Possibly the Easiest Way to Learn German

Oct 20, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:very effective, gets you to think and speak in German with correct syntax and pronunciation

Cons:very little reading, so-so bank of vocabulary

The Bottom Line: With Pimsleur, you will think in German, develop hearing skills, construct and create sentences "on the fly," all the while learning from a native speaker.

Pimsleur German I

I have to admit that I was pretty skeptical of this tutorial program and its claims when I first read about it: "Speak German in just 10 days!" Anyone who has tried to study a language on his/her own knows that it's incredibly difficult. And even when you spend money for a class, it's still not any easier.

As for my background, I'm fluent in 3 languages: Chinese was my mother tongue, I learned English growing up in the States, and learned French through the public school system (I shouldn't say that I'm "fluent" in French -- it's more like I can get by ok in French-speaking countries). Even having had multiple experiences learning new languages, I am hardly one of those "naturals" that can master just anything.

I decided to learn German when I fell in love with Switzerland. Of course, they speak the Swiss German variant there, but Swiss-ophilia aside, I felt like it would be a big asset to learn Hoch Deutsch anyway (since a significant portion of the European population does tend to know it). I also like the pronunciation of the language, which always seemed so much "fancier" than English.

The Basics
The Pimsleur program comes in three different levels: I, II, and III, corresponding with beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This review concerns only the first unit. Each package contains 30 lessons -- and despite what the company says, they are not 30-minute lessons; it's more like 20-23min each. You also get a brief reading booklet with the audio portion.

Each lesson is roughly structured in the same way: You start by listening to a dialogue of German speakers talking with each other, then the narrator (in English) asks you questions about the dialogue, which you reply in German, and there are long sections where you are asked to repeat specific phrases or answer random things. Sometimes there are drills (e.g., with learning numbers), and there are also "conversational dialogues" -- this is where the German speaker says something to you, and you have to reply in German. Always, after a pause, the German speaker will announce the correct answer, which you check with your own response. Some of the lessons end with a corresponding reading section: The German speaker pronounces the phrases/words in the booklet, and you repeat after him/her. This all sounds like pretty standard fare for independent language tutorials, but what makes Pimsleur different is the "immersion" process.

This immersion process begins right away. You're taught new words and phrases with every lesson, but not in the standard way. For example, you might learn the verb "haben" (to have) and that it's used in "Sie haben" or "Haben Sie" (for a question), but you do not learn all the conjugations of the verb at one time. Rather, you're introduced to new conjugations in subsequent lessons. So the entire process is much like learning a language as a child; you learn by what you hear and what you're told, not by memorizing rule books of grammar. And the audio is arranged so that it reinforces learning the parts of the language, rather than the phrases. For instance, you may learn that "nicht" is no or not and that "viel" means much, and you learned these words in separate lessons, but the narrator may suddenly ask: "How would you say 'not much'?" The listener is then required to put 2 and 2 together, and reply "nicht viel." In other words, you learn blocks of information, which you are later required to put together in a grammatically correct way, almost like a puzzle.

The style of repetition is particularly ingenious with the Pimsleur method: Each subsequent lesson builds on previous lessons; while in the middle of learning new phrases and words, you'll suddenly be asked to say things that you may have learned 10 lessons ago. All of this really helps to bring the knowledge together as a cohesive whole, and also reinforces what you've learned. After a while, something magical happens: You actually start to speak reflexively. This is reflective of the fact that this "puzzle" method requires the listener to construct sentences mentally (without necessarily seeing it in print), and consequently forced to think in German.

The lessons progress so that more and more German is used in place of English. At about lesson 17 or 18, most of the questions posed to the listeners are in German. It's challenging at first, but it's part of the immersion process. It was also about this time that I started listening to each lesson twice (the previous 15 lessons were simple enough that I got the hang of them in the first try).

