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Podcasts in Language Learning: 3 Secrets of Success

When it comes to multimedia, performance and agility, you can do more with your mobile phone today than with your computer 15 years ago. Unfortunately, our philosophy and practice of using this technology still lags behind. It’s impossible to fix it all at once – but today, I want to focus on one aspect of modern tech which could really enhance your language learning: podcasts.

They’ve been around for a while, becoming really popular with the introduction of iPhone several years back. Now that most mobile devices are capable of playing, downloading and storing media files, podcasting is no longer a high-tech, arcane pastime; everyone can get involved in producing and using podcasts. This is good news for language learners: we have been recognised as important consumers of online media, and there are numerous podcasts prepared just for learners of foreign languages.

So much for the benefits of abundance and joys of modern technology: now, why does the podcasting experience seem to suck so bad? Why aren’t there as many success stories involving language-learning podcasts as there are learners? In short, where do podcast-using language learners go wrong?

There are hundreds of ways to answer that question – but through my experience with podcasting, I’ve identified three crucial elements of a successful podcast experience. I’d be grateful if you could add to the list!


1. Research

There’s a reason I prefer Jon Stewart over Stephen Colbert. There’s a difference that makes me choose “Whose Line…” over “Mock the Week,” or BBC 4 rather than Classic FM. They’re all popular, recognisable and widely available – but that doesn’t mean I have to like all of them.

With podcasts, it’s the same story. Researching your podcast selection is therefore crucial. And since it’s your time and bandwidth you’re investing, it pays to be really picky! Are you happy with the podcast’s pace? Does the presenter get on your nerves? Are the topics relevant to what you’re into? Is this what you want to listen, watch and come back to?

There are hundreds of podcasts out there, and many of them could help you learn a language. But choosing a crappy one – or simply one that’s not your style – means that your podcast experience will be uncomfortable, awkward and short-lived. Don’t let that happen: research, pick and choose until you end up with a couple of firm favourites.


2. Organise

Mobile learning changes your idea of “learning time” (among other things). It means that you can learn anything, anytime, anywhere. In theory, that’s great, exciting and inspiring.

In practice, the video you would really like to listen to is probably on another computer – or buried somewhere in a maze of folders. The French interview you wanted to come back to is not supported by your media player. And the email with that Chinese lesson ended up in your spam folder…

I’ve been there. Both as a learner and a teacher (much more embarrassing!) – I have learnt that one of the biggest obstacles in the way of mobile learning is a lack of organisation. In case of podcasts, this can mean that you’re unable to learn what you want, when you want it – because the technology that was supposed to make this happen ends up in your way.

Fight back, then. Find a decent podcast organiser for your computer – and for your mobile device (iPhones? Androids?). Experiment. Try them out, tweak the settings. Make it intuitive, simple to use – and synchronised across all your devices. Then, and only then, will it really help your learning.


3. Interact

All you could do thirty years ago was write letters to radio and TV stations. Or talk about last night’s TV around the water cooler. Not any more: every bit of media online can be shared, commented, reviewed and discussed. You can talk back at the producers and authors, interact with audience worldwide – you could even produce your own audio or video replies to whatever you watch or listen to!

For a language learner, this is something more than just a case of expressing opinions: it’s practice. That’s why you should try your best to interact with the podcasts you explore. How can you do it? Let me count the ways…head over to the comment section and have your say. Write about them on your language-learning blog. Discuss them through the social medium of your choice. Share them with your language-learning mates. There must be a way that would suit you – and by doing so, you become more involved, more connected and more likely to learn and remember better.


Podcast people! How are you using podcasts to learn foreign languages? Share your secrets and tricks in the comment section!

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