As part of a brief series I'll be doing on learning Russian, I decided it was time to cover Pimsleur - one of the most famous and ball-bustlingly expensive language tools out there.
Many other reviews out there are from language companies or polyglots that talk about the software in general. Well, in my case, the only language I know truly fluently (apart from my native English of course) is Russian so I will talk about how good it is for Russian only.
I first used Pimsleur years ago, when I was looking for any extra materials to help me with Russian. This was before the days of torrents and I actually used Limewire to download whatever lessons I could (price tag was just too high). I enjoyed it as a supplementary tool, but I was because I didn't have the lessons back to back.
Pimsleur Russian (like all of them) has a heavy focus on audio with written materials almost as a second thought.
The theory behind it all is called spaced repetition, something invented in 1932 by a professor by the name of C.A Mace.
Basically the courses introduce you to new words and phrases and then have you reusing these new words and ever increasing intervals. It's a good way to keep on top of new materials.
The courses introduce new ideas and phrases each lesson and provide a pretty good pronunciation breakdown (a good thing for a tongue-twisting languages like Russian). Then, the narrator prompts you to interact.
In other words, this isn't just a case of sitting back and blindly repeating new words, one after another. You actually have to think and interact. So, you couldn't use something like this, for example, in the car.
Gradually you're exposed to more words, phrases and interactions, building your vocab and by the time you finish the course you should, in theory, be speaking like a freaking boss. Except, it's not all bilingual boss talk. Oh no. Russian being the beast that it is, comes with some specific points that are not so easy to tame.
Before I systemically rip the fine folks at Pimsleur a new asshole, I'll talk about the good bits of Pimsleur Russian.
Get speaking quickly
Firstly, it get's you speaking without getting bogged down in the grammar. Since Russian is a daunting language, it's nice to get started by speaking right off the bat.
You get extra speaking practice and special attention to pronunciation which is super important with Russian.
As you probably know, if you get the stress wrong on a Russian word, you most likely won't be understood. You'll be given that special stare - the one reserved for the mentally feeble the world over.
Not only that, you might end up with a totally different meaning altogether (замок Vs замок) once again making you look somewhat of a tit.
The speech speed in Pimsleur Russian is quite natural and you'll get a better feel for the rhythm of the language, this too is good for both understanding and speaking.
If you study Russian just by books, you'll be in for a brutal shock when you need to start speaking and understanding.
A relaxed way to start
I would say that Pimsleur Russian has a nice, hand-holding approach. You don't have to plan hard. Just press play and get involved. When you self study, you have to be on top of everything, all the time, picking all the materials you use. So it's nice when you can just sit back and go with the flow.
You'll pick up new words and phrases and get a feeling a progress. Also, word recognition is helped along by spaced repetition. The method really does work quite nicely, although you'll probably be repeating each uni a few times before moving on.
But, before we get all warm and fuzzy, I have to brace you for the negatives - there's a few big ones!
The biggest problem with Pimsleur Russian has to do with Russian grammar.
Whether you love or hate grammar, you can't really get by without it, sorry but it's just the way it is.
Of course, if your goal is to speak the Borat equivalent of Russian for the rest of your life, that's fine, rock and roll.
So, if you want to sound at least semi-normal in Russian , you'll need to get at least a little bit familiar with Russian.
The specific problem with Pimsleur Russian is that you will never have the proper grammar chops to communicate outside of the phrases you know.
It's fine that you get taught to say "I want five naked women" in Russian. But, because of Russian's case system, you'll be stuck when you want to say "I want five Russian shot glasses".
Even if you know the words separately, you won't know the grammar to make the sentence right. Again, Russian cases.
Learning the exception-to-rule filled Russian language is a bit of a task on its own.
It's not easy, but it's not impossible either.
While Pimsleur Russian can give you some of the grammar pointers and illustrative sentences, it just doesn't cut it in the long run.
The written side of Pimsleur is on the weak side. It's basically just a transcript of the lessons. Then of course there is the alphabet which you'll need to master. Fortunately the Russian alphabet isn't actually that hard to learn.
So, using Pimsleur Russian, you won't exactly be ready to take on any Dostoevsky shit, not even Chekhov! So, best to use other materials to sharpen your written Russian.
Generally speaking, at the end of all the audio courses, your vocab will not be all that impressive and it will be somewhat context relative (ordering food, asking directions etc). If you just focused on memorizing words, you could certainly learn a lot more in the same time that it takes to cover all the units (although your pronunciation might suck).
You won't be fluent
I mean, I don't know of any material that can take you from zero to fluent. It's what we all want, but it just doesn't exist. Good materials can help you learn efficiently and set a solid base, but Russian requires a reasonably solid grammar foundation- something Pimsleur doesn't provide in my view. So, basically, you'll have a limited vocab and poor grammar.
Currently, if you go for the disk option, you're looking at a groin crippling $345 USD and a slightly less nut-crippling $119 for the mp3 version. Ouch!
If you do decide to go for the disks (although I'm not sure why you would in 2013), maybe check out the second hand options on Amazon.
Ignore any marketing claims you read for almost any product, period.
No, you won't be fluent in two weeks, three months or even three years. If you are an average language learner, with average time constraints, you still won't be that good - even after years! This fact is quite depressing and would not make good sales copy.
All you can do is make the process more efficient and eliminate ineffective approaches. For some more ideas on this, check out the this post by the all-around awesome Tim Ferris.
So returning to my point, forget about those magic claims and mastering a language while you sleep. While you're at it, cast aside the notion of six pack abs while you sleep too!
If you have realistic expectations, you will not be disappointed. With languages, as with anything else, there are no magic bullets. If you are looking for the one uber system that will take you all the way to fluent (which is actually a vague term and depends on personal definition), you will most likely be disappointed - whatever system you choose.
But I can say, generally speaking, I like the Pimsleur Russian approach, even though it's somewhat flawed. The most important thing to remember is that it should be used in conjunction with other methods. I can't stress this enough. If you use it as a standalone method, you'll fail. But, combining it with other lessons, textbooks and approaches, I think it makes a nice addition and a decent way to get speaking fairly quickly.
So, I recommend this as an additional resource (for more book ideas, check out my guide on the best books for learning Russian). If you have the money to spend (or love web piracy), go for it.
If you've used Pimsleur Russian and have an opinion, do me a favour and let me know your experiences in the comments.