Pimsleur Mandarin Review: Decent Course But Annoying Host

Eleven days ago, I decided to take a short break from Italian and learn a little Mandarin from the sample lessons sent to me by a representative at The Pimsleur Method. Yesterday, I completed those lessons and today I will share my thoughts.

Mandarin

First, I think it's important to cover some basic information about Mandarin, because I think it's important to understand how the subject relates to the methods used to teach it. So here are some details about Mandarin. Some of you may already know this stuff, and others may find it new and interesting.

The Mandarin language is not phonetic. There is no alphabet and no way to "sound out" a word. The writing system consists of characters which equate one-to-one with spoken words. For this reason, there is nothing to be gained or lost by learning Mandarin from CDs, without printed materials, and that was a large part of my reason for choosing Mandarin for this experiment.

After four hours of audio lessons (many of which I listened to twice), I had an interesting realization about the lack of phonetic markers: there seems to be no line between vowels and consonants! Instead of vowels and consonants, there are merely sounds. And once I realized that, everything became a bit more clear.

Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that the same exact sound can mean completely different things depending on whether you say it with a high tone, a low tone, a rising tone, or a falling tone. For example, the sound "ch" means "to eat" with a low tone, but with a high, falling tone it means "to go". (In actuality, there seems to be a little more subtlety to it, like a fuller mouth in "to eat" and a more palatalized sound in "to go", but I only hear those things as a result of my experience with Russian.)

In summary, it's new, it's interesting, and it's challenging for a person whose language experience is mostly Indo-European. Which leads me to the next important point...

Pimsleur

I had absolutely no knowledge of Mandarin prior to this experiment. I knew "nee how" means hello, and I knew there were some tones associated with saying it, but that was the absolute extent of my knowledge before this. This was a very important part of my choice, because I wanted to judge Pimsleur as fairly as possible. It wouldn't be accurate if I already knew the basics.

With that mindset, it became very clear that the Pimsleur materials are intended for exactly that type of person: an absolute beginner. If I had tried this experiment with a Germanic or Vulgar Latin language, I fear I would have been utterly bored and would have wasted 8 otherwise productive hours.

And speaking of 8 hours, I was a bit confused by the fact that there are only 8 half-hour lessons, on four CDs, when the web site says "learn to speak in 10 days". I suppose they're assuming everyone will have to play back at least two lessons a second time.

The lessons are made up of an English-speaking host, who gives the instructions and explanations, a female Mandarin-speaker who is presumably a native, and a male Mandarin-speaker who is presumed to be the language learner visiting China.

The good

To be perfectly honest, I expected to completely hate this product, so I was surprised to find there were a few things I liked about it. However I do suspect they are specific to learning Mandarin, and not likely to apply to other languages.

The lessons included a few words that sound very similar, but which are definitely different. Nothing illustrates the importance of tones better than useful examples of same words with different tones. The "ch" example above is a good one. They also used several examples with the sound "narr", which asks "where?" with a rising tone, but answers "there" with a falling tone.

There is a lot of repetition. With a language as new and strange (and seemingly difficult) as Mandarin, that repetition is good. And it's spaced, and changed, which really does help to get you thinking of each word's meaning, rather than memorizing and repeating phrases like some kind of robot. I expect, however, that this same amount of repetition would have been frustratingly tedious with an Indo-European language.

The speakers actually speak somewhat fast. I was pleased to notice that they're not speaking at a deliberately slow pace to be easily understood. Hearing the conversations spoken at a more natural pace forces you to a better level of comprehension.

The bad

The host is irritating. Not only does he talk too much, but he's also very patronizing. I feel like a five year old being spoken to by my mother, rather than feeling like an adult who is taking on the challenge of learning a new language.

And about all that talking, I understand that this is intended for beginners, but there is still far too much English in my opinion. I would have been much happier with less English narration, and more examples of Mandarin speech.

In fact, why are there only two, clear-spoken Mandarin speakers? Give me some examples from different regions. If I go to China, I'm not likely to meet a professional voice-over actor in a quiet room... I'm much more likely to meet a mush-mouthed drunk, mumbling on a crowded street while holding a cigarette between his lips. Why don't language programs ever include that guy?

