Pimsleur, Paul. How to Learn a Foreign Language. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1980.

Reviewed by Olivia Mulford, Fall 2017.

Paul Pimsleur was an academic in the applied linguistics field, most known for the development of the Pimsleur language learning system which I will discuss in this review. His research focused on the language acquisition process and a person’s ability to learn a language. He was very accomplished in his field receiving both a Masters and Ph.D. from Columbia University in psychological statistics and French, respectively. Pimsleur’s approach focuses on three aspects: pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary; furthermore, he divides his text into two categories, the “why’s” of language learning and the “how’s” of language learning. Throughout this review, I will summarize and analyze Pimsleur’s techniques and suggestions on language learning and the effectiveness of his method.

The “Why’s” of Language Learning

Pimsleur begins the first section of the book by writing that everyone can learn a foreign language as long as they believe in themselves. More often than not, people are discouraged by high school language courses and convince themselves they simply cannot learn a language. Discouragement often creates a sense of giving up way before you see the results of your language learning.

He begins the first chapter analyzing when a language is easy to learn. Pronunciation is the first aspect; he claims that the closer the words and sounds are to your native language, the easier it is to learn. Each language has a set amount of sounds ranging from 15-60; for example, Hawaiian has 15 which makes it a difficult language to understand because of the lack of differentiation between sounds, while English and French have around 30. Pimsleur believes that out of all three language aspects, pronunciation is the easiest to master. Pimsleur argues that there is no such thing as “primitive” grammar; all languages possess grammar that is systematic, internally consistent, and well-adapted. He argues that basic grammar rules can be summed up in 100 pages or less; therefore, he finds grammar rather easy to learn especially compared to vocabulary. He finds vocabulary the hardest aspect of a language to master; he argues that to have a basic command of a language, one must master around 1500 words and to be considered “fluent” it is closer to 5000 words. The easiest words to grasp are those most similar to your native language. English is a Teutonic language; therefore, it is easier to learn vocabulary in other Teutonic languages or in the Romance language family. In Pimsleur’s book, he presents a list of 50 French words and argues that the average American can guess 15-17 words correctly based solely on the similarities to English, and the same can be said of other languages in the same family. His argument in this subsection is that the “easier” languages to learn are those that are most similar to your native language.

In the book’s second section, Pimsleur discusses the time it takes to learn a language. Logically, the amount of time needed to learn a language depends on the target language; the duration of study also depends on the reason you want to study the language. If it is to just learn basic travel phrases the duration will be much shorter than if you intend to write a dissertation in the target language. In the chapter about study duration, most of Pimsleur’s research is based on the State Department’s FSI proficiency ratings which analyzes an employee’s ability to use a language. According to the FSI and Pimsleur, a person of average ability can achieve the first level of an “easy” language, such as Spanish, in 220 hours. In Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition, Leaver et al also analyze length of study and mastery of a language. Leaver et al write that a language such as Spanish takes six months or 720 hours of study to reach the superior level (26). These numbers are based on an intensive learning curriculum of five-six hours of language learning a day. These numbers, therefore, can be skewed for those people who do not have access to curricula of that intensity. Pimsleur and Leaver et al write that languages such as Arabic, take up to 1320 hours to reach a minimum professional proficiency. Unless one is learning a language for a job or advanced schooling, it may not be as important to reach a level of professional proficiency. Pimsleur offers the idea of “alternative goals” for those people whose long-term goals are not professional proficiency, or who do not have access to curriculums that are dedicated to full-time language learning. He writes that some people’s goals are strictly learning courtesy and necessity speaking levels which can take as little as three months of dedicated study. However, he claims that a goal of balanced competence (reading and writing) can be attained in two years. Not everyone has the same goals for language learning, so assessing one’s motivation and goals for learning a certain language is important.

Motivation and assessing goals bring Pimsleur to the next subsection: What language is right for you? Are you looking to travel to a certain country, or do research somewhere? The Peace Corps volunteer manual lays out a set of questions on the motivation for language learning; this includes long-term and short-term goals, who you want to be able to communicate with, and choosing topics you want to focus on. Both Pimsleur and the Peace Corps stress that you should not make a broad goal like “fluency,” but rather more attainable short-term goals.  It is important to consider the reason for learning a target language and assessing the amount of time needed to learn the language. As said before, the closer to English a language is, the easier it will be to learn. It is also important to assess the difficulty of the language’s pronunciation, grammar rules, and vocabulary. Pimsleur writes that this section is solely for those people who do not have a strong affinity towards a language and who may need to weigh the costs and benefits of the amount of work a certain language needs. He focuses mainly on French, Spanish, German, and Italian throughout this book and does it effectively, but I think it is important to also analyze more difficult languages such as Mandarin, Hindi, or Arabic that are becoming more popular to learn.

