Before I went to Japan in April, I decided I should probably learn some Japanese so I wouldn’t be totally lost when I was there. I didn’t have much time, and I was currently studying intensive Chinese at university, so I knew from the onset that I didn’t want to trouble myself learning the written language just yet. For this trip, just some basic phrases would be enough. So I decided to try out the Pimsleur Japanese course.
I’ve used Pimsleur before for Portuguese and found it very effective to get a firm grip on the basic spoken language, fast. If you haven’t heard of it, Pimsleur is an audio course which works by getting you to listen to and repeat words, phrases and sentences.
Note: This Pimsleur review is only about Pimsleur Japanese 1
Because of my shortage of time, I only managed to get through Pimsleur Japanese 1 before my trip to Japan – although they have 5 stages altogether.
Pros for Pimsleur Japanese 1
Get pronunciation on point
The biggest benefit of Pimsleur is that it really helps you train your pronunciation in a sophisticated and systematic way. How it works is that every time a new word or phrase is introduced, the word is broken up so we hear the last syllable first, then the last two syllables, and so on until the whole word is spoken. This helps to ensure that you are saying every part of the word correctly.
If you use Pimsleur as intended and speak out loud when they instruct you to, you can compare your pronunciation with that of the native speaker and continually adjust it until your speech is very comprehensible.
Note: if you are serious about improving your accent, check out my guide to better pronunciation.
Understand native speakers
The second thing that Pimsleur supposedly helps you with, after oral ability, is comprehension. This part is a lot more questionable I would say. Pimsleur is very limited to a certain number of words and phrases so unless a speaker says the exact thing you learned, you probably won’t understand people.
Of course, this is usually the last aspect of a language that people successfully master, so Pimsleur’s attempt at teaching you this skill early certainly can’t be faulted!
Form full and correct sentences
Pimsleur Japanese 1 definitely teaches a good number of sentences at a steady, but not overwhelming, pace. The good thing about their method is that absolutely every sentence you learn will be 100% grammatically correct. If you memorise these full sentences and repeat them in Japan, people will probably be very impressed and assume your level is greater than it actually is.
Culture and grammar explainers
Something I found interesting is that the response they teach you to someone complimenting your language abilities is different in the Portuguese and Japanese courses. For Portuguese, it was simply, “thank you for the compliment,” whereas in Japanese you are taught to say, “but I’m not skilled yet.” This shows that Pimsleur definitely takes into account cultural differences in putting together their courses. They also add little brief explainers to explain why you should respond a certain way, and how to be polite.
There are also brief grammar explainers and reminders, particularly when a structure is very different from English. This is good to get an initial understanding of the syntax of a language and start to get how it works.
Easy to fit into your day
These lessons are all shorter than 30 minutes in length, and don’t really require 100% of your attention. They are therefore the perfect thing to keep your mind busy while your body is occupied in a menial task. Some examples of when you could do your Pimsleur course is while you’re in the shower (if your speaker is loud enough), washing the dishes, cooking dinner, tidying up, commuting (car, public transport, walking, biking, whatever works!). Things you probably do every day without occupying your mind. Compared to other apps and learning methods, therefore, I would argue that Pimsleur is the best option for someone with a busy schedule.
Effective drumming into memory
Pimsleur starts off every lesson by spending about half the time just getting you to recall the things you learned before. It then uses the second half to integrate the things you know with new words and phrases. In other words, it ensures you are constantly having to recall things you have learned, which results in very effective language acquisition.
Pimsleur effectively uses spaced repetition. This is essentially bringing something up again just when you’re likely to forget it, to ensure it stays in your memory for as long as possible. When you first learn something, you’ll have to repeat it multiple times within a short space of time, and then slowly the time between each repetition gets more spaced out.
I still remember probably 80-90% of what I learned in the Pimsleur Japanese 1 course, even though I didn’t really use most of it in Japan, and I haven’t heard them in over a month.
Cons for pimsleur japanese 1
Not in-depth on grammar so a bit confusing
At first, in the most basic lessons, it’s quite easy to pick up the structures they introduce and get used to the Japanese word order. However, as the course moves on, it gets increasingly more confusing and hard to figure out why things are said the way they are. This has two main consequences. For one, it made it a lot harder to memorise the new phrases when I couldn’t understand their structure. The other problem is that if you intend to carry on learning Japanese, it doesn’t give you the ability to form sentences on your own.