I can ask where something is, or what a person wants to eat, but I'm not likely to understand the answer. Clearly this is not an advanced course, but the phrase "learn to speak in 10 days" implies a certain conversational ability that isn't realistic unless you hand people a script in advance, before initiating a conversation.

And that leads me to one really huge irritation: Why do I need to know how to say "long pee street"? Do people in China all just stand around on a long street, peeing all day? Pimsleur teaches you how to say "long pee street" in lesson three, but you don't even learn how to ask for a tea or a beer until lesson 7!

In fairness, perhaps the host is saying "pea", and not "pee", but that's the problem with audio-only lessons, now, isn't it? You really need to be more clear. And even if it's "pea", it's still a piece of information that isn't helpful at all to an absolute beginner. I don't want to know "long pea street" or "college road" until long after I've learned more basic things like "restroom" or "taxi" or how to count to 10... all of which were missing from these lessons.

Summary

In total, I can admit that I actually appreciate the easy start that I got with Mandarin from this program. In spite of my language-every-year confidence, I was fairly intimidated by Mandarin, and after eight half-hour lessons I fear nothing. The grammar is quite easy, and the tones aren't nearly as difficult as I feared they might be.

With that said, after completing the entire 4-CD course over 8 days, I have a vocabulary of only approximately 50 words, and that's far too inefficient for me. I know from experience that I can learn upwards of 25+ words per day when I first get started in a new language.

Going into an intimidating new language with no previous knowledge, I can actually see a benefit to this program. However, if I were not an absolute, complete, total beginner with a language, I would never be tempted to waste a minute on Pimsleur. I think I could learn infinitely more by spending 4 hours on Google.

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I have never used Pimsleur and probably never will. Especially in the case of Mandarin the 10-days claim is a joke. I have been studying Chinese for two and a half years now, half of that living and working in China and it is still my weakest language. Learning Chinese dwarfs all my previous language learning projects. Many foreigners try to avoid written Chinese but I find learning the characters is absolutely necessary to deal with all those homophones. BTW, "eat" (吃, pinyin: chī) and "go" (去, pinyin: qù ) are actually not homophones and are relatively easy to distinguish. 锯子pinyin: jùzi (a saw) and 句子 pinyin: jùzi(a sentence) are 100% homophones with both tone and syllables being identical. In such a case only context can clearify the meaning. Regarding dialects: since comprehension is such a big challenge in Mandarin it makes sense to have a standard speaker to listen to during the first couple of months or so. With the vocabulary and number of homophones ever increasing, TV-presenter style Mandarin will still be enough of a challenge for quite some time.

  • That is actually really poor. Eight hour audio and your total vocabulary is only about 50 words. That works out at around one word every 9.6 minutes. If the same is for any other language, i.e french, italian, spanish, tagalog, I would really want my money back. I'll bet you are glad you didn't have to pay for it, even if it is $10.

  • I don't think the point of Pimsleur is to teach extensive vocabulary (you can buy a dictionary for that). It's all about developing a structural foundation in your new language. My 2cts.

  • But it says that you can learn your language in 10 days. It's supposed to be efficient and quite frankly, if it took 40 years to perfect, 50 words in eight hours of audio is poor.
    I'm also sure that if you took out most of the english and repitition, in other words the stuff you don't need, then you'll be left with around one CD, maybe not even that. That is definitely not worth the money or the effort to go through.

  • Randy, If you'll forgive me, here's a pointer on your terminology. You say "Mandarin language is not phonetic." I think I understand what you mean, but this is not the best way to say that written Mandarin is not phonetic.Now if you really want to get confused see this post https://www.teachingenglish.... on how linguists use of the words phonetics, phonemics or phonology can confuse us mere language learners.

  • I think what happens here is that I'm bumping up against the reseller's marketing hype. I don't think Pimsleur exaggerates the promise of their materials, but since "The Pimsleur Approach" is a reseller, they have nothing invested in the creation of the product and everything to gain by selling it, so their marketing promise is (at least in my opinion) grossly overstated.

  • In spite of a few frustrating details, I ended with the impression that Mandarin was the language best-suited to Pimsleur. This is the only language for which I'd recommend anyone use the product, and even at that, it has flaws.

  • I'll have a look at that. Thanks!

  • It's "long peace street", and that's not as random as it might seem because the character does show up in other names of things, like Xi'an. I already knew a lot of the content of the set, but I like going over the pronunciation when I'm driving.

