There are lots of podcasts out there specifically made for language learners, but the best option for language immersion is listening to podcasts made by native speakers for other native speakers.
Not only will your listening skills bloom, but you’ll improve your vocabulary, gain cultural insights and even learn about something else that interests you.
To help you benefit from this valuable resource, I’ll show you where to find such podcasts, how to pick the best one for you and strategies for using them effectively.
Your Complete Guide to Foreign Language Podcasts
Why Use Podcasts as Part of Your Foreign Language Learning
Improve your listening skills
Listening skills are essential to language fluency, but there aren’t that many ways to practice listening exclusively, in a way that is totally devoid of visual cues that can serve as a crutch for the times you don’t understand something.
Podcasts solve that problem since they are usually audio-only, which means you need to pay attention to the words being said.
Learn new vocabulary
Podcasts meant for native speakers of your target language will give you exposure to a huge variety of vocabulary that would not make it into any book for language learners.
You might not pick up everything—at least not at first—but listening to podcasts on a regular basis will expand your vocabulary significantly. You’ll also become familiar with words you learn elsewhere and get a better feel for the rhythms of the language.
Improve your cultural knowledge
Like a TV show or movie, a podcast is a small window into a foreign culture. As you listen to podcasts in your foreign language, you’ll get a peek at how speakers of that language see the world—or, if the podcast is about a very specific subject, how they approach that specific subject.
Either way, the more you listen to podcasts the more you’ll be able to understand subtle (and not-so-subtle) differences between your own culture and that of your target language.
Getting Technical: How to Find Podcasts in a Foreign Language
Perhaps the easiest way to find podcasts in your target language is through the app store on iTunes. This strategy requires essentially zero knowledge of local culture or celebrities and allows you to easily browse subjects, so it’s a great place to start.
- Open iTunes and click on “iTunes store.”
- Scroll all the way down to the bottom and click on “change country.”
- Find a country that speaks your target language (preferably the country that speaks your preferred dialect of your target language) and click on it.
- Click on the podcast icon on the upper-left-hand of the screen. If you don’t see the podcast icon, click on the “more” icon or scroll all the way down to the bottom and click on “podcasts.”
Once you’ve done that, you can start browsing for podcasts in the language! You can either look at the most popular podcasts for that country (on the right-hand side) or you can search for a particular subject. I like anything related to food and cooking, so I often look for podcasts about food.
To get that specific, put the subject in the search box in the upper-right-hand corner—in your target language, of course. For example, I can search for food podcasts in French by putting “cuisine” (cooking) in that search box. And I get loads of results!
On radio stations
This is a slightly more difficult way to search for podcasts, but entirely valid. Most radio station these days offer specific programs as podcasts that can be downloaded and listened to anytime. These podcasts are often but not always available on iTunes. But they are available directly on the radio station’s website.
The first step to finding podcasts directly on the producers’ websites is to find a list of radio stations in your target language. You can accomplish this through Google searches or lists of radio stations like the one on Live-Radio.net.
Secondly, you should poke around the website and look for something like “programs” or “podcasts.” In most cases, you’ll be able to find something and download the programs directly onto your phone or computer and be on your way!
A related way to search for podcasts is to visit the websites of influential bloggers and podcasters in your target country. This is the most difficult option, because it requires you to know who those bloggers or podcasters are, or do a Google search to find them.
If you search with Google, it’s a good idea to first change your language preferences in Google so that you get results in your target language!
Want a couple of suggestions? Here are some thoughts on the best podcasts for French, Japanese, Spanish and German learners.
How to Choose an Appropriate Podcast
Choose a level-appropriate podcast
Not all podcasts are going to be equally easy to understand, even if they are produced for native speakers. Like with learning material, it’s important to choose a podcast that matches your language level.
Only choose the most difficult kinds of podcasts (humor, local dialects) if you already speak your target language very, very well. Otherwise, stick to something easier. Just being able to listen to something meant for native speakers is a win.
