Ashwin Purohit

Essays & Articles

A review of Pimsleur German I, II, III, and IV

I had trouble finding a review of Pimsleur’s German course by someone with linguistics familiarity, so for my upcoming trip nach München I listened to all 100 30-minute lessons (50 hours), which took about two months (one lesson a day).

Note: Since I first wrote this article many years ago, I moved to Germany and have a more extensive write-up on all the methods I’ve used: Learning German: A1 to C2.

The method

The Pimsleur method is: you repeat a native speaker’s spoken sentences, and practice by answering questions posed to you. A typical 30-second section will go like this:

English narrator (E): The word for post office in German is:

German narrator (G): Post. (pause). Die Post. (pause). Die Post.

E: How would you say, “How do I get to the post office?” (pause).

E: Say, “to the post office” (pause).

G: zur Post. (pause). zur Post.

E: Now, say, “How do I get to the post office? Literally, how come I to the post office?” (pause).

G: Wie komme ich zur Post? (pause). zur Post. (pause). Wie komme ich zur Post?

The sentences are constructed backwards, and you’re tested in the audio pauses to answer from memory. It’s effective: I’ve retained all of the vocabulary I learned, due to the use of graduated interval recall, or the process of repeating words at intervals spaced increasingly further apart (after one lesson, then three lessons, then after 15 lessons, and so on).

Speech cadence

You become familar with the way native German sounds. I self-studied German for about a year before taking this course, but through reading I couldn’t acquire the cadence of the language. So, when I tried listening to Deutsche Welle I found myself despairing at the impenetrable throat-noise hurled at me.

It will become much easier to listen to sentences with unfamiliar German vocabulary, because your brain will separate grammatical constructions you’ve already heard, from truly new vocabulary. For example, if someone said to you (before studying the courses), “Es gibt mehr als eine Art der Freiheit: die Freiheit zu, und die Freiheit von”, your brain might think “es ???? mehr ??? ??? ???? zu und die ??????,” (translation: what?). But after being able to recognize basic sentence construction by studying the courses, your brain would think “es gibt mehr als eine ??? der ?????: die ????? zu, und die ????? von,” (translation: there exists more than one x of y: y to, and y from) making it easier for you to just ask what x and y mean, to fill in your comprehension.

Everyday situations

Your response time to common German questions will increase dramatically, even if you don’t understand the question. You won’t have to rack your brain when someone asks you “Wissen Sie, wo man sich etwas Stoff beschaffen kann? (Do you know where one can score some drugs?)” You’ll just say, “Ich weiß es leider nicht (Unfortunately, I don’t know),” and go on your merry way.

You’ll be able to handle common small-talk, like, “What does your son do for a living?” (”Was ist ihr Sohn von Beruf?”), and give a reasonable answer, “Er arbeitet bei Google.” You’ll be able to ask for a doctor if you need help, tell time, fill-up a car, order two Schnitzel and ask a woman to play tennis with you, have a coffee afterwards, and then invite her over to your house after you’ve ensured she doesn’t have a husband. Oh, and the conversation is geared towards 40-year old American businessmen looking for a little something on the side while in Germany for the week. You learn how to bring someone their whiskey before you learn the word “bread” (actually, you never learn it).

Poor vocabulary

Pimsleur fails at vocabulary. The course is titled “Comprehensive German.” False. You’ll learn basic, functional German, at times optimized for an adulterous businessman.

Let’s say you’re watching a German television show. How much will you understand? The opening scene of Breaking Bad 5x02 “Madrigal” recently showcased some German. The CEO of Madrigal, Herr Schuler, sits in his company’s test kitchen, and tastes the latest concoctions produced by his French-Fry-Sauce Research Department. The head scientist painstakingly and eagerly details these new flavors, but Herr Schuler doesn’t care because the cops just showed up and he’s anxious. Ready?

