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Pimsleur vs Duolingo
Our thorough, side-by-side analysis of the language learning apps from Duolingo and Pimsleur
Sometimes language learning companies take different approaches to how they teach material. Such a divergence in methods might not be more evident than with Pimsleur and Duolingo. While Pimsleur uses a conversational-focused approach based on the teachings of master linguist Paul Pimsleur, Duolingo brings a more modern method to the table with gamification of learning and free apps. So which one is better? After thoroughly using and testing each program, we answer just that question in this detailed comparison.
As we typically write long, detailed comparisons, we’ve added jump-to links above so you can quickly jump to your target section.
Pimsleur vs Duolingo Video Review
In the above video, John covers everything you need to know about Pimsleur and Duolingo, including how they stack up in terms of effectiveness, app quality, price, and more. For more detail though, keep reading our full guide below.
Quick Overview of the Pimsleur Program
To set the stage for our thoughts on the Pimsleur program and how it compares to Duolingo, let’s briefly discuss how the lessons from Pimsleur are structured. This will help provide some context.
Essentially with Pimsleur, their lessons are rooted in conversational practice. To start each lesson, you complete a 30-minute audio exercise, where a moderator speaking in English walks you through a native conversation step-by-step. You’ll listen to a few sentences in your target language before the moderator stops and explains the situation to you.
Then he’ll have you participate in the exercise by directly asking you questions. In other words, you can sort of think of this primary exercise as a guided conversation. And that’s really the heart of the Pimsleur lessons – they zero in on conversational listening and speaking.
As you move up levels, the English moderator begins to slowly phase out as you get more familiar with the target language, until they’re finally gone completely near the end.
But it’s not just the audio lessons with Pimsleur. After the audio portion, you review what you just learned through a variety of quick-hit visual drills and exercises. This includes reading drills, digital flashcards, quizzes, pronunciation training, and speed games.
Our Thoughts On The Pimsleur Course
With that in mind, let’s get into the major pros and cons of the Pimsleur program, particularly in the context of comparing it to Duolingo.
Developing Your Conversational Skills
The first noteworthy call-out is that Pimsleur is much better than Duolingo at developing your conversational skills. Instead of just listening to or reading an individual word or phrase and then repeating it in order to memorize it (like you do with Duolingo most of the time), the Pimsleur audio lessons are much more contextually powerful and effective.
The lessons ask you to say words or phrases and respond to a native speaker in the context of an actual conversation. This helps to keep you from becoming a passive listener as you’re actively involved in tracking the conversation.
The moderator of the audio lessons keep you on your toes and you need to understand what’s going on, as you’re frequently asked questions and need to respond at various intervals.
In my opinion, this active participation is powerful at getting you to recall vocabulary and use the language under pressure just as you would in real life situations. That’s the key with Pimsleur, you’re getting simulated real world experience.
And at the end of the day, that is generally the best environment for truly learning a new language, especially as opposed to just listening and repeating words in a vacuum like you do with Duolingo.
Because the core Pimsleur lessons are audio-based, I like that you can complete them while you’re exercising, gardening, or just relaxing outside. It’s nice you don’t have to be attached at the hip to your computer or phone at all times like you do with Duolingo.
I mean, you do have to have a device close by, but your eyes aren’t glued to the screen. You’re free to stay productive while learning.
The Pimsleur mobile app even has a special driving mode so you can learn and complete lessons while on your way to work or on a long road-trip.
So overall, I give Pimsleur two big thumbs up for how flexible their lessons are. I love that you don’t need to stay in one place with your head buried in your phone or computer. Rather, you can complete lessons while you’re on the go.
More Natural & Accurate Language Usage
Next, I found that Pimsleur is better at using natural sentences and phrases than Duolingo. With Duolingo, this seems to be a recurring issue among customers and even I noticed it myself. In fact, I also saw a lot of complaints online regarding incorrect translations with Duolingo as well, though I didn’t have too many issues with this.
And to be fair, it does seem like Duolingo has made strides to improve in this area, but you still occasionally come across an awkward sentence or phrase that sort of turns your head. Sometimes it’s a small grammatical error that makes you pause, and other times it’s a more major “hold the phone, what did I just hear?” type of moment.
