So you want to learn Japanese, but you don’t have time or money for classes?
Learning a new language is hard, and most people who try end up quitting before they get very far. It takes time and persistence.
The Pimsleur courses are one of the most famous self-study language courses out there. They use an audio-based learning method that allows you to study at your own pace from home or on the go.
The lessons only take 30 minutes per day, and since they’re audio only (no textbook required), you can fit them in while driving, walking the dog or doing your chores.
The Pimsleur language courses have a fantastic reputation – but they won’t fit everyone’s learning style. I’ve taken a deep dive inside the Pimsleur Japanese course to find out the pros and cons. Read my full and honest Pimsleur Japanese review to see if it might be right for you.
Cancel before the end of the free trial to avoid charges!
What is the Pimsleur method?
The Pimsleur language courses are well known courses that have been around for a long time. The Pimsleur courses use the Pimsleur method, which is based on scientific research into how we learn languages.
The basic principles include only learning a small number of new words at any time, and reviewing new words at intervals until they’re firmly in your memory.
The Pimsleur courses are all audio based. There is no textbook, video or written resources.
The traditional version only included an audio track, but the new app has some extra resources such as flashcards to help you review your new words.
The Pimsleur method is available in over 40 languages, and a lot of raving fans who swear it helped them master a language.
But will it help you learn Japanese? I went through the course to bring you an honest Pimsleur Japanese review. Here’s what I thought.
Overview of Pimsleur Japanese course
The Pimsleur Japanese course is made up of 30-minute audio lessons.
There are five levels that take you from beginner to intermediate. Each level has 30 individual 30-minute lessons.
The first lesson is suitable for complete beginners.
You can take the course online or on the mobile app, or even play the lessons over Alexa.
All the course material is taught through the 30 minute audio lessons. After you listened to each lesson, you can review what you’ve learned using the flashcards, quizzes and shadowing features on the app.
The lessons have a heavy focus on speaking, including correct pronunciation. The lessons are designed to get you speaking right from the beginning.
You will do a lot of listening and repeating. For best results, you need to be prepared to speak out loud – don’t just practise in your head!
There are two presenters for each lesson: a native Japanese speaker, and an American. The native speaker always reads out the Japanese parts, so you will always hear the correct pronunciation. The American presenter gives explanations and instructions.
They will explain basic grammar as it comes up, but there isn’t really a focus on grammar.
Likewise, the course provides a basic introduction to the Japanese writing system, but it isn’t a focus. This course is really all about learning how to speak Japanese.
In each lesson, you will learn how to understand and take part in a brief conversation in Japanese.
The lessons cover essential phrases you would need to know as a visitor to Japan. You will learn greetings, directions, how to order in a restaurant, and so on.
It’s all very practical, but I did find the lessons can be on the drier side – especially compared to JapanesePod101 where they conjure up all kinds of crazy situations for their example dialogues!
Learning Japanese with Pimsleur
When I started the Pimsleur Japanese course, the first thing that struck me was that it dives straight in with speaking. You start repeating your first word within a minute. Very impressive!
What’s more, you learn practical phrases from the very beginning. If you were a complete beginner picking up this course, I think you’d feel confident and inspired from learning some useful words in your very first lesson.
The Pimsleur method is based on lots of repetition. You will go over each word and phrase over and over, until you know it inside out. Of course, this is what you need if you actually want to use your Japanese conversational skills in a real life. You need to drill words over and over until they’re deep in your memory, and Pimsleur helps with this.
But because it uses ‘spaced repetition’, the gaps between each reviewing each word will get longer and longer over time.
Since there is so much repetition, you don’t develop a very large vocabulary, but you will be confident using the language you do pick up. And they concentrate on the most frequently used vocabulary, so everything you learn (is supposed to) be useful.
After studying Japanese with Pimsleur, I feel like you will have a solid foundation in speaking Japanese and you’ll feel confident using the words and phrases taught in the course, but you will probably want to increase your vocabulary using other resources.
The Pimsleur method is all about speaking. This is the real strength of the course. You will be speaking, repeating and answering questions all the way through – don’t expect to sit back and listen passively!
The Pimsleur method has a unique way of teaching you to say words: they break them down into syllables, starting at the end and building backwards. This breaks the words into bite size chunks, which really takes away the overwhelm of the unfamiliar sounds.