  • Pimsleur French is pretty good too. I haven't used it (I learned French old school), but a friend of mine did the 30 lesson courses and got a very good grounding in the language quite quickly.Yes, the narrator is annoying. But he fades into the background in later lessons in the full set and you get a French narrator and (I think) three or four other French voices.

  • Not entirely sure about what you meant with line between vowels and constants but I am guessing that you realized that essentially it is a stream of syllables (each with their own meaning potentially and each represented by one character in the written language) that are mushed together to make larger words.Seams like a fair appraisal, although you could include Thai and Cantonese (perhaps others) as good Pimsleur languages for the same reasons.

  • Yeah, all I was getting at is that without the written phonetic structure, there's really nothing to distinguish a vowel from a consonant, so as you say... just a stream of syllables.

  • A bit off topic - not about Pimsleur Method but Mandarin as a language. I've often heard about Mandarin being difficult to master because the same sound can have a number of different meanings. Even Chinese girls I used to work with reiterated this fact quite often as a proof that Mandarin is especially difficult to learn.
    Of course, I can't argue its level of difficulty as I don't know anything in Mandarin but 'nee how'. The only thing I've changed my mind about is the perceived uniqueness of how identical or near-identical sounds can have completely different meanings depending on context. And here's why.
    I think that if we look at it deeper, we can find the same thing in English as well! And I don't even mean the traditional homophones like 'where' and 'were' or 'weather' and 'whether', or 'no' and 'know' (a Chinese student can similarly complain how the same sound means completely different things!)
    What I'm talking about here is how words mix together in spoken English forming sound patterns that for a foreign student may sound as completely different words! For example, when we say 'It's no wonder', a Mandarin speaker who just starts to learn English can say - 'hey! How on Earth I can figure out what he says - 'it snow under', 'it's no under' or 'it's no wonder! English is too difficult to learn - the same string of phonetic sounds mean completely different things! I'm giving up!' :-)
    I reckon this opinion of Mandarin being particularly difficult because it's a phonetic language is down to the fact that there are no letters that represent each sound. For us Westerners is poses additional difficulty as we're used to seeing a string of letters making up words. So if we're required to learn Mandarin by speaking, we can start seeing things in a more difficult light than they are.
    And also - those who say - this Mandarin word can mean this, and this, and also this... I guess you don't learn a language by learning all possible meanings of a single word ANYWAY! It can pose difficulty for any language learner with ANY language if one tries to learn 12 meanings of a single word or a homophone and then use them in writing/speaking. The same would apply on Mandarin, I guess - one should learn how a particular word (read - phonetic sound as there are apparently no words in Mandarin...) is used in certain context (phrase, etc.) instead of looking at all its applications in the language.
    OK, that was it - I hope my rambling makes sense, and I also would like to hear if you, Randy, and others think the same!
    Once more - I might be wrong as I have never attempted studying Mandarin, this is simply something that I was thinking about the other day and now I'm after seeing the phrase in this blog post 'Mandarin is a tonal language, meaning that the same exact sound can mean completely different things'. So my reaction is - 'But we have the same going on in English, too!'
    So what do you think - might I have a point?

  • I personally love the Pimsleur method. I have done all 90 lessons in French, and I feel it is the best way to get a strong base in a language, to actually learn the grammar without having to study it. (You learn word-placement through repetition). I have also done about 50 of the 90 Italian lessons, and 30 Norwegian.. and I am thrilled with it. To me, the idea is that you learn the words before seeing it written, because if you see the word before you learn it, there is a good chance you will "anglicize" the pronunciation. Obviously Pimsleur is not a way to learn to spell the words, but there are other ways to find out the spelling at another time. After doing all 90 lessons, from what I have read, you end up learning about 600 words... far from fluent, HOWEVER you get a strong base in the language. Pimsleur is NOT a vocabulary course. I do, however, agree, that if you already know a language pretty well, Pimsleur is not for you.

  • There are no shortage of things you can do in the beginning, when you don't know much about a language. Pimsleur is just one of many options, most of which are helpful to an absolute beginner. However, my concern is how long you want to remain an absolute beginner. To do 90 lessons would be committing to 3 months of being an absolute beginner. By contrast, I was already reading short stories and having simple online chats after 3 months, and other, more aggressive learners would be even farther than that in the same time.I'm not willing to continue to pay coddling fees for the simulated feeling of progress. I expect to have a vocabulary of 1500+ words after 90 days, along with the confidence to put down the CDs and engage someone in a real conversation. I don't think that's possible with the Pimsleur method.