A couple examples of unnatural sentences I saw with Duolingo were “it called my fat” and “the bed is food.” It’s not a huge deal necessarily and it doesn’t happen all the time, but it can disrupt and distract your learning process from time to time.
I think the key takeaway here is that Pimsleur seems to be more consistent and accurate when it comes to using natural sentences and correct translations within its lessons.
Freedom Across Lessons
When it comes to how rigid your learning schedule is, Pimsleur offers much more flexibility than Duolingo. With Pimsleur, you can jump around from level to level, or lesson to lesson. You’re not forced to follow a strict agenda.
In contrast, Duolingo dictates the order in which you complete modules. New modules only become active once you’ve completed the previous one, or you’re able to “test out” of it early.
Additionally, Pimsleur also offers more choices and flexibility within its practice sessions. So if you feel you’re weak in any particular area, you can complete practice exercises on that specific point until you gain more confidence with Pimsleur. With Duolingo, their lessons, review sessions and progress quizzes don’t offer that sort of flexibility, so I have to tip my hat the Pimsleur on this point.
Now that we’ve covered Pimsleur, let’s quickly run down how Duolingo’s app works. The first thing you’ll notice is that their lessons are much shorter.
Each one only takes about 5 to 10 minutes to complete, and they go by super fast. This is largely because each lesson is made up of several quick-hit, interactive exercises that are sort of game-like (much like Babbel’s course).
With Duolingo, you’ll get listening drills, fill-in-the-blanks, matching pairs, verbal practice, and writing full sentences, to name just some of them. So in a way, you can think of Duolingo’s lessons as similar to the second half of Pimsleur’s lessons – just a series of various drills and exercises.
From a high level, that’s how the two companies’ lessons compare. The key takeaway here is that the Pimsleur lessons take around 45 minutes to an hour to complete from start to finish, and place a very strong emphasis on listening and speaking in the context of actual conversations.
By comparison, the Duolingo lessons are much shorter and include more variety in terms of drills and exercises.
Our Thoughts On The Duolingo Course
Let’s switch gears now and cover the major pros and cons of the Duolingo program. This should help round out the details in terms of comparing these two courses.
Duolingo’s Free Version
The foremost highlight of the Duolingo course is the fact they offer a free version. In my opinion, it’s pretty admirable and I like that their language programs are accessible to everyone.
Plus, everyone loves free stuff. However, at the risk of being the the bad guy, I have to admit that the free version definitely has its drawbacks.
Most notably among these, the free version is ad-supported. In short, you get bombarded with sidebar and pop-up ads. It’s not too bad at first, but it can start to wear on you over time as the ads can become distracting and annoying.
In addition, the free plan comes with a limited amount of “hearts,” which are essentially just incorrect answers. You start with 5 per day, and if you answer a question incorrectly during a lesson, then you lose a heart. So when your hearts are gone, you either need to stop for the day or go back to old lessons in order to earn some hearts back. This can make for a discouraging experience in my opinion.
Plus, with the free version, you have a limited amount of “test outs.” Essentially, within the paid Duolingo program, if there’s skill or topic that you already know well and you’d like to skip ahead to keep learning new material, you can take a short quiz to “test out” of that particular topic and move on to the next lesson. However, free users only get a very limited amount of “test outs” to use. It’s just another annoying aspect of the free account.
So bottom line, I love that Duolingo offers a free version (which is something Pimsleur doesn’t do), but there are serious shortcomings.
Tons of Extra Resources
The second standout feature in favor Duolingo is all the extra resources they provide. With Pimsleur, there’s really not much beyond the core audio lessons and accompanying drills and exercises you complete thereafter.
Duolingo, on the other hand, offers several different resources beyond their core curriculum. This includes short stories to sharpen your reading and listening skills, forums to connect with other learners, access to their podcast with regular episodes, and a nifty translation dictionary.
But perhaps my favorite resource is the series of online events Duolingo hosts where you can directly interact with other learners face-to-face via Zoom to practice speaking or discuss whatever is on your mind. These live sessions are a great way to further practice your newly acquired language skills with other beginners.
In short, there are a bunch of great, free resources that you can take advantage of.