Here are some guidelines to help you find a level-appropriate podcast:
The easiest podcasts include:
- National news programs
- Documentary-style radio programs
- Niche subjects that are still quite mainstream, like parenting, fitness or films
More difficult podcasts might cover:
- More technical niche subjects, like cooking, cars, DIY instructions, economics
- Local news (local news programs are more likely to have local dialects)
Very difficult podcasts include:
- Any kind of humor
- Anything produced in a local dialect or non-standard language
- Talk shows that involve people interrupting each other
Know your interests
It’s best to choose a podcast that fits both your language level and your interests. When you’re looking for a podcast to listen to, choose one that will be interesting to you for reasons other than language learning. If you like to travel, for example, listen to travel podcasts.
If you’re just starting out with podcasts, try to choose a podcast that’s in the easier category. After you’ve practiced for a while you can move up to listening to comedy routines!
Settle on 3-5 podcasts
The major advantage of podcasts is that there are recurring episodes, recorded by the same narrator and about the same subject. This means that (a) once you find a podcast you like, you don’t have to spend any more time searching for listening material, and (b) you get used to the voice and language pattern of the podcast narrator.
Since most podcasts have regular episodes, you don’t need very many podcasts to give you a good amount of listening material. For language learning purposes, it’s really better to listen to a small number of podcasts regularly than to listen to a large number of podcasts sporadically. So find 3-5 podcasts that you like and stick with them.
4 Ways to Use Foreign Language Podcasts for Effective Learning
1. Listen to each podcast several times
Podcasts also have the advantage of allowing you to repeat them as often as you want—and that’s something you should take advantage of! Especially at the beginning, as you get used to listening to a native speaker talk normally and to the format and vocabulary in the specific podcast, listen repeatedly. This will allow you to take note of any unknown vocabulary you need to look up, and to repeat any phrases or grammatical constructions that didn’t make sense.
Usually, the best bet is to listen to the podcast once all the way through without stopping, even if you don’t understand everything. Then listen a second time, stopping to make sure you understand most of the vocabulary and grammar.
The third or fourth time you listen to the podcast, you should be listening without stopping again—but this time, you should understand everything. After you’ve listened a couple of times, try talking along with the narrator and mimicking his or her voice, pronunciation and rhythm.
2. Study specialized vocabulary
If you’re listening to a podcast about a niche subject, study some specialized vocabulary ahead of time. If it’s a subject you’re interested in anyway, this will be particularly useful vocabulary.
If you’re into cooking, for example, words for “poach” or “rolling pin” are going to be useful—both in understanding the podcast and talking to people about cooking later on.
3. Read comments and participate in the commenting
One of the best aspects of listening to podcasts directly on a radio station or blog homepage is that there is often the ability to comment. Reading through the comments will both give you extra reading practice and let you make sure that you understood the podcast in the first place.
If you’re feeling especially ambitious, start participating in the comments yourself! It will serve as extra writing practice and allow you to build a virtual community with people in your target language.
4. Use the podcast as an icebreaker
If you have a language tutoring session or a language exchange, talk about the podcast. Try to integrate any new words or grammar into your discussion.
Try to summarize the podcast as well as give an opinion about its contents: Do you think the travel destination discussed in the podcast sounds interesting? What do you think about current events the podcast mentions? Use the vocabulary—and ideas—from the podcast to start a conversation!
Podcasts are a fantastic resource for language learners. They provide a window into the target language’s culture and a never-ending amount of listening material. Plus most are also free.
Like with so many other language learning activities, you’ll get the most out of podcasts if you focus on material that is both level-appropriate and intrinsically interesting to you. So choose a podcast about something you’re already passionate about and watch your language skills skyrocket!
Emily Liedel is a writer and polyglot. She speaks French, Spanish, Russian, German and Mandarin Chinese—her goal is to speak all of the official UN languages fluently (HINT: Arabic is the language left on her list). She writes about language learning and living abroad at www.thebabeltimes.com.