I found this a bit strange to start with, but apparently it is very effective. The Pimsleur method pride themselves on teaching ‘near native’ pronunciation, and this way of breaking down words really helps you to pronounce words correctly. It also helps you memorise words more easily when you hear it bit by bit.
If you want even more speaking practise after your lesson, you can use the ‘speak easy’ feature on the app. This lets you practise ‘shadowing’, which is repeating each phrase after the speaker. You will repeat each phrase after the recording, while reading along with the transcript.
This function is also useful for people who need to see things written down to cement them in your memory, since the main lessons do not have a transcript (or any other written material).
However, the ‘speak easy’ feature doesn’t have a voice recorder or provide feedback on your pronunciation, unlike the similar functions on JapanesePod101 or Rocket Japanese. It’s just up to you to listen and repeat until you’re happy.
One of the main criticisms of the Pimsleur method used to be that they don’t teach reading or writing. A recent course update has introduced reading lessons. You will start to learn how to read Japanese characters in Lesson 11 of Level 1.
The Pimsleur course introduces the three Japanese writing systems slowly, like this:
- Level 1 – hiragana
- Level 2 – katakana
- Levels 3, 4 and 5 – kanji
In lesson 11, you’ll start learning one (hiragana) character at a time. The characters are taught in the context of words you already know. So for example, you’ll learn い (i), then え (e), then you’ll read the word いいえ (iie – no)
This little-by-little approach might be a good thing if you’re overwhelmed at the thought of learning the Japanese writing system, but not if you prefer to be systematic and learn all in one go.
Personally I much preferred to be systematic with learning the hiragana and study them all as a whole. It only takes a few hours to go through them all, and then a couple of weeks of practise to commit them to memory. But I can appreciate this approach might be too intense for some.
Of course, as mentioned above, the whole course is audio-based and the reading section feels kind of like an add-on. So you can study reading and writing using a separate app – or skip it all together.
Yes, you could actually complete the entire course without learning to read at all. The quizzes and flashcards have romaji-only versions (using the English alphabet).
This might be a plus or a minus for you, depending on your goals with learning Japanese!
The audio lessons explain basic grammar as it comes up in the conversations. For example, the first lesson teaches that you add ‘ka‘ to the end of sentence to make a question. You will practise this grammar by repeating and making questions using the vocabulary you’ve already learned.
However, Pimsleur generally doesn’t go into much depth on grammar. And there are no written grammar lessons to review.
If you’re curious about grammar and you want to have a deeper understanding of how the language works, you will find yourself doing further reading outside of the Pimsleur course.
As with all language courses, you have to think about your goals with the language.
If you just want to learn a few key phrases to get you through a vacation in Japan, perhaps grammar isn’t important to you. But if you wish to study to a high level – perhaps taking the JLPT or other formal exams – I think you would find Pimsleur lacking in this area.
One thing I noticed with Pimsleur is that the language type is formal (especially in the lower level classes).
This might be ok if you’re learning Japanese for business, or if you’re planning a trip and your interactions will be limited to formal interactions in shops and so on. But be aware that if you end up making Japanese friends, they will speak in a totally different way.
Of course, this is a problem with many Japanese courses, because the different levels of formality are one of the tricky parts of the language. But it’s just something you should be aware of, so you can supplement your study if needed.
Inside the Pimsleur Japanese app
With the Pimsleur app, you can switch between any of the 40+ languages that Pimsleur offer. (Note that there isn’t a separate Pimsleur Japanese app!)
The app is pretty simple but it’s easy to navigate and use.
To access the audio lesson (the main part of the lesson), you just hit the big play button at the top. Further down the screen, you’ll see the menu of other features you can use to practise your new words and phrases – but you must complete the audio lesson first.
You can also switch to ‘driving mode’. This is a distraction free screen with easier access to the pause and 10 second back/forward buttons.
Here are the other features on the app:
- Reading – only available after lesson 11.
- Flash cards – to practise new vocabulary. You can choose to go Japanese to English or the other way around.
- Quick match – a multiple choice quiz
- Speak easy – see, hear and repeat each phrase of this lesson’s featured conversation
- Speed round – another gamified way to test yourself, where you have to select the translation of the phrase as it moves down the page. Kind of fun but a little clunky
When you’re in one of these sections, you can switch between romaji (Latin letters) and Japanese script at touch of a button (which appears in the top right corner on each screen containing text). However, there is no kana only mode – only full Japanese with kanji. This makes it pretty useless at the lower levels since you are unlikely to be able to read it.
