how it’s spoken in everyday life as well as in formal or neutral situations. And I want to be able to read and write a language as well as speak and understand it.

And so, to be totally honest, for me, the experience of using the Pimsleur app was sort of like that scene in Bambi where Bambi tries to stay upright on the ice and keeps falling, limbs akimbo. It was frustrating for me to realize that there were no transcripts and no explanation of the basic rules and structures of French, especially since the lessons don’t really start out at an absolute beginner level. Whereas I was expecting the first lesson of level 1 to be something like “Introducing yourself”, the lesson just launches into a somewhat complex conversation and finishes with an English-speaking narrator reassuring the listener that they will soon be able to understand this dialogue.

To me, that sounds like a really great advertising strategy, but when it comes to learning, I don’t want bells and whistles. I want building blocks and a course that doesn’t strive to make me memorize specific dialogues, but helps me put what I’ve learned to use in many other situations.

It didn’t help that, as I’ve mentioned before, just as you get into the routine of repeating selected sentences and phrases and sounds from the dialogue (an exercise that for me, quickly become mind-numbingly dull – but let’s chalk this up to my learning style, not a fault in the app itself), the lesson suddenly totally shifted gear to something else and all of that work felt forgotten. Having read up a bit on Pimsleur’s method, I knew that at some point the sounds and phrases I’d practiced would come back, whether later in that lesson or as random review items inserted into another, but it was still jarring. It never stopped being jarring, no matter how many other lessons I tried.

I love apps that offer a variety of practice exercises and keep you on your toes, but this just felt totally random and only added to the disoriented feeling that my visual learner self had without a transcript or some sort of visual point of reference.

All of this is subjective, of course, and lots of people throughout the years have doubtlessly been able to meet their French learning goals by using the Pimsleur Method. After all, there’s a reason it’s been around for decades. But I know there are many learners out there who are like me, and in that case, I would say the Pimsleur app is probably, maybe even definitely, not the app for you!  

I’d also reassure you that, if you wanted to practice your listening and speaking skills, there are many other French learning apps that take a less extreme approach and always allow you to see sentences, phrases, and dialogue transcripts. Some, like the French Together app, also allow you the option of hiding lines of dialogue and then clicking to reveal them, if you want to practice that way.

So, I’d say if you tend to learn by listening and want to focus on French pronunciation and standard, basic dialogues, you might want to give the Pimsleur French app a try. If you’re an actor who needs to amp up your French pronunciation skills and isn’t worried about understanding or speaking the language overall, the Pimsleur app could also be a great choice.

But if you’re a visual learner, or are looking for an app that will provide a visual aspect, and some kind of explanation of the basic structure of French as well as practice and review exercises in various formats regardless of price point, the Pimsleur French app is not for you.  

Can you become fluent in French by using the Pimsleur app?

A French flag on a flagpole blows in the wind, against a blue, cloudless sky.

My answer to this is a resounding “Absolutely not.”

Now, if you want to be able to have some basic conversations with people while on a trip to France, you might be able to manage that with Pimsleur. But if you need to, say, read instructions, or an email, or a museum label, or just about anything in French, you couldn’t do that – or do it well – if you’ve used the Pimsleur app alone. You also aren’t likely to be able to speak in a natural way in everyday, more informal French.

To be fair, most language learning apps won’t let you reach complete proficiency in any language. In fact, most of them, including Pimsleur, don’t even claim to do this. Pimsleur, like many other apps, only claims to teach up to CEFR level B1-B2, not to make someone fluent in French.

But in addition to this, by focusing so heavily on audio learning, the Pimsleur French app passes up even small opportunities to allow users to visually recognize and become familiar with the way certain sounds, common words, and verb endings are written in French.

In reviews I’ve read of the Pimsleur app, most people who are happy with it talk about how they’ve been praised for their French pronunciation. But those who aren’t often complain about not knowing how to spell French words, or the fact that the dialogues and language used are often formal,  rather than everyday French speech and situations.

That said, the Pimsleur app could be an excellent addition to your French learning resources if you want to focus on or improve your pronunciation. Just remember that it’s probably not enough to allow most people to get a solid grip on French on their own.

In a previous article, I included a chart to help you find the best French learning app for your French learning goals. Here’s where I’d place Pimsleur on that chart:

Best app for fun, everyday practiceDuolingo
Best app for French listening practiceFluentUFrench Together
Best app for mastering everyday French conversationsFrench Together
Best app for relatively short but varied lessons and practiceBabbel
Learning app that covers the most aspects of FrenchRocket French (Busuu is a close second, but lacks lessons on French culture)
Best app that’s hyper-focused on French pronunciationPimsleur

How much does the Pimsleur app cost?

As of this writing, there are several packages and payment plans for the Pimsleur French app. The app is usually sold by level, although you can pay for access to multiple, or even all, levels at the same time.

Each Pimsleur French level currently costs $150. For students who aren’t in the US, check your local Pimsleur site for prices in your currency.

To pay for full access to all of the levels of the Pimsleur French course, you can also choose the Pimsleur French Levels 1-5 Premium package, which is currently priced at $575.00 (For students outside the US, check your local Pimsleur page for prices in your currency).

Note that all of these levels are part of the Pimsleur Premium app, not the basic Pimsleur app. The Premium app includes review activities, grammar lessons, and other resources, whereas the basic Pimsleur app only includes audio lessons.

Which version of the Pimsleur app should I choose?

As I’ve mentioned, it’s very important to be aware of the difference between the two Pimsleur French apps.

The basic Pimsleur app consists of 30 lessons of about 30 minutes for each level you purchase. These are audio-only and you can’t slow down the audio speed, although you can replay/rewind lessons. There are no additional review or exercise materials offered. As in both versions of the Pimsleur app, there are no transcripts, either.

The Premium Pimsleur app option consists of those 30 lessons of 30 or so minutes for each level you purchase. It also includes exercises and review materials for each lesson. Most of these are actually what you’d expect from a standard app, even a free one: flash cards, speaking exercises, fill-in-the blank sentences and the like. There are also audio lessons for selected grammar and culture concepts.

As of this writing, there’s a price difference of only about thirty dollars/pounds/euros/etc. between the two versions. With that in mind, if they can afford it, I think most people should purchase the Premium Pimsleur app option.

But of course, it depends on your goals – and also what other French language learning resources you have. If you have lots of other ways to practice French listening, speaking, writing, reading, grammar, and culture, and you’re only using Pimsleur to improve your pronunciation, then the basic option might be just fine (unless you’re a fellow visual learner, in which case it might make your head blow up). But if you don’t have a lot of these resources, you should probably spring for the Premium version.

Whichever version you choose, be careful. Pimsleur offers a free trial, but unlike French Together’s free 7-day trial, the Pimsleur one seems a bit tricky to cancel.

Final verdict

The Pimsleur Method has been effective for many people, especially those with a focus on being able to have basic, somewhat formal French conversations during, say, a trip. People who are very focused on French pronunciation may also find the Pimsleur French app to be a great resource. But for visual learners or for those of us who want to learn things like everyday conversational French, reading skills, and/or at least a little bit of basic French grammar, it’s probably better to look elsewhere.

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Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg is an American writer, worrier, teacher, and cookie enthusiast who has lived in Paris, France, for more than a decade. She has taught English and French for more than ten years, most notably as an assistante de langue vivante for L'Education Nationale. She recently published her first novel, Hearts at Dawn, a "Beauty and the Beast" retelling that takes place during the 1870 Siege of Paris. You can read about her adventures here, or feel free to stop by her website.