The Strengths
The major strength of the Pimsleur method is its emphasis on listening and speaking. It really forces the listener to hear what is being said in the foreign tongue, and assimilate it in German (rather than translating everything back to English in your head). You learn by copying the intonation and enunciation of the German speakers, and you’re asked always to speak aloud (rather than just thinking the answers). There is never any specific teaching of grammar; instead, by repeating after the audio, the listener eventually notices certain patterns and structures emerging. This is supported by the very methodical sequence for repetition, allowing the student to continuously check if the thinking/syntax is correct. All of this contributes to helping you start to think in German, which is the most crucial part of truly learning it.

There are actually three different German speakers in the audio, and they all each pronounce things a little differently (much likely how everyone has his own idiosyncratic way of speaking). By hearing and copying each of these speakers, you really learn to hear the words, not just the one way that it's pronounced. And you speak in a correct pronunciation, because you learn from native speakers.

The Weaknesses
Pimsleur does not offer much writing and reading. The booklet is very simple, basically just listing phrases and sentences without any guide in terms of grammar; and not all the lessons include a reading section. I've learned to improvise by keeping a notebook, organized by lesson, where I jot down little phrases and words for future review as well as current learning; a lot of us tend to be visual, and it does help to see a phrase/word while learning to speak it. Overall, despite the lack of reading comprehension, I've found it to come pretty naturally anyway.

One other major complaint from its users is the lack of vocabulary. It is true -- you will not get loads and loads of vocabulary with Pimsleur. And this is especially evident toward the end of the program, when you start to realize that the German language is unusually rich with synonyms and phrasing. To be fair, the Pimsleur approach is unashamedly about teaching to hear and speak a language, and not to become a collegiate-level expert on grammar and vocabulary. The way I see it, you can and should supplement Pimsleur with a traditional book; the one that I use is by Rosenberg, "German: How to Speak and Write it" (you'll get plenty of vocabulary from this text).

My last complaint can't really be considered a weakness of the program, but more a minor annoyance. The Pimsleur way tends to first give new words and phrases before trying to explain how to use these new words. And it also introduces a lot of vocabulary that's not actually in the reading booklet. In fact, while the reading booklet is organized into unit numbers that correspond to the units of the audio portion, they really don't match up at all; you might learn something in lesson 10, but the actual word shows up only in the reading for lesson 25. For a beginner, it's frustrating flipping the pages and trying to find the word. Often times, the lessons also teach things that are not written in the booklet at all, which I've dealt with by looking up in a dictionary. On the one hand, this is very annoying for the inconvenience. But I suspect this may be done on purpose, to force the listener to look things up and to find the correct spelling and such, because active learning is much more memorable than simple passive reading.

The Bottom Line
All in all, this is an excellent tutorial for independent study. This is not some travel-guide-style method where you only learn limited phrases; you actually truly learn the language, by first assimilating blocks of knowledge, then assembling these blocks into cohesive sentences, while having to rely heavily only on hearing and listening. With Pimsleur, you will start to think in German, develop hearing skills in the foreign tongue, construct and create sentences "on the fly," all the while maintaining the correct pronunciation and grammar like a native speaker. The whole process is fairly entertaining and painless, because the lessons are in an interactive quiz format. Just set aside 30min a day, and with lots of listening and speaking, plus a little bit of reading and looking up things in a dictionary, you can learn a brand new language. It sounds too good to be true, but the Pimsleur really is that effective.

Honestly, I think learning a new language is about as easy as it can get by using the Pimsleur method. After completing the 30 lesson German I level block, I feel pretty confident in speaking the language abroad. I'm certainly not fluent after just 30 lessons, but I feel I can "get by" if I'm faced with the situation where no one around me speaks English at all. That's certainly a lot better return when considering that I can now do the same things in 2 languages, even though I spent 5 years in public school learning French while the Pimsleur German I only took 5 weeks. Despite the program's high cost ($200+ for each unit), it is definitely worthwhile checking out if you're serious about learning German.

For those interested, I encourage you to read a little about Pimsleur and his method (Wikipedia has a good entry on this). The entire suite is marketed as "scientifically proven," and after learning about his process, it does become clear that his is a very methodical way to learn a new language.

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