  • I agree that it's important to learn the standard pronunciation first, then deal with the variations after you have a good base knowledge.Although Mandarin is not written in sounds, but rather pictoral characters, the pinyin system, which uses letters, is used by Chinese speakers & learners alike to help with pronunciation. See Friedemann's example of "eat" (chī) & "go" (qù). So it's not like we're thrown into the language without any way to decipher the sounds.I really liked the Pimsleur lessons because they gave me confidence to speak in a real situation. Even though you don't learn much vocabulary from Pimsleur (though "Long Peace Street" is quite useful), you do get a good foundation in sentence structure, & it teaches you to start thinking in the language from the very beginning, which is important for fluency. Many serious language learners use more than one learning tool anyway. You can get your vocabulary from some place else.

  • You have a point but your examples in English also apply in that way to Mandarin alongside other woes. It is not an insurmountable problem just different and all comes down to redundancy. There are less sounds in Mandarin to pull from when making words it is that simple, so tonal information over the sounds helps with meaning if you are used to it.The key indicator is that if you say any random word in English, in isolation then although they may be rather confused why you said it, there is a good chance that listeners will know what the word was "flange" for example.In Mandarin there is a good chance that even native speakers won't know the word that was randomly uttered by another native speaker there are too many words that map to the noise you made and without context and other words the word is anybodies guess.This feature is striking enough that it hits early on with common enough words that you need, whereas a Chinese learner of English can probably get away with not knowing all the possibilities in bow, bough etc. (They do run into to, too, two early on though).So the Mandarin learner has a bunch more to, too, two moments to deal with early on.There are compensations though, ultimately I think the key is not to worry about the differences and keep making comparisons, just accept it for what it is and how it works. It is much easy to analyse it from the other side (after you have mastered some of it) trying to find out how it works in order to learn it just slows you down imho, a bit like learning to dance by starting with learning the mechanics of your bones and muscles and working outwards.

  • Well, regardless of its other problems or merits, one thing I've always told people and adamantly stick by regarding Pimsleur is this: it's fantastic for learning proper pronunciation; you can't not have good pronunciation after completing a Pimsleur course...you might only know a few hundred words in the language in question, but damned if you can't pronounce them like a native speaker!Cheers,
    AndrewP.S. What I'm saying is, in short, I like Pimsleur and I use it myself, but it definitely needs to be coupled with other resources.

  • I disagree. Strongly.
    Without a native there to tell you what you're doing wrong, the closest thing you can get from Pimsleur is the self-deluding fantasy that your pronunciation is perfect, when in all likeliness, it's probably horrible.

  • 'A bit like learning to dance by starting with learning the mechanics of your bones and muscles and working outwards' - you nailed it, Chris! And thanks for elaboration on the topic - now I have a better understanding of the differences in sounds and it makes more sense to me.Thanks a lot!;-)

  • They claim to teach 500 vocabulary words per level. So in 90 days, you'd effectively be at 1,500 words.

  • There seem to be a number of Pimsleur reviews recently. Benny ( https://dgryski.blogspot.com/2010/11/dutch-audio-courses-pimsleur-and-michel.html ) detailing my experiences with Pimsleur and Michel Thomas for Dutch.
    I found the comments on Benny's review very interesting, mostly because people seemed to be very divided: either Pimsleur is a total waste of time and money, or it's the greatest thing ever.
    For what it's worth, I've heard (on the HTLAL forums) that Michel Thomas Mandarin is good. However, having used MT for Dutch there's no way I could imagine using it again without editing the audio to take out the other students.

