Every language learning app teaches languages a bit differently, with study material designed to fit different users with different needs. Duolingo and Pimsleur are two of the most popular language learning apps available today but they each follow distinct methodologies.
Table of Contents
- Duolingo vs Pimsleur – the basics
- An overview of Pimsleur
- An overview of Duolingo
- Where Pimsleur beats Duolingo
Where Duolingo beats Pimsleur
- Duolingo’s fun, game-like learning environment
- Duolingo has much more material, including for intermediate and advanced levels
- Duolingo is free (and the premium version is cheaper than Pimsleur)
- Duolingo provides more comprehensive grammar lessons
- Duolingo has a more structured, clear curriculum progression
- Duolingo is the better choice if you already have experience in your target language
- Duolingo is better for reading and writing
- Which is the better way to learn a language: Pimsleur or Duolingo?
Duolingo vs Pimsleur – the basics
Duolingo is best for learners interested in focusing on a language over a long period of time with the goal of reaching advanced levels of fluency. On Duolingo, you’ll learn a good bit of grammar and vocabulary within a game-like interface that encourages strong study habits. The app doesn’t have native-speaker audio but makes up for it by offering a truly massive amount of course content – all for free!
If you’re planning to spend several months or years studying a language and you want to be able to get by in a wide variety of situations, Duolingo is the app for you.
Pimsleur is best for learners looking for a “crash course” with some basic, useful phrases. Pimsleur offers crisp and clear native-speaker audio, with a listen-and-repeat approach that will help you develop a more natural sounding accent. It’s the ideal program for learners planning to take a trip overseas or have some introductory-level conversations with international guests or clients.
If you’re not really interested in studying the grammar rules or learning lots of vocabulary (colors, numbers, names of foods, etc.) and would rather just learn some everyday phrases, then Pimsleur is your best option.
If you’re brand new to your target language and not quite sure what to do, we’d actually recommend using both apps at the same time. Their course content doesn’t overlap too much and each takes an entirely different approach to teaching language. Using Duolingo and Pimsleur at the same time will give you the best of both worlds: grammatical knowledge and a wide range of vocabulary (Duolingo) plus useful travel phrases and a good accent (Pimsleur).
In the sections below, we compare the features and benefits of these apps and outline some of the qualities that make each of them great.
An overview of Pimsleur
Pimsleur teaches users new languages through short audio lessons focused on speaking skills. It’s been for decades, originally as audio cassette tapes and now as a sleek mobile app with useful premium features. The app features 51 different languages including some less-commonly-studied ones like Lithuanian and Cantonese.
It’s unfortunately not free like Duolingo, however the program offers quite a large amount of content for one monthly price ($20.95 for unlimited access to all languages).
What languages does Pimsleur have?
Pimsleur currently offers 51 languages for English speakers. The curriculum is divided into “Units,” each of which contains 30 “Lessons.” Pimsleur’s Lessons are entirely audio based and take 25-30 minutes to complete. Users are encouraged to complete one Lesson per day, meaning each Unit contains one month worth of course content.
The number of Units available largely depends on the popularity of the language. Commonly studied languages like Spanish or French have five Units, while less commonly studied languages like Croatian or Thai are (currently) limited to one Unit.
Some languages on Pimsleur have Premium content available. Premium content includes extra features such as interactive study activities, audio-enabled lesson transcripts, flashcards and more. At the time this article was published, Pimsleur had Premium content available for 24 languages (though they are constantly adding more):
- Arabic (Eastern)
- Arabic (Modern Standard)
- Chinese (Mandarin)
- Farsi Persian
- Haitian Creole
- Portuguese (Brazilian)
- Spanish (Spain-Castilian)
To find out if a language has Premium content available, navigate to the language “Library” on the website or in the mobile app.
How much does Pimsleur cost?
Pimsleur offers different subscription options depending on what type of learning experience you are looking for.
Audio-only: $14.95 per month and includes access to one language, audio lessons only. We recommend this subscription if you’re only looking to study one language and don’t plan to use any of the Premium study resources (lesson transcripts, flashcards, activities, etc.).
Premium: $19.95 per month and includes access to one language plus Premium features (Premium features are only available for 24 of the 51 languages; see above section for a list of which languages have Premium features).
All Access: $20.95 per month and includes access to all 51 languages as well as the Premium content.
If the language you are planning to study has Premium features available (see the list in the above section) we highly recommend choosing one of the Premium subscription options. We found the extra learning resources to be quite helpful, particularly the audio-enabled transcripts. We’ll go into more detail about the Premium features in later sections.
How does Pimsleur work?
