If you’ve ever looked at language courses, the chances are you’ve run across The Pimsleur Approach and its lofty claims. Recently, I followed the Pimsleur Russian course as well as the similar, though slightly less well publicised Michel Thomas Russian course and wanted write up some of my thoughts them.
For reference, I followed the courses in this order:
- Pimsleur Speak and Read Essential Russian 1 (15 hours)
- Michel Thomas Foundation Russian
- Michel Thomas Advanced Russian
- Michel Thomas Russian Vocabulary
Pimsleur and Michel Thomas are both audio only courses (Michel Thomas does have a small reading section, but it’s barely worth mentioning) that frequently encourage the listener to speak Russian in response to an instructor’s prompts - the nature of the prompts varies between the courses, which I’ll return to later, but they broadly follow the same structure:
- Introduce a Russian word and its English translation.
- Cover the correct pronunciation of said word.
- Practice using the word in a variety of sentence structures.
This process is repeated with gradually more complicated sentence structures as your vocabulary grows, calling back to previously learned words and using them in newer structures as well.
Despite their structural similarities, they differ in a number of ways. For one, Pimsleur is much more demanding of listener, asking that you devote a contiguous block of 30 minutes every day to it and review lessons if you feel you haven’t grasped most of the introduced words. By comparison, Michel Thomas opens by saying that you should relax, not worry about memorizing and that the responsibility for your learning lies with the instructor.
The most obvious difference though, is Michel Thomas’ use of students. The lessons take the form of a recorded lesson between an instructor and 2 students (one male and one female), with the listener encouraged to pause and attempt to answer the instructors challenges to the students, ostensibly becoming a third student in the recorded lesson.
Importantly, Michel Thomas introduces a lot more vocabulary than Pimsleur does in an equivalent amount of time. I’ll get into the reasons for this later and why it might not be entirely a bad thing, but it is still worth bearing in mind.
Before I talk about my overall experiences with the courses, I’ll start with a few disclaimers. First, in the time I’ve been learning Russian, I’ve been following multiple courses (audio and otherwise) at the same time, so none of these courses have been used in isolation. Also, I constitute a sample size of one, so remember that these are my personal impressions only and of course, your mileage may vary.
First off, a few things that both courses do well. The most important point is that they both encourage you to speak Russian early and often, checking your pronunciation against native speakers - this is a really big deal and something you’ll be missing out on completely if you only follow passive courses or written lessons. Both courses make good use of small ‘challenges’ (eg. “How would you say X in Russian?”) that require you to figure out new sentence structures or conjugations that you haven’t heard before. These challenges are set up to be easy enough, building on your existing knowledge, but the feeling of having a strong enough grasp of the language to make new constructions goes a long way towards building confidence.
Both courses also follow a similar philosophy of shielding you from jargon and lengthy explanations (at least early on) of grammatical rules, focusing instead on building your confidence before introducing more advanced concepts. It is in the introduction of advanced concepts however, that I saw the divergence between the courses, and also where I found myself gravitating towards Michel Thomas’s approach.
There were a few aspects of the Michel Thomas that initially caused it to gain favour with me, the most obvious being that it covers much more content in a given length of time. Importantly though, its tone is more relaxed and the format is more suited to listening in small chunks (I listened while cooking or walking to work), which fitted my schedule much better than Pimsleur.
At first, I thought the ‘recorded lesson’ format of Michel Thomas was a gimmick, but ultimately came around to the idea as the students asked insightful questions and made mistakes that reminded me I didn’t need to be perfect (further reinforcing the maxim of not worrying about memorization).
As an engineer, I like to understand how things work, which MT makes much more clear, frequently explaining elements of the language and grammar in plain terms along with numerous examples. By comparison, Pimsleur almost never explicitly explains or even references grammatical rules (at least as far as I progressed with it), leaving the listener to infer rules from examples and sporadic hints from the instructor. Despite leaving me hungry for more explanation, the Pimsleur approach can work very well here as it relies on our innate pattern matching abilities, but can also introduce many of the same issues seen in child language acquisition (eg. incorrectly extrapolating a perceived rule: “You’re my bestest friend!”), which Pimsleur prides itself on mimicking.