Pimsleur Japanese review: pros
- Research based methodology, long history of teaching languages
- Will help you become confident in speaking Japanese
- Great for pronunciation
- Good for studying on the go
- No additional materials (textbooks etc) needed
- Flashcards and quizzes to easily review new vocab
- Sync the app across various devices. Study offline once you’ve downloaded the content.
Pimsleur Japanese review: cons
- One of the more expensive courses
- Not strong in teaching reading or writing
- Not great for visual learners
- Dialogues can be a bit dull
Who would benefit from Pimsleur Japanese
- Auditory learners (people who learn best by listening)
- People who have time to focus on a 30 minute audio lesson each day, for example commuters
- People who want to learn Japanese speaking skills for a trip to Japan
Who should avoid Pimsleur Japanese
- People who prefer written or visual aids to learn
- People who need to prioritise reading and writing Japanese
What level is the Pimsleur Japanese course?
The Pimsleur Japanese course has 5 levels. These cover beginner and intermediate level Japanese.
Level 1 is for complete beginners. You can start knowing zero Japanese, and learn from scratch. If you progress through all 5 levels, you’ll have reached a decent intermediate level of conversational Japanese.
Will Pimsleur Japanese make me fluent?
Short answer: no. You will not become fluent in Japanese by studying the Pimsleur course.
But then, you are not likely to become fluent using any online Japanese course by itself. To reach real fluency you need a lot of real life practise – talking to Japanese people (in natural conversations, not just pre-recorded lessons), reading and listening to authentic materials, and so on.
The Pimsleur course can give you a strong grounding in Japanese, with confidence in speaking, and great pronunciation. Then it will be up to you to build on this foundation and work towards fluency.
Pimsleur Japanese subscription
The Pimsleur Japanese course is available in a few different formats. The most popular option is the Pimsleur Japanese Premium subscription. This costs $19.95 per month. The Premium subscription gives you instant access to all audio lessons (all 5 levels), as well as the quizzes and flashcards.
You can access it on your phone, computer, tablet or Amazon Echo device, and your account will sync across all devices, so you can pick up where you left off even if you move from your car into your office.
Alternatively, you can purchase the courses individually for a one-off fee (no rolling subscription charge). This gives you lifetime access.
The one-off cost for premium access (which includes the interactive quizzes and the reading lessons) is $150.00 per level, or $575.00 to purchase all five levels. There’s also the audio-only ‘basic’ option for $119.95 per level.
As you can see, Pimsleur is not the cheapest course out there. But it is known to be effective in teaching you to speak Japanese. If you are serious about studying Japanese, and intend to study one 30 minute lesson every day, I would say that the subscription is great value. But if you’ll only study once or twice a week, perhaps a cheaper option would be better value for you.
Pimsleur Japanese course free trial
The good news is that you can get full access to the Pimsleur Japanese course for free for 7 days. You can get immediate access to all lessons and test it out for yourself with the 7 day free trial – just click here.
Just be aware that you will be charged for the monthly subscription once the free trial is up, unless you cancel first. If you love it and don’t want to cancel, the subscription will start automatically.
Pimsleur Japanese review: conclusion
After testing out Pimsleur Japanese myself and reading lots of customer reviews, it seems to me that Pimsleur provides a very solid Japanese course that will give you a good foundation for speaking Japanese.
If you learn well by listening, and you want to prioritise speaking over other language skills, this could be the course for you.
The language you’ll learn in the Pimsleur Japanese course covers situations for meeting friends, everyday conversations, making plans, directions and so on. It would suit someone heading to Japan for work or travel who wants to get conversational fast.
If you are not an auditory learner, this is not the course for you. You might find it hard to keep interested and process the lesson with no video or written content. I always recommend knowing your language learning style, and choosing the Japanese course that works with you.
If you’re not sure, sign up for the free 7 day trial and test it out for yourself!
Rebecca is the founder of Team Japanese. She spent two years teaching English in Ehime, Japan. Now back in the UK, she spends her time blogging, self-studying Japanese and wrangling a very genki toddler.