Pimsleur teaches lessons through a listen and repeat approach developed by a linguist named Dr. Paul Pimsleur. In the 1960’s, Dr. Pimsleur conducted a number of studies on memory in second language acquisition. He was one of the early pioneers of the spaced repetition approach, a learning method whereby learners review new material at increasingly long intervals in order to strengthen memories.
“The Pimsleur method,” as it’s now called, involves learning new material through audio exercises and spaced repetition. Each Pimsleur Lesson is between 25-30 minutes long and focuses on small conversations as well as building key vocabulary. The narrator will frequently ask you questions regarding previously learned material, wait for a response, then play the native speaker audio, thus reinforcing what you’ve already learned.
Users are encouraged to complete one Lesson per day and actively participate by speaking the responses aloud. Listening to a native speaker then matching your pronunciation to theirs helps train your brain to develop a more natural-sounding accent. Pimsleur Lessons are perfect for multitasking – you can listen to them while commuting, doing chores or even while exercising. We frequently listen to our Pimsleur Lessons while on the treadmill at the gym!
An overview of Duolingo
Duolingo is a fun and interactive app that has 38 languages available for English speakers. Its gamified learning environment reinforces healthy study habits through in-game rewards. The app also has a colorful interface with cheerful animated characters that give the product a bit more personality.
While Duolingo doesn’t have the most effective learning material in the world (we found Rosetta Stone and Babbel to be better in terms of content), the app does offer quite a lot to work on. Plus, Duolingo is completely free to use, with no paywalled or premium content.
What languages does Duolingo have?
Duolingo currently has 38 different languages available for English speakers, including some fun conlangs (artificial languages) such as Klingon and High Valerian:
- Haitian Creole
- High Valyrian
- Scottish Gaelic
How much does Duolingo cost?
Duolingo’s mission is to offer accessible language education to the entire world. The platform is completely free to use and none of the study material is paywalled. The app does offer a premium subscription (Duolingo Plus) which removes ads and enables certain in-game extras, but you can access all of the study content for free.
At the time this article was published, Duolingo Plus cost $6.99 per month. We used both the free version as well as Duolingo Plus. While Plus does offer some cool features, it’s not at all necessary – users are able to learn quite a bit of material on Duolingo without paying a cent.
How does Duolingo work?
Duolingo teaches users new material through a game-like format whereby learners answer questions to complete “Lessons” and work towards mastering “Skills.” There are dozens of Skills in Duolingo’s skill tree, each with a theme such as “Clothing,” or “Food,” or “Numbers.”
Each Skill has five “Levels” and each Level has a few Lessons. Duolingo’s Lessons teach users new vocabulary and grammar through a variety of study activities, for example repeating a phrase aloud with voice recognition software, listening and typing a sentence, or translation between English and the target language.
Just like computer and video games, Duolingo is designed to be an addictive platform. Their gamification features (XP, competitive Leagues, daily study Streaks, in-game Shop, etc) are designed to make you want to come back and study every day. Unlike most video games however, Duolingo actually helps you learn a new skill while you play. By developing an addiction to learning every day, you’re actually building stronger study habits and getting closer to fluency in your target language.
Where Pimsleur beats Duolingo
Pimsleur doesn’t have nearly as much course material as Duolingo, but the material it does have is much better for travelers or short-term learners. The lesson material focuses on everyday dialogue and is considerably more applicable to travel situations.
Additionally, the listen-and-repeat approach using native speaker audio will give you a much better accent than Duolingo’s robotic text-to-speech audio.
Pimsleur’s courses are best for travelers
As a well known, easy to access and free app, Duolingo is a popular choice for travelers planning a trip to a foreign country. The problem is that Duolingo’s course material isn’t designed to teach you things you can use in travel situations. Rather, Duolingo’s curriculum is intended for users who are looking to reach high levels of proficiency; it will take you a few months of studying in order to get to the point where you can have conversations.
Pimsleur’s course material, on the other hand, is specifically designed for everyday life. Pimsleur doesn’t teach you grammar rules or exhaustive vocabulary lists. Instead, Pimsleur teaches you only the most vital words and phrases necessary for survival in a foreign country.
Pimsleur Lessons immediately dive into relevant and conversational phrases you’ll need when, for example, ordering food and drinks at a restaurant or asking for directions. In fact, after the very first lesson (30 minutes) you’ll be able to say several complete sentences and participate in a basic conversation.
The first Lesson focuses on approaching someone, letting them know you don’t speak the target language and asking if they speak English. The screenshot below shows the transcript from Lesson 1 Pimsleur’s German course. We’ve included the English translation too:
A: “Excuse me. Do you understand English?”
