How to Learn a New Language with Podcasts

Language Learning Podcasts

Whenever I become interested in a new topic, I head straight to my podcast app, find a few related episodes, and add them to my ‘next up’ playlist. That way, they appear in my ears without me really thinking about it.

This is a very passive way to learn but it’s good to gauge whether or not the subject is worth pursuing. If I tune out and remember nothing from the podcast, then maybe the topic wasn’t as interesting as I thought. I can quickly figure out if it was just a passing fad or whether I legitimately want to learn more. I’ve tried a few football podcasts over the years, but haven’t been able to make it stick. Maybe I’ve been listening to the wrong ones.

When it comes to actually actively learning about something, though, can podcasts actually help? You usually listen to them in a public space, so they’re not really interactive. Especially when it’s something like a language, where the best thing to do is to repeat what you hear. You’re hardly going to feel comfortable yelling out “l’elefante beve il latte” while walking down the street.



Have we finally found something that podcasts can’t do?

Don’t be silly! We here at Headstuff love podcasts. I mean, really love. And when it comes to learning languages, it’s no different.

Several thousand years ago, when I lived in China, I managed to pick up a few phrases via a learning Chinese podcast. Keep in mind that I was listening to these on my iPod Shuffle. Yep. That baby didn’t even have a screen. You could only download episodes on iTunes, transfer them to your Shuffle using a cable, and then hope that they played in order (spoiler alert: they didn’t).

But ever since then, I’ve always turned to language learning podcasts when I embark on a new language. At the moment, I’m learning Croatian and Italian and I incorporate a couple of episodes of each language into every day’s listening.

Where To Start

If you’re a total newb, there are podcast courses for complete beginners. They do all the usual things: how are you? where are you from? where is the hotel? The cat is on the table. These are fine if you have the time to actually sit down, listen and take notes. And that may totally work for you. But personally, I don’t love these. Unless you’re going to go the full hog and sign up – they always have paid versions – and download the videos and exercises, they’re not really worth it. They’re surprisingly slow-paced, which I find infuriating.

I reckon you’re better off doing the total beginner stuff either through an online course, or apps like Duolingo, Memrise and Mango.

For your audio learning, don’t be afraid to go straight for the more advanced language learning podcasts. For example, I listen to an Italian news program every day. The one I listen to is made by the Australian broadcaster SBS, which has news programs in a ludicrously impressive array of languages.

For your audio learning, don’t be afraid to go straight for the more advanced language learning podcasts

Most of these podcasts cover Australian-specific events (I’m Australian and this is usually the only way I listen to Oz news anymore; it’s kind of nice only understanding half of what’s going on politically in your own country). They also talk about food and weather and football (can’t escape it) and events, so the content is diverse.

You probably think this is crazy when you literally only have a handful of words. But the thing is, while you’re doing the dishes and listening to your podcasts, you will hear those handful of words in context. You’ll start to hear the language as it’s actually spoken right from the get-go, and not in weird convoluted “the monkey eats the orange” ways.

Yes, for the most part, you’ll tune out. You won’t understand everything and you may find yourself thinking about your weekend plans instead of paying attention. But occasionally, you’ll hear a word or phrase you remember from your online MOOC, or class, or app, or wherever, and you will understand it. You will have a win. And it will stick.

 

What To Look For

If you’re learning a language, or thinking about it, definitely look up some podcasts in that language. You will need to dig a bit and try a few out to find one that works for you. The major languages have fairly good content and you should be able to find something decent.

In the past, I’ve tried out the Coffee Break series, but I find that there’s so much filler and not enough content that it’s not worth it. That’s kind of my feeling for all the language podcasts that are targeted at learners. The exception to this is the “News in Slow…” series. While they are trying to sign you up to their main event, the weekly podcast will offer up enough for even the beginneriest beginner to get something worthwhile.

The reason I’ve tended towards the news and current affairs podcasts is that they’re not trying to sell you anything. Most of the language learning podcasts out there are trying to upsell you – which is fine, that’s their business model. But if all you want is some listening practice, you can do without all the ads.

Most of the language learning podcasts out there are trying to upsell you – which is fine, that’s their business model. But if all you want is some listening practice, you can do without all the ads.

One easy way to search for native content is to use iTunes. By changing your iTunes location it will display content relative to that country, so set it to Spain for Spanish or France for French, etc. Another technique is to look for the radio stations in that country. Most stations these days have at least one or two podcast packages – so searching for “radio francaise podcast” will bring up a pretty comprehensive list of options. And definitely check out the offerings from SBS.

In short, I don’t think podcasts are the best place to learn your ‘where is the restaurant’ type phrases. But if you’re learning the basics elsewhere, then definitely incorporate a podcast or two into your daily practice. It will certainly pay off.