In the end, I developed a strong preference for Michel Thomas’ approach to explaining concepts as I found myself comprehending non-trivial concepts much faster than with Pimsleur. Another thing to note is that Michel Thomas actually does make direct reference to grammatical terms (accusative case, imperfective etc.) but only after you are confident actually using them - by comparison, the most technical term I ever encountered in Pimsleur was a reference to words being gendered. This might seem a trivial detail, but it really helped tie in with other sources (books, other courses etc.) and led to some real ‘ah-ha!’ moments as a previously encountered concept becomes more clear.
At its heart, Pimsleur is a Spaced Repetition system, relying on this to cement words in your long term memory and your aforementioned pattern matching abilities to pick up grammatical constructs. On paper this sounds great - you should end up with an intuitive understanding of the language without having to actively focus on learning it, but I found it had some significant pitfalls. For one, it takes much longer than simply explaining grammar as you have to build up a lot of examples before you can start recognizing complex grammatical patterns - it should result in more ‘natural’ learning, but it means a lot of repetition. More pertinently, Pimsleur’s reliance on spaced repetition make it very sensitive to missing your daily sessions. The first time I attempted to follow Pimsleur Russian, life got in the way and I left a few days between each unit which seriously hurt my progress as the course expects you to be up to speed with the last unit’s material fairly fresh in your mind.
For all the issues I had with it, I can’t argue with the effectiveness of the Pimsleur approach. I found the constant demand for timely responses (something MT puts no emphasis on), while occasionally stressful, was quite effective at eliciting timely responses, as I found myself responding more rapidly to Pimsleur prompts. Pimsleur also succeeded in making me think more ‘conversationally’ (one of its main selling points) as it often presents you with a question and challenges you to respond in Russian - something MT rarely does. Although the complexity of the sentences MT and Pimsleur expect you to construct are similar, the context in which you are expected to come up with them are notably different, for example, MT will ask you to translate sentence X into Russian, while Pimsleur may ask you a question and expect you to respond in Russian. Many Pimsleur units include a faux conversation in which you are given a broad instructions on how to respond to a speaker, e.g.. “Mr. X will suggest things, decline and suggest the opposite” another effective way of encouraging you to think conversationally.
A relevant anecdote here - I found myself able to easily recall words that I learned in Pimsleur (but hadn’t encountered in the months since stopping), faster than Michel Thomas words I had practised the previous day. This could be a complete fluke or a validation of Pimsleur’s Graduated Interval Recall, but perhaps worth considering.
A few bits of advice if you’re thinking of following either course:
- Revise in your down-time: More important for Pimsleur with its heavy reliance on having the last unit’s material fresh in your mind, but you should look for a way to quickly review your words for when you inevitably miss a day or two. I recommend taking the time to build up an Anki deck as you go, which allows you to practice in just a few minutes every day. It’s worth noting that MT explicitly advises against this, citing it’s mantra of never worrying about recall, which may be a reasonable approach during the course itself, but in the long term, you’re probably going to want to retain your knowledge without having to revisit the whole course.
- Combine with other courses: No single course is going to teach you everything, so combine courses. I personally found the Penguin Russian book worked as a great companion, solidifying concepts that were hinted at in Pimsleur and offering more detailed explanations than Michel Thomas provides. Pimsleur claims learning grammar in this way can be destructive - maybe its my inquisitive nature, but I found my progress was only enriched by learning in this way.
- Learn Cyrillic: Pimsleur doesn’t cover written Russian at all and Michel Thomas gives it a CD’s worth of material at the end of the foundation course, but if you’re ever planning on visiting Russia or following any of the countless courses that use Cyrillic, it’s a useful skill to put some time into.
To start with, I found Pimsleur hugely valuable to me - more than anything else, it built my confidence to use the language fluidly. Its not perfect though, it doesn’t cover as much as you might expect for a 15 hour course and the pace can sometimes seem frustratingly slow. For someone beginning at Russian who is willing to devote 30 minutes a day to it, I can recommend Pimsleur Russian.
Michel Thomas is course I can give a broader recommendation to. Though superficially similar to Pimsleur, it covers a lot more content and in a plainer and more flexible format and relaxed tone which I preferred. It may not give quite the same level of recall or ‘intuitive’ understanding that Pimsleur does, but it’s explanations are among the best I’ve heard and well worth your time investment.
tl;dr? Pimsleur teaches less, but really cements what it does in your brain. Michel Thomas teaches a lot more but doesn’t focus on SRS and growing confidence as much as Pimsleur.