I have trouble finding a good explanation of what the Pimsleur method is and why it works, if it does. So: What is the method and why does it work?
This is an "unofficial" explanation based on my personal experience.
What is it?
Pimsleur method is an series of audio-courses that focus heavily on auditory/verbal perception, as oppose to visual one.
In the beginning students are expected to know nothing about the language they decided to study.
Pimsleur method recognizes that some words are more important (allow to build more phrases) than others. For example, one can say "I speak Spanish", or "I understand Spanish". The verb "understand" is learned first, because it can be used in other useful phrases, such as "I understand [you]." Hence the students learn many of the most frequent words.
Students learn the structure of the language by building many simple sentences. When trying to use language in a real world with unfamiliar words it is often sufficient to find translations for the new words, but the student has an understanding on how to use them in a sentence. For example, in a lesson student practices to buy "a hat", or "a shirt". If in real life one has to buy "shoes" the effort of building phrases is minimal.
Each lesson in the course is 30 minutes long. Throughout the lesson student is either taught new words, or is asked to say words/phrases that he/she already knows. The speaker asks student to pronounce a phrase. After a pause of 3-5 seconds the correct pronunciation by native speakers is played (and often repeated the second time).
During a single lesson of 30 minutes the student is asked to pronounce hundreds of phrases with minimal time to prepare for them. As a result the student learns to use phrases at almost conversational speed, as oppose to the amount of time one would take to write down a phrase.
The words that are learned in one lesson do not disappear in the next one, but are repeated less and less frequently in the subsequent lessons. Such technique requires students to recall phrases memorized earlier, and it builds much "stronger" memory than in "learn once" approach.
Each lesson is properly structured with a warm-up period in the beginning. The student listens to a short dialog of native speakers, then is asked easy questions. Then material from the previous lesson is repeated. Then new words are introduced and practiced. A student is expected to complete full lesson in one "sitting". It is more difficult and less productive to interrupt a lesson in the middle and then continue, let say, 10 hours later.
After completing one level (30 lessons) student should have an active vocabulary of about 250-300 words. The additional levels increase vocabulary by the same amount.
One could argue that he/she can memorize 10 words per lesson in far less time than 30 minutes. However, in a Pimsleur lesson the student learns to use words not to memorize them. The same word is combined with other words in many forms. It is used in different situations/contexts, with different intonation.
Does the method work?
It works in my case. It works for many other people.
Some people report that they supplement Pimsleur courses with reading and writing aids.
The Pimsleur method is named after Paul Pimsleur, who was a professor in applied linguistics. According to Wikipedia,
he identified three factors that could be measured to calculate language learning aptitude: verbal intelligence, auditory ability, and motivation.
According to the website PimsleurMethod.com, the method
takes advantage of the way the human brain acquires language as speech and creates its methodology around the single fact that there is a central way everyone acquires the ability to communicate in any language.
In practice, this means that the developers of a Pimsleur course need to carefully select and organize language learning materials "to fit the one way that the stream of speech of an unknown language can enter the consciousness of the adult and be processed through the language learning power of the human brain".
So far, this is still rather vague, but two things should be clear:
- There is an emphasis on spoken communication, as opposed to written communication.
- The Pimsleur method is strictly speaking not a self-learning method but a teaching method.
The method also involves the careful choice and timing of questions that the learner needs to answer:
The fine art of asking questions which will encourage the learner to induce the grammatical basis for answering the question, not only correctly, but also with the appropriate sounds of the new language as it delivers the meaning involved, is what enables the programmed Pimsleur course to make language acquisition happen whenever the audio is heard.
It uses "Graduated Interval Recall", which is essentially another name for spaced repetition, but is uses questions instead of flashcards.
It also uses the "Principle of Anticipation", which the website Inglese Senza Sforzo describes as follows:
this [= the Principle of Anticipation] means (...) that you must think about the situation and retrieve the answer from your own memory before it is confirmed in the lesson. It works as follows: The lesson will pose a challenge—perhaps by asking you, in the new language: "Are you going to the movies today?" There will be a pause, and, drawing on information given previously, you will say: "No, I went yesterday." The instructor will then confirm your answer: "No, I went yesterday."
In practice, Pimsleur courses have three levels, with each level having 30 lessons of 30 minutes each.
The review by Does It Really Work says the Pimsleur method
is unlike other programs where you’re just listening to a native speaker and repeating vocab words. You hear full sentences, and then they break them down by groups of words, and then each individual word is broken down so you get a strong grasp of the pronunciation.
According to the review at Effective Langauge Learning, "you won’t leave beginner level at the end".
There are many other review of Pimsleur courses on the web. Many point out that it's best for auditory learners, since it is entirely based on audio. What some see as a disadvantage is that you won't learn the written language. For example, this review of Pimsleur Mandarin Chinese lists not teaching Chinese characters as a downside to the method. However, however, as I pointed out in another answer, learning to speak Chinese or Japanese before learning to read and write it is a perfectly sensible approach.