  1. Honey Mustard! Von der Forschungsabteilung, dies ist unserer süßer Rezept fur den Amerikanischen Mittleren Westen. Honey Mustard! From the research department, this is a sweeter recipe for the American Midwest.
  2. Wir haben den Zuckeranteil fast 14% erhöht. We increased the sugar content by nearly 14%. take shape.
  3. Benutzen wir aber 2,2% weniger Honig. But we’re using 2.2% less honey.
  4. Das ganze bilanzieren wir aus mit der HFCS. We balance it all with high-fructose corn syrup.
  5. Wir sind ganz zufrieden mit dem Ergebnis. We’re really happy with the result. [moves to next sauce]
  6. Dies hier ist eine neue Konzeption. Wir finden sie echt prima. This here is a new concept. We think it’s truly amazing.
  7. Halb-French dressing, Halb-Ranch. Half-French dressing, half-Ranch.
  8. Wir nennen es einfach, «Franch». We simply call it, “Franch.”

After the full Pimsleur course, you wouldn’t have understood anything but the cognates, like Halb-French dressing and Amerikanischer Mittlere Westen. Since I’ve read a few German books, I could piece it together (though I studied sentence 4 for about 10 minutes) because they use common German verbs (nennen - to name, erhöhen - to increase), adjectives (zufrieden - pleased, süß - sweet), adverbs (fast - nearly, einfach - simply, echt - truly), and nouns (Ergebnis - result, Rezept - recipe). Even the combo words, like Forschungs (research) + Abteilung (department) and Zucker (sugar) + Anteil (content) are made up of easy components. But with Pimsleur, you don’t get any of this vocabulary so you won’t understand anything.

I looked at a German vocabulary frequency list, and you learn almost all of the 200 most common ones (with notable exceptions like reden [speak] and wohl [well]). From 200-1000 there are huge gaps – and if you don’t know 100% of the 1000 most frequent German words, you haven’t learned comprehensive German. You’ve learned just enough German to get by. You’ll need to supplement your learning by reading or using a vocabulary program.

German IV uses an unlikely scene for its 10 recordings: a book fair. That’s right, you’re at the book fair and you like to talk about detective novels. I learned how to say “Ich bin auf der Buchmesse. Ich möchte die Rechte für «Ins Chaos» kaufen” (I’m at the book fair. I want to buy the rights to “In Chaos”). You learn low-priority vocabulary like “veröffentlichen” (to publish) instead of the basics like, you know, how to get a slice of bread.

Cases

For English-speakers, the use of the four German cases (Nominativ, Akkusativ, Dativ, Genitiv) is the bane of German. You will cringe at the though of remembering declension tables for masculine, feminine, neuter, and plural adjectives in each of the four cases, further complicated by all sorts of special-case noun endings and more. If you’re a masochist, you can get Hammer’s German Grammar, but I guarantee you won’t have time to think through 600 pages of nuanced reference material when you want to state something simple like, “I gave him the ticket already” (Ich habe ihm die Fahrkarte doch schon gegeben).

Through Pimsleur you acquire what “sounds right” for adjective, noun, and pronoun declensions. Your brain starts to subconsciously realize that when you’re performing an action on something, it just sounds wrong to have the r- or m-sound ending a pronoun or adjective (Ich hole deinen Whisky vs. the wrong Ich hole deinem Whisky). It just sounds wrong to say, “Wo kann man den Fahrkarten kaufen” because a plural noun just wouldn’t have that shudder-inducing n-sound at the end of an adjective. You become repulsed by wrong declensions because they sound bad, and that’s exactly what you want: a native ear for the language.

Is it worth the price?

It’s good for the speech cadence and pronunciation. Simon & Schuster get away with the $760 combined price tag because it’s the best product on the market. If you have the money, start with Pimsleur German I on Amazon. You can skip German IV, because book fair vocabulary is a waste of time. If you can’t shell out, libraries, man.

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Berlin-based software engineer building machine learning backends.

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