Gamification of Learning
The last noteworthy aspect of the Duolingo course, especially as compared to Pimsleur, is how they try to gamify the language learning experience. As you complete each lesson, you earn experience points (“XP points”), as well as Duolingo currency known as lingots.
The XP points relate to your daily goals and allow you to track your progress, while the lingots can be used to purchase additional features within the Duolingo store. If you’ve ever played a questing game like World of Warcraft, it’s sort of like that. You unlock new features, level up, and gain experience points by continually participating.
I’m also a big fan of Duolingo’s digital platform, as well as all the cool visuals and reminders they provide in general. Their dashboard is well-organized and easy to navigate, and feels sort of like a video game. It features a daily goal tracker, a scoreboard where you can compete against other users, a message board to talk to friends, and more.
All together, this creates a very fun, collaborative environment to keep you motivated and on-track (much like how Rocket Languages structures their course). So in terms of engagement and interaction, Duolingo definitely gets two thumbs up.
Before diving into our final verdict, let’s briefly touch on pricing, as this can in itself be a deal breaker for many folks. In short, both companies offer two different subscription options.
With Pimsleur, you’ve got their Premium plan, which costs $20 per month and includes access to one language. Or, you can upgrade to the Pimsleur All Access plan, which includes access to all Pimsleur languages (more than 50), and costs just $21/month. (Yes, just $1 more per month).
Duolingo, on the other hand, is a little different in that their first subscription option is free. I’ve already covered the issues with the free version above, but know that if you’re on a tight budget, it is a decent option.
But if the free version won’t cut it, Duolingo also offers their Plus Plan, which is a paid subscription. It costs $84 per year, or $7 per month. By upgrading to the Plus plan, Duolingo removes the annoying ads, includes unlimited hearts and test-outs, and adds personalized lessons to review your mistakes, among other features.
So from a pure pricing perspective, Duolingo is obviously the cheaper option. You’re looking at around $13 more per month for the Pimsleur plan over the Duolingo paid subscription.
However, much like other companies such as Rosetta Stone, both companies do give customers the chance to test their programs before fully committing. Pimsleur offers a 7-day free trial period, while Duolingo offers consumers a 14-day trial period to test out their Plus subscription.
Now that you know all the detail, let’s get to the final verdict – should you choose Pimsleur or Duolingo? At a high level, the answer to that question may come down to your budget. If you’re just looking for a free course to brush up on a language from time to time and have some fun, then I think Duolingo is the obvious answer.
However, if you’re truly serious about learning to speak a second or third language fluently, and you don’t mind dropping a few extra dollars per month, then I think Pimsleur is the clear winner. For one, Pimsleur is much better at developing your conversational skills, which is at the heart of language learning. I love that their audio lessons get you to participate and practice in the context of real conversations.
I also think Pimsleur does a better job than Duolingo of using natural sentences and correct translations. Not to mention, more broadly speaking, I like the flexibility of the Pimsleur program in comparison to Duolingo. You can complete lessons while you’re on the go or in the car, and they simply offer more freedom in terms of how, when and what you want to practice.
So all in all, after weighing all the factors in comparing Duolingo and Pimsleur, I don’t think this is even close. Pimsleur is easily my preferred recommendation for people who plan to dedicate a good chunk of time to learning new language, whatever it may be.
Can you use Pimsleur as alternative to complement Duolingo?
The Pimsleur and Duolingo lessons actually complement each other extremely well, as they take such different approaches to learning. With Pimsleur you get more audio-centric lessons and a wider range of drills, while Duolingo’s game-like approach to teaching makes learning fun. This combined usage could be useful.
Which is better, Duolingo vs Pimsleur?
When comparing Duolingo and Pimsleur, our team found Pimsleur to be the better course. The Pimsleur program is far more comprehensive and robust, with deeper lessons and a focus on conversational practice that we liked.
Thoughts on using Duolingo and Pimsleur together?
Though we rate Pimsleur out as the far superior language learning program, we do think there could be some benefits to using the two programs together. While Pimsleur provides a robust learning framework, Duolingo provides fun games to help fill in learning gaps and adds an additional way of learning new material.