B: “No, I don’t understand English.”
A: “I understand a bit of German.”
B: “Are you American?”
Duolingo’s course has gotten a lot better recently and now includes some everyday phrases like “please” and “thank you,” and “sorry,” but a lot of the material feels strange and artificial. The first few Skills focus on basic greetings and family vocabulary, but phrases like, “a mother, a father” are simply not going to help you on a trip overseas. That type of material is definitely necessary for someone planning to study the language over the course of a few years, but for short-term learners and travelers Pimsleur is the clear winner.
Pimsleur uses native-speaker audio
Duolingo uses text-to-speech for the audio on their platform. While the technology has improved significantly in recent years, it simply can’t compare to the professionally-recorded, native-speaker audio you’ll encounter in Pimsleur’s courses. Duolingo’s computer generated audio sounds a bit robotic and is sometimes difficult to understand.
Additionally, the supplemental practice activities available for Pimsleur Premium subscribers usually include the audio clips from the lessons. Regularly hearing the pronunciation of the study phrases helps train your ears to understand and improves your intonation when you speak.
Duolingo’s text-to-speech audio will help you get a general idea of how a word or phrase should be pronounced, but it’s far from perfect. Native-speaker audio is much more reliable, especially for words that are traditionally more difficult for English speakers to pronounce. Words like the German “tschüss (bye)” are a bit more difficult to say and in these situations native-speaker audio is key.
Pimsleur is better for speaking and listening
Pimsleur’s Lessons are entirely audio-based. The narrator plays a conversation for you (usually just a few sentences) and then walks you through each line, encouraging you to repeat aloud and often quizzing you on what you’ve previously covered. As you listen and repeat aloud, you’re constantly strengthening your listening comprehension and improving your pronunciation.
Duolingo has plenty of reading and writing exercises but places very little emphasis on speaking and listening. You’ll run into speaking exercises every now and then, but they can be a bit frustrating since Duolingo’s speech recognition technology isn’t very accurate. The app plays the audio snippets in every exercise but the tone of the computer-generated voices sounds robotic.
We prefer Pimsleur when it comes to developing speaking and listening skills because the Lessons are specifically designed to get you speaking from the start.
Pimsleur is the best choice for beginners
The hardest part of learning a new language is the beginner level. Everything feels strange and foreign, nothing makes sense and many learners drop off after a few days. Especially if the lessons feel confusing, boring or not relevant to everyday life.
If you’re brand new to your target language, Pimsleur is the perfect place to start. After the first five lessons you’ll have learned a significant number of phrases, all of which reflect the types of conversations you’ll have with a native speaker.
A few years ago we took a trip to France and spent about 10 days using Pimsleur before we left. The phrases we learned were precisely what we needed to survive in a country famously disdainful of visitors who make no effort to speak the native tongue. We learned exactly the right phrases necessary for being polite and showing respect for the local culture: “Excuse me, do you speak English? I’m American, I don’t speak French but I understand a little. Just a little bit. I’d like something to drink, please. Wine or beer. To eat? Not right now, maybe later. Thank you!”
As complete beginners, we were considerably more motivated to study when using Pimsleur because we knew what we were learning would be immediately useful to us. The Lesson structure makes the new language feel approachable because everything is explained simply; we never felt confused or overwhelmed by too much information.
Our crash course proved useful on our trip to France. The flight attendants appreciated our efforts to use French even though we were clearly at a beginner level. At the airport in Paris a restroom custodian bombarded us with a barrage of incomprehensible French, to which we successfully responded, “Sorry, I don’t understand French. I’m American!” The woman laughed and told us to have a good day. Between Duolingo and Pimsleur, Pimsleur’s courses are significantly more useful and functional for beginners.
Duolingo’s rather odd, sometimes confusing phrases can potentially overwhelm or discourage new learners. Pimsleur, in contrast, was the perfect beginner level course because it gave us a baseline of useful core material, keeping us interested and hungry for more. We went on to complete all three levels of Pimsleur French and continued studying with other resources (including Duolingo), eventually earning ACTFL-certified proficiency in French.
If you’re interested in trying out a new language we highly recommend you try Pimsleur before anything else. Fortunately, the first lesson is free and can be accessed via their website or by downloading the Pimsleur app.
Where Duolingo beats Pimsleur
Duolingo makes learning a foreign language exciting and easy with its gamified learning experience and habit-building features. The platform offers significantly more content than Pimsleur and there’s a lot more structure in Duolingo’s curriculum.
