The Truth About All Those Language Learning Podcasts

I’ve recorded hundreds and hundreds of language-learning podcasts; different languages, different companies, different countries…

I’m not sure if that makes me a pundit, but I have some strong opinions about the medium, and about the podcasts themselves.

First, I will say that I myself have used language-learning podcasts to learn; namely, the old Amber and Clay episodes of Qing Wen from cPodKalyespeak, which I’ve written about.  I also took a professional interest in Coffee Break Spanish, which I listened to a little bit of, even though I already spoke Spanish at the time.  I also really came to like the FrenchPod lessons, before I was tapped to host them.

Of course, I’m happy to recommend SpanishPod, which I consider to have some of  the best work of my career to this point.

Now there are plenty more podcasts out there; big ones, obscure ones, all kinds.  Some of them make outrageous claims. In fact, one particular podcast had the slogan, “The fastest, easiest, and most fun way to learn Spanish!”  I refused to say this slogan in a podcast, because I didn’t believe it myself.  I’ll be specific:

  • I did not believe it was a “fast” way to learn Spanish.
  • I did not believe it was an “easy” way to learn Spanish.
  • I did not believe it was a “fun” way to learn Spanish.
  • I did not believe it was a way to learn Spanish.
I know a faster, easier, more fun way to learn Spanish, actually:  move to a Spanish speaking country and make friends, meet people, take classes from a professional teacher.  You can become a Spanish speaker in a matter of months.

But I digress.  Do I believe in podcasts?  I do; but not as a catch-all that the corporate suits are trying to feed you.  You cannot learn any language entirely by listening to podcasts.

Language-learning podcast can address one aspect of learning very well:  listening comprehension.  I was always very moved when listeners would write in to me saying that after six months of listening to, their listening comprehension improved tremendously.  It makes sense; the podcast is a listening experience people listened regularly, they improved. In fact, the listening comprehension aspect is the one thing that podcasts can do better than the classroom; that is, provide accessible listening material in the target language that listeners can consume and comprehend on a daily basis.  What’s more, listeners have the means to re-listen to the material at their leisure.

Podcasts can offer excellent listening-comprehension practice, and as we all know, you will get good at what you practice.

I am leery of any podcast that claims it can do more than listening comprehension.  It’s an auditory medium; its benefits will be auditory.

Now, I have a whole list of standards and benchmarks of what constitutes a good podcast.  For now, I’ll keep this recipe secret.  But I do want to share with you some signs of a good podcast, just in case you may be on the market for one:

  • A good language-learning podcast uses AUTHENTIC language.  Look for native speakers, talking at normal speed, speaking in natural situations, acting out dialogs that were written by and for native speakers.
  • A good language-learning podcast has language-learning professionals behind it, or at the very least an obvious commitment that the material presented be ACADEMICALLY CORRECT.  This is hard, because non-professionals tend to have a lot of folklore-based beliefs that aren’t necessarily right.  Or, in the worst-case scenario, some services may be produced by people who are plain sloppy, but don’t care because they’ve already got your subscription money.
  • A good language-learning podcast is ENTERTAINING.  Not “relatively entertaining” or “somewhat entertaining.”  As target language media, it must be for-real entertaining, so that people are listening for pleasure, not just for study.  People must actively enjoy listening, or it doesn’t count.  As a corollary, the hosts must be likable; contempt for the host(s) has precluded me from some pretty big products.
So there are some hallmarks of a good language-learning podcast.  I hope this helps you narrow your search.

One thing, though:  podcasting has seen it’s apex.  Think about it, it’s named after an iPod, which is a piece of equipment we barely care about anymore.  Sure, we’ll still need pure audio distributed on the web, but the future has audio and video on devices we care about; right now that means smart phones and tablets.  Who knows what it will mean in the future, except that new language-learning media will grow past the easy-to-make podcast.  When it does, look for the same three signs of a good podcast that I listed above; they will be applicable in the same way.

One thought on “The Truth About All Those Language Learning Podcasts

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights.
    I think that just as any language learning product it has to contain authentic language. Unfortunately podcasting has lowered the bar to offer lessons online and that is one reason it was so popular as soon as it was new and shiny! It was the next big thing and anyone could teach anything!
    Plus how does a student know if what you are teaching him/her is actually true and accurate? He/she doesn’t… well at least not at the beginning, so you can usually just rip them off.
    I think the golden days of podcasting were similar to the Billy’s Bootcamp craze and any other similar craze. It’s the “I want to X fast!” Thinking. (substitute X with nearly anything related to perceived improvement)
    Now that reality has settled in, some sites seem barren wastelands. No one is even moderating comments. Forums are just spam fields.
    So regarding point 1
    A good language-learning podcast uses AUTHENTIC language.
    Yes completely agree.

    I also agree with point 2
    A good language-learning podcast has language-learning professionals behind it, or at the very least an obvious commitment that the material presented be ACADEMICALLY CORRECT.
    At the same time, having less mentally “strict” but still professional teachers like yourself makes the lessons really enjoyable. I mean if you have a strict, grammar only attitude teacher build and star in a podcast, you will not go far.

    Point 3
    A good language-learning podcast is ENTERTAINING.
    I don’t think it is a must, it depends on the format.
    Some people like to wear suit and tie every day, some like to just wear a T-shirt. In the same way, some might like stricter lessons while others want to hear people talk and joke all the time.
    Maybe what you meant is that it has to be engaging?

    Yes podcasting per se is dying. But maybe podcasting was never to be seen as a stand alone language learning system. After all a podcast is nothing else than an audio or video recording of a language lesson. This format has been available in the past in tape, CD, DVD, simple mp3 download and so on.

    I think that if your three signs (with number 3 being “engaging”) are present in a language learning product it should be worth a shot.


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