Pimsleur’s last “why” section is the idea of organic learning and the importance a teacher can be in your education. He argues that a good teacher is one who speaks the target language and introduces the basic sayings on day one as opposed to the teacher who describes the different terms or sound types of a language. It is more beneficial for students to decipher the basic sayings of a language and actually interact with it rather than being spoken to about a language. This chapter stresses the fact that good teachers only speak in the target language and speak no more than five minutes in English. Grammar can be a confusing topic to address for students learning a new language, so because of this, teachers should devise drills for students to use the new rules; grammar rules are best learned by using.

The “How’s” of Language Learning

When it comes to language learning, every person is different and must find the right technique for their learning style. In this chapter, Pimsleur presents different techniques to work on pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary for those who are in language classes and those who are learning on their own.

The easiest place to begin is with pronunciation and how to practice it. It is important to focus on sounds, not letters. In French, r has several pronunciations, so focusing solely on the letter will not be helpful with words that pronounce the letter differently (Pimsleur 46). It is important, when learning new words, to first get it planted in your ear and then reproduce that sound with your tongue, and lastly using your eye. Sometimes just looking at a word and trying to produce the sound is difficult and will create the wrong pronunciation. In this chapter, Pimsleur’s main argument is that good pronunciation starts in the ear, not the mouth.   A trick that Pimsleur writes about is pronouncing new words from end to beginning. The example he gives is the Spanish word, nacionalidad, meaning nationality. His first drill is to sound out the word by starting at the end with –dad, then moving to –lidad, to –nalidad, to nacio-, and finally nacionalidad (Pimsleur 48). He recommends performing this drill with a native speaker to ensure correct pronunciation, using a repeat-after-me technique, this drill can also be used for phrases or sentences. Working with a native speaker, he suggests, is important for checking your pronunciation, otherwise, it is possible for mistakes to be made.

Similar to pronunciation, Pimsleur suggests working on grammar through the ear and therefore suggests working with tape recorders. The drill he suggests for grammar is a technique called anticipation and cue-pause-response. This technique involves recording cues that will elicit the grammar rule in question, pausing for the answer, and then providing the correct response. To master a grammar drill means that one can use the rule at any point in time no matter the situation. Similar to Pimsleur, the National Association of Self-Instructional Language Programs also uses tape recordings in their instruction. The NASILP “student study guide” writes that “one must repeat everything they hear as listening will not advance one’s speaking skills” (4). NASILP uses their tapes more towards listening passages instead of drilling; however, both NASILP and Pimsleur have the same idea of listening and repeating recordings to further language growth. Pimsleur’s other piece of advice is to learn the hardest thing first, and the rest will seem easy. An example of this would be practicing a sentence with multiple pronouns instead of just one, such as, “She gave it to him” (68). Although it seems to be a challenge, he argues that it is not that much more difficult than using only one pronoun. He believes that by addressing the hardest aspect at the beginning of a lesson the learner will be more receptive.

Tackling “how” to learn vocabulary is, in Pimsleur’s eyes, a difficult task, as becoming fluent in a language requires learning an extensive amount of vocabulary. He believes knowledge is best when it is available in any order through the technique of randomization. Randomization is done best with flashcards and reading. According to Pimsleur, the least advantageous thing a person could do to learn vocabulary is repetition; repetition creates a sense of hypnosis within people which does not increase growth. Instead of repetition, he suggests the graduated interval recall method, instead of simply repeating the word over and over and forgetting it five minutes later, he argues that it is important to test yourself five seconds after learning the word which will revive your memory. Through this method, you can continuously revive the meaning using different time intervals between until you have learned the word. This method suggests that the more you refresh your memory, you will not have to refresh your mind as much in the future. Leaver et al also write about memory and an activated (working) memory, an activity of bringing information from short, long, and permanent memory. These activities can include recognition and recall that are similar to Pimsleur’s method.


Throughout this text, it seemed as though this method and Pimsleur’s “how’s” and “why’s” were focused towards beginners or people who are trying to figure out “how” and “why” to learn a language. If you are a beginner learner and are seeking some tricks, then I think this book does a good job introducing language learning; however, for those who are continuing to learn a language, I do not think it gives detailed enough suggestions or ideas on how to continue more advanced learning. Pimsleur never defines his idea of fluency. In the first section of his book, he says that to be considered fluent one would know around 5000 words, but never defines the term “fluency.” It also spent a decent amount of pages on the teaching of a foreign language and what makes up a “good” teacher, pages which took away from information that could be spent on delving more into helping give advice to the learner. The book seemed like a crash course for beginner learners; if that is the intended purpose of the book, great. Overall, I think Pimsleur’s book reads as a self-help book for beginners and for that reason I do not see it being beneficial for advanced learners.

Works Cited

Leaver, Betty Lou., Boris Shekhtman, and Madeline Elizabeth. Ehrman. Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Peace Corps. Volunteer On-Going Language Learning Manual. Center for Field Assistance and Applied Research Information Collection and Exchange, 2000.

Pimsleur, Paul. How to Learn a Foreign Language. Heinle & Heinle, 1980.

“Student Study Guide.” National Association of Self-Instructional Language Program. 2014. https://canvas.wisc.edu/courses/18400/files/53807.