Additionally, Duolingo has more variety in its learning activities with reading and writing activities, while Pimsleur is limited to listening and speaking (with some additional tools available for Premium subscribers).
If you’re interested in studying your target language for a long time with the goal of understanding grammar and mastering a wide range of vocabulary, Duolingo is the app for you.
Duolingo’s fun, game-like learning environment
While both apps feature interesting and engaging lessons, Duolingo is a lot more fun to use than Pimsleur. Its gamified learning experience turns language acquisition into a fun game with daily study Streaks, in-game awards and Achievements to keep you motivated.
Here are a few of their many habit-building features:
- XP: Completing activities on Duolingo (such as finishing a Lesson or training previously-learned skills through the “Practice” feature) will earn you XP (experience points). XP is a way of measuring how much studying you’ve done on the platform. Users are able to set a daily XP goal for themselves and compete in weekly XP Leagues against other users, giving them a sense of achievement and community.
- Leagues: Every week, users compete in weekly XP competitions called Leagues. Randomly assigned groups of players compete against each other to see who can study the most. If you finish in the top 10 out of your group of 30, you’ll move into the next “Level” in the following week’s competition (there are 10 Levels in total). It’s a smart way to help users build regular study habits and keep them motivated.
- Streaks: Probably the most exciting way to stay motivated to study every day, Duolingo’s daily Streaks keep track of how many days in a row you’ve met your XP goal. Keeping up a Streak has definitely helped us make sure to sign on and study every day, even on days when we’re feeling a bit lazy.
- Lingots and Gems: Lingots [ling-guhts] on desktop and Gems on the mobile app are Duolingo’s in-game currency. You earn them through different study activities, such as reaching your daily XP goals or by completing Lessons. They’re used in Duolingo’s in-game “Shop” to purchase cool items, such as outfits for your Duolingo Owl or even a “Streak Freeze” in case you need to miss a day of studying and don’t want to lose your Streak.
- Achievements: Duolingo has invested a lot of time and thought into helping users build long-term study habits. Achievements are goals you can work towards, such as earning a certain amount of XP or reaching a new personal Streak record. Achievements are useful mid-term goals that can help you stay interested and motivated to study regularly.
Duolingo has much more material, including for intermediate and advanced levels
When it comes to the variety of lesson material, Duolingo definitely takes the cake. Pimsleur is a useful and effective language tool but its content has limits; the program is mostly geared towards beginners and doesn’t offer a whole lot for intermediate or advanced level learners. Duolingo, on the other hand, has dozens upon dozens of Skills which will take you to high levels of proficiency.
For the majority of languages, Pimsleur only offers one or two Units (30 or 60 Lessons). While they do offer additional content for the more popular languages (French and German, for example, have five Units; 150 Lessons), there simply isn’t enough material available to reach intermediate and advanced levels of proficiency. Duolingo provides a more comprehensive curriculum, covering grammar and vocabulary themes in depth and giving users a more thorough learning experience.
Duolingo is free (and the premium version is cheaper than Pimsleur)
Part of Duolingo’s self-stated mission is to bring free language education to the world “so that everyone could have a chance.” As such, their platform is completely free to use. They do have a premium subscription, Duolingo Plus, available for $6.99 per month, however it’s not at all necessary; users can access all of Duolingo’s course curriculum without paying a dime.
Pimsleur has a content-limited trial, meaning the first Lesson is free to try but users must upgrade to a paid subscription in order to access the rest of the content. Pimsleur’s monthly subscriptions start at $14.95, over twice the cost of Duolingo Plus.
If you’re looking to try a new language for a while without paying or are strictly looking for free learning resources, Duolingo is the best choice for you.
Duolingo provides more comprehensive grammar lessons
Pimsleur aims to simplify the grammar and avoid overwhelming new learners, usually providing only one or two sentences explaining why you say “this” and not “that”’ Duolingo, on the other hand, places a lot more emphasis on understanding grammar rules and mastering various structures.
If you’re looking to reach higher levels of proficiency in your target language you’ll need to learn how to form correct sentences and use the right verb tenses. Pimsleur will give you the basics but it’s not comprehensive; we like to look at Pimsleur as a crash course that gives you the tools to survive, whereas Duolingo is a better resource for mastering the grammatical complexities and learning the “proper” form of a language.
Duolingo has a more structured, clear curriculum progression
Duolingo’s curriculum is divided into Skills which are visible from your signed-in homepage as a skill tree. You’re easily able to see what Skills you should be working on now, what Skills are coming up and how much progress you’ve made in the entire course. The visual aspect of the tree makes it easy to glance back at previously learned Skills and decide what needs to be reviewed.