I understand that no language’s grammar is simple enough to explain in a few seconds in an audio course. Pimsleur is not really structured in a way that is meant to teach you much grammar. This might work for some people, and for travel purposes only it certainly helps to keep things simple. However, if you intend to learn a language properly, understanding its grammar is crucial in my opinion.
Not much written japanese material
If you purchase the full app course on their website, it comes with a software programme which also works to teach you how to read the Japanese hiragana, katakana and some kanji. In saying that, it is safe to say this is not Pimsleur’s focus or their strong point. Because Japanese has such a complicated written language, if I wanted to learn it I would probably try to find a programme that focuses on mastering that aspect, not throws it in as an extra.
Not much vocabulary
All in all, the amount of vocabulary you would learn compared to using an app designed for that, like Memrise or Clozemaster, is very minimal. Depending on your perspective, you could therefore better spend your time elsewhere. Here’s some good options for online courses.
Pimsleur Japanese 1 does teach you how to ask where something is, a potentially very useful question. However, it then only tells you how to say “here” and “there”. In reality, if I ask a Japanese person where a certain train station or hotel is, I very much doubt they would only say “here” or “there”. As a result, I didn’t even bother to attempt to ask anyone this, knowing I would have no chance at understanding their response.
Not specifically for travel
In my article about how much of a language you should learn before you travel, I made a list of the key words and phrases you should probably know before you go to the country in question. Matching that up with what Pimsleur Japanese 1 teaches us, we can see how useful this programme is for travel.
Of the key travel words, it teaches you a whopping 7/7! This sounds impressive, but really these words are pretty much the most basic possible words to know in a language. So at least they have the basics covered.
When it comes to the phrases I suggest you know before you travel, things are a bit more complicated. Here they only get about 2.5 out of the 8 phrases. The reason they score much lower on this part is because these phrases I have picked are much more specific to what you would need when you travel. Pimsleur seems to focus more on conversations with either business partners or love interests than random strangers you would meet when you travel, the most probable conversation partner for a beginner in the foreign country.
For example, Pimsleur Japanese 1 doesn’t even teach you how to ask someone’s name. Instead it goes into detail about inviting someone to your house or hotel, which you arguably shouldn’t actually do until you know the person.
If you’re wondering where I got the 0.5 from, one of my suggested phrases is saying where you are from. Pimsleur only teaches you how to say you are either Japanese or American, so not useful for a majority of people.
On a positive note, more than one month since my last lesson, I can remember 100% of those travel words and phrases it did teach. So it is obviously doing something right! Even Felipe, who disgruntledly did the course but definitely isn’t as excited about languages as me, can still remember all 7 of my 7 essential words for travel.
Verdict: Is Pimsleur a good resource for Japanese for travel?
Pimsleur does so many things well, but it’s only gonna work for you if it aligns with your purpose. In my case, I really didn’t want to have to think about the written scripts, so it was a good way to learn some key phrases without having to worry about the writing. It’s also a great tool if you really feel like you need to improve your pronunciation or if you’re worried about being understood in your trip to Japan.
In saying that, if your main purpose of doing this is for a trip to Japan, you’re not going to learn all the things that would come in handy most for travel. In the end, I probably only used about 10-20% of what was actually taught in Pimsleur Japanese 1 when I was in Japan – and that was due to lack of utlity and not because I didn’t remember it! I would recommend checking my post on what to learn before you go to see what you should do if you want to ensure you are as prepared as possible for Japan!
Want to know what other Japanese courses are like? Check out this JapanesePod101 review.
If you do want to give Pimsleur’s Japanese course a go, now is a good time because they are currently offering up to 15% off. All you need to do is use the promo code WEBAPP. Check it out now.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, you might like to check out my Japan itinerary and Mt Fuji guide posts. Stay tuned for more to come on Japanese, including how to get around Japan without knowing Japanese! Make sure you subscribe to get email updates when new posts are out. In the meantime, check out this guest post from a while ago with all you need to know about learning Japanese in Japan.
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