  • I have not found a better way to learn to hear and speak a foreign language than the Pimsleur series. They have been a big help in enabling me to conduct everyday conversations in China.I just called this number 877-566-2629 and they were great in recommending me a course that suited my needs.The hard part about Chinese is that you don't run into any words that look even vaguely familiar. But the Pimsleur method is gradual. Each lesson begins with a brief conversation between two native speakers. The first time you hear it, you have no idea what's being said, but by the end of the lesson you'll be able to understand it and participate in the same conversation. But I found there's a lot of value in going through each lesson several times.The emphasis is all on listening to native speakers and responding to them in short conversations. The method forces you to learn how the language really sounds, and you get lots of chances to practice getting the pronunciation right. It also has the advantage that you can do the course while driving or exercising. You can listen to it on CD or put it on your iPod.It's great that you can absorb a new language effortlessly without any reading, writing or computer use.Call 877-566-2629 toll free today and discuss how you can start speaking Mandarin like a native speaker

  • homophones happen in all sorts of languages, yes. The real difficulty with Mandarin as an English speaker is, as I think Randy has said, that you have to learn tons of words. Mandarin is almost entirely disjoint from English in terms of vocabulary, since they very rarely take English words as loan-words (unlike, say, Japanese).With German or Italian or something else moderately related to English, there are thousands of words that are either ancestrally related to the English version, or are an English loan word, so our vocabulary acquisition can proceed quite quickly, but for Mandarin you start at complete zero.Tones, Characters, new consonant sounds...those can all be learned just like anything else, but the big hurdle is vocab.

  • I'm currently learning Spanish by using the Pimsleur Approach. I do agree that there is a lot of English spoken in the lessons- but it is so only in the beginning.In the later lectures, the Spanish narrator asks the questions and not the English one. The Pimsleur method is so effective because if forces you , or rather stimulates you to think and consequently give the answers in Spanish.It is similar to teaching a child how to speak. And we all know how well children pick up a new language if they are constantly exposed to it. The lack of vocabulary is a concern though- I've learnt only about 200 words in 40+ lessons. I'll have to use a dictionary to build my vocabulary.

  • I've tried the Pimsleur Mandarin course and in fact I have all 3 levels but have to admit I only went through the first level but it went from complete gibberish at the start to me actually being able to discern a few words and make sense of it which is a good start.I've written a review of pimsleur also (not specifically mandarin though) and I've used them for a few languages so far. Mostly just dabbling with level 1 however I got reasonably good with one language after all 3 levels but certainly not fluent without some immersion and lots of talking with real people. Overall I like Pimsleur stuff, I feel it really helps get me up to speed and builds just enough conversational confidence to move forward.

  • The small course is actually only a hook for their larger courses.
    Pimsleur is one of my favorite tools. Vocabulary is introduced slowly, but it is introduced alongside structure. The full 30-lesson course is far superior. The amount of grammar you learn increases exponentially as you advance. Last year I did the 30-lesson course for Persian as an adjunct to my other courses and I found it profoundly helpful.And although I'm 38 I frankly appreciate, rather than resent, the pedagogical attitude of the narrator.

  • Falsehoods. I went through the whole Pimsleur Persian course before ever finding a native speaker--I'm in the northern Midwest USA--and when, after almost a year of Persian movies, music, and language programs (it was chronologically a year, though I took a fat seven-month break due to illness) I finally found a native speaker, he not only understood everything I said, but also said (his words) that he was impressed.
    I'm sorry if you, personally, cannot pick up pronunciation without a native speaker there to guide you. Some people just can't. To dismiss the actual experiences of readers as a "self-deluding fantasy," therefore, especially when you yourself have not gone actually gone through the program, is at best intellectually disingenuous.
    Not to mention being a dick to the guy.
    Sheesh.

  • Wow, digging up a 4-year-old conversation to start an argument is a pretty lame move.
    Also, while I encourage disagreement and discussion, I don't encourage name-calling. If you don't like something I say, you are always welcome to tell me. But if you want to call me a dick, you'll have to find a different medium on which to do it.

  • Pimsleur is slow for learning Spanish or Italian, but in Chinese the learning progress is slow anyway. If you used a faster course you would have to review the lessons more, so I think it would come out about the same.

  • I'm sure I'll just be chastised for 'digging up a 4-year-old conversation to start an argument', but I was directed to this site when I Google'd "The Pimsleur Approach for Mandarin" and I must say that your behavior in the comment section has made me uninterested in reading any more of your reviews.Also, as a language learner, I would expect you to know the difference between being called a dick and being told that you are acting like a dick (although now I'm convinced that both statements are true). Perhaps you could benefit from a short lesson in English Grammar after a few hours of instruction on professional behavior.

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