Pimsleur’s course content is divided into Units (each with 30 Lessons) and there’s no way to see what material you’re going to learn in future Lessons. It can be difficult to review older Lessons since they’re in an audio tape format that does not include Lesson summaries. If you want to review something, you’ll have to go back through the audio files and try to figure out exactly which point in the 30 minute recording contains the topic you’re looking for.
The Premium subscription makes it a bit easier to see what you’ve previously learned since you can view the transcripts for each Lesson, but the structure is still not easy to navigate. Duolingo makes it easy to browse through the content you’ve learned and might want to review.
Duolingo is the better choice if you already have experience in your target language
If you’ve studied your target language previously, for example in a classroom or on other apps, Duolingo may be a better starting point. When you start a language course for the first time, Duolingo gives you the option to take a placement test in order to determine the appropriate level for you.
Pimsleur has no such placement test. If you already have some amount of experience in your target language it can be hard to figure out where to start. The first Lessons might be too easy for you, but if you skip ahead you could potentially miss out on key material. Pimsleur is best for starting as a beginner and working through all of the Lessons in order.
Additionally, Pimsleur doesn’t offer very much material past the early levels of proficiency. Duolingo has Skills for beginner level all the way through intermediate and advanced, including a newer feature called “Stories” which gives learners the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned through interactive dialogues.
Duolingo is better for reading and writing
Pimsleur’s Lessons are entirely focused on speaking and listening, which is ideal for someone interested in quickly learning some useful phrases. Pimsleur doesn’t teach users how to read or write at all. When we used Pimsleur to study French, we were quite perplexed when we eventually saw our phrases written for the first time: “est-ce que vous comprenez l’Anglais? (do you understand English?)” sounds like “ess-kuh voo com-pren-ay lon-glay?” In fact, the five-letter “est-ce” makes only one syllable, “ess.”
The only way to practice reading and writing on Pimsleur, or even see the transcripts of the material you learn, is by purchasing a Premium subscription. Even then, the transcripts aren’t incredibly easy to access. They’re listed under the “Practice” section in the “Speak Easy” category. As one of five choices for Practice options it’s easy to not notice that there are audio-enabled transcripts available for your lessons.
Additionally, Pimsleur makes it a bit difficult to access the Lesson transcripts in that users are required to have “completed” a Lesson before viewing the transcript. We had completed 27:42 out of 28:13 minutes (i.e. we skipped the ending credits) but the app would not let us access the transcripts until we listened to the entire track or manually marked the episode as “complete.” A learner new to languages or new to Pimsleur might not be able to find the transcripts or figure out how to unlock them. Plus, transcripts are not mentioned anywhere in the audio Lessons, essentially rendering them useless for most users.
Duolingo has numerous activities that help you develop your reading and writing skills. You may be asked to translate between your native language and your target language, or match pairs of words, or even type out a phrase you hear. Visual learners will appreciate the constant reinforcement of reading and writing new words, placing accent marks in the correct spots and learning to spell correctly.
Which is the better way to learn a language: Pimsleur or Duolingo?
So which is the best language app, Duolingo or Pimsleur? We’ve used both apps extensively and the short answer is: they’re both great programs but the best one for you will largely depend on your learning style as well as your language learning goals.
Duolingo is the best choice for learners who:
- Prefer a cost free learning experience.
- Are planning to study a language over the long-term and aren’t concerned about learning travel phrases.
- Perhaps already have some previous experience in their target language.
- Want to train in all areas of proficiency including grammar, reading, writing, (and to a lesser extent) speaking and listening.
- Would prefer a game-like learning environment with habit-building study activities to help keep them motivated.
Pimsleur is best for those who:
- Are studying their target language as an absolute beginner.
- Are planning to go overseas and want to learn useful travel phrases without learning extra vocabulary topics like colors, numbers, family, weather, etc.
- Don’t mind spending money on a monthly subscription.
- Would benefit from a listen-and-repeat approach with a heavy emphasis on speaking and listening.
- Aren’t interested in studying the grammar of a language.
- Are self-motivated to complete Lessons every day and don’t need habit-building features.
Every learner should use a variety of language learning strategies and tools as part of a balanced language learning routine. We would recommend using both Duolingo and Pimsleur at the same time for best results, since the content doesn’t overlap much and each app has unique strengths.
Pimsleur will teach you plenty of helpful phrases that can be used in a variety of situations while Duolingo will help you expand your vocabulary and understanding of grammatical structures. By using both apps simultaneously you’ll strengthen all four basic language skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) and benefit from a variety of study material.