Podcasts are a fun way to learn a language and a great source of comprehensible input, but where do you start?
Here’s the TLDR on how to learn a language through podcasts:
- Find a podcast that excites you
- Make sure you understand 90% of it
- Make sure it has a transcript
- Read through the description first
- Read through it once
- Try listening without translating
- Listen and read one more time and translate as needed
In this article we'll explain why podcasts are such good comprehensible input. What comprehensible input even means. And a quick start plan to get you using podcasts for your language practice in no time.
Why do podcasts work?
They're comprehensible input
I decided to start building ForeignEars because I knew comprehensible input was the only sustainable way to learn a language to fluency in the long term. Now that’s a debate for a different day, but comprehensible input is at the core of why podcasts are a great way to learn a language.
There are 2 main rules of comprehensible input:
- You must understand the message - it must be at or only very slightly above your current level of understanding
- It must be engaging - It should be so good you forget that it's in another language
Podcasts are fun and there’s so much content around now that you’re bound to find something you’ll like. When it's fun you’re more likely to listen more consistently and for longer, and that's the key for longterm language learning success.
Podcasts are often simpler to understand than books
Podcasts are often conversations between a guest and a host. This type of content is great for learning a language because it's spoken language, which is often simpler with less variety of vocabulary and poetic language than written texts such as novels or fiction. That said, of course you can find story focused podcasts or audiobooks and if this interests you definitely try it out, but make sure you can understand the message, and if you can’t look for simplified versions of the stories.
Spoken language is also an excellent way of picking up more colloquial vocabulary, slang, the occasional expletive and cultural references that are much harder to come by in well written texts. Another added bonus is hearing how native speakers really pronounce words, especially useful if you’ve only heard French from your French teacher who’s really from Birmingham.
How to find a good podcast
This will entirely depend on your language level and interests but there are a couple of things that will apply to all levels. The perfect podcast should be fun and easy for you to understand. So start with a topic you’re interested in. Think about what podcasts you already listen to in your native language, you’re likely to find the same thing in your target language.
There are a few different types of podcast:
- Interviews - with multiple guests
- Narrated story telling
- Monologue - lecture style
- Episodic radio show - similar to Startup by Gimlet media
Personally I prefer interviews, I feel more productive learning from the guests as well as learning a language.
What makes a good podcast?
If your comprehension is on the lower end, try to find shorter length podcasts, they’re less likely to drift off into conversational tangents that you can’t follow, and will hopefully stick to the main point of the episode.
Likewise if the speed or the conversation is too fast, you’ll really struggle to keep up, so try to pick a podcast that you can comfortably follow. This is why I built speed controls into ForeignEars, so if it's a bit too fast pop up the audio player and lower the speed.
Pick a topic you’re familiar with. You’ll be able to connect the dots when the speaker uses metaphors or new turns of phrase if you understand the topic. You’ll also learn vocabulary, phrases and constructions that you’re more likely to use because it's about a topic you’re actually interested in. If I love talking about football in English, I’m likely to want to talk about it in Spanish too. It can also be quite interesting to hear how people from different cultures talk about topics you know a lot about.
Some podcasts will come already transcribed, these are gold dust when you’re learning a language as you can’t always make out what someone has said, or if you’re unfamiliar with how something is pronounced. Many language learning oriented podcasts come with transcripts for a small fee, as part of a patreon perk or a premium membership on their site.
As you start listening to more native content which isn’t created especially for second language learners, you might find there are fewer transcripts available. That’s why we transcribe all of the podcasts you see in ForeignEars. You can also tap on any word and instantly translate it, in this way you can make sure you still understand everything and learn new words. Although try your best to avoid translating every word, if you’re doing this, you’re probably listening to something too difficult for your current level.
How to find a good podcast
This is another one of the many reasons I started ForeignEars. It can be really difficult to find the right podcast that fits your criteria of slightly above current language level, slow enough to understand, short enough to stay focused on, and about a topic interesting enough to engage you. So when you find one it's like striking gold.
Thankfully ForeignEars has this all built in, and soon we’ll start recommending podcasts that are more relevant to you (based on your interests and your vocabulary), so the more you use the app the more relevant your recommendations will become. You can also search by genre on the main page, or search for a specific term on the search bar by episode or podcast, which is great if you already know what you’re looking for.
Alternatively if you want to search further afield you could try itunes or spotify, if you go this route you’ll have to search out for the transcripts or create your own from scratch and use a separate service or dictionary to translate unknown words.
Stay motivated with metrics
One of the main drivers of learning a language is staying motivated. Hopefully by this point you’ve found a podcast that you really enjoy and is just above your level. So you’re probably motivated to keep listening, but language learning is a long term thing and comes in fits and spurts, so how do you know if you’re actually improving?
ForeignEars comes loaded with analytics so you can understand how the work you put in corresponds to your increasing comprehension and vocabulary knowledge. There’s a weekly streak that tracks if you’re sticking to your goal, which you can set yourself e.g. listen for 10 minutes everyday. You can also understand how many words you’ve read today, this week or even if you’re translating certain words less (which could mean you know them now).
Your main focus should be increasing the number of words you’re exposed to. This is the single biggest leading indicator so the rest are really vanity metrics, but they can be interesting nonetheless.
How to listen to a podcast
Read the description first.
Understanding the context of what you’re listening to will give you a shortcut to understanding the type of words you’re likely to hear. Even in your native language it can be a little confusing when you expect to hear one topic of conversation but it turns out to be something else. Save double guessing yourself and read the description first.
Read the transcript first
You’re likely to read in your target language slower than the podcast hosts speak, give yourself time to read and comprehend what you’re about to hear. You’ll probably be able to pick out more words if you’ve “preloaded” them.
Listen first without translating
Try to understand it from context the first time round, don’t rush to translate. There’s a good chance you’ll get the meaning of unknown words from context.
Then listen slowly and tap to translate if you need
If you’re having trouble keeping up, reduce the speed of the audio. If you still don’t understand what you’re hearing, translate the unknown words.
Listen again a little faster
If you’re not bored of the podcast episode already give it another shot, there’s a very good chance you’ll understand significantly more this time.
Here are a few tips to help maximise your sessions:
Only play the podcast in the background if you understand most of what’s said
Try to avoid drifting off or getting distracted whilst you're listening. Normally podcasts are very passive, you listen to them whilst doing something else. You can do this at a more intermediate level but chances are you need to concentrate a little more in the beginning. Slow it down if you need to.
There's no shame in slowing down the audio.
The whole goal is to understand what's said, not to just speed through the whole episode. Your time is far better spent listening at a slower pace. In fact not understanding what's going on is a red flag, it's a waste of time and you won't be able to improve like that.
Listen again if you didn’t understand
You'll start to recognise many more words as you listen again. The context will become clearer and hopefully you'll start to recognise some of the previously unknown words.
Give it 3 attempts
Don't give up on the first attempt. Use the tools we built for this, slow it down, translate the unknown, rinse and repeat. You'll slowly start to acquire the language.
Don’t over translate
It's tempting sometimes to translate every unknown word. Try to avoid this. At first try and infer the meaning from the context. you'll hopefully be able to tell if a word is key to the meaning of the sentence, a good rule of thumb is if you see the word 3 times and don't understand it, it's probably important so translate it.