Yes, it’s possible to make a morning commute through Iowa sound like a drive to work in Florence.
Just swap out your silly American radio station for an equally ridiculous Italian drive-time radio podcast (see numbers 4 and 7 below).
If you enjoy washing the dishes to NPR’s “Science Friday,” you might swap that podcast out for a science lesson in Italian (see numbers 3 and 10).
You can also explore the worlds of cooking, history, technology and even American politics in Italian-language podcasts. I’ve got 10 great ones to share with you here, as well as strategies for integrating them into your overall learning plan.
The Advantages of Harnessing Italian Podcasts for Learning
Listening is an important part of learning Italian, and practicing with native Italian speech can help you to acquire this skill faster. Here are some of the advantages of using authentic Italian podcasts as a part of your overall language learning plan:
- Listen to Italian as it’s actually used: The dialogues that are produced to accompany Italian textbooks are great, of course, and certainly should be part of your Italian education. But they’re not likely to give you exposure to a range of Italian accents and to the slang and informal expressions that you’ll hear when you’re actually in the country and trying to use the language.
- Improve your motivation to learn: Listening to enlightening or even just fun podcasts can improve your motivation, because they give you an incentive to understand more so that you can appreciate the knowledge and/or humor in the material. The podcasts presented here can do more than help you practice the language; they can add something useful to your life.
- Retain and use accurate vocabulary: It’s one thing to memorize the dictionary definition of a new word. Knowing how to properly use it in context is another, and the best way to get there is to hear it used over and over, in many contexts. These podcasts will start to give you an idea of how Italians use their words, so that you can do likewise.
Strategies for Using Authentic Podcasts to Learn Italian
Here are some tips for integrating podcasts into your overall learning plan.
Find podcasts that genuinely interest you
The podcasting world in English is vast, and its expansion has been explosive in the last few years.
This is much less true in the Italian podcasting world, so you may have to adjust your expectations downwards as you enter it. In the course of researching this post I talked to a number of Italians; many didn’t understand what podcasts even are, and those who did generally only listened to English-language podcasts.
That said, there is a mini-universe of Italian podcasts (mainly radio programming that’s released as podcasts) and you can find series to download that match just about any interest.
In this post I’ve endeavored to cover a range of podcasts in the hopes that there will be at least one or two that could interest anyone. But you can also get out there and look for podcasts concerning specific interests of your own.
A good place to start is the iTunes podcast directory in Italian, which is sorted by interests. There are some discontinued podcasts and dead ends in there, but it’s worth browsing to find gems that appeal to your sensibilities.
Use a good podcast player for learners
I’ve used a number of podcast apps over the years, and the best one that I’ve found for language learners is Pocket Casts. The most relevant feature for you is that it allows you to slow down audio playback and to easily skip back 1o seconds when necessary to re-listen to a phrase. It’s available for Android, Apple iOS and any web browser, and it automatically syncs between such devices.
Listen for understanding—background Italian won’t help as much
Some people think that they can “soak up” Italian just by having it on in the background, without understanding anything. This may attune your ears to the sounds of the language, but the chances that this will give you useful Italian are pretty low.
Even if you’re not yet at a level where you can understand a podcast, you’re better off listening to just 30 seconds of dialogue and actively listening for something. Can you make a list of words that you recognize? With a tutor, can you start to piece together the other words around them to get an idea of the context? How do presenters introduce a guest? How do they introduce a song?
More advanced Italian learners should also be listening actively, even if they have the podcast on while doing housework or other physical tasks.
Don’t be afraid to stop the podcasts to look up words or phrases, to skip back and to write down things or points in the audio that you don’t understand so that you can come back to them later with a tutor or language exchange partner as necessary.
Interact with podcasts and integrate them into your life
A classic learning strategy is to take a list of vocabulary or structures that you’ve just learned and try to write a short text using them. In this case, you might write a response to your podcasts. You can then correct your writing with an Italian speaker or on Lang-8 (a free site for exchanging language corrections between learners).
And no need to stop there! Many Italian podcasts encourage you to interact with them via email and especially Twitter; listen for the handle at the end of episodes, following the word chiocciola (the @ symbol, and also meaning a snail—cute, huh?). Give the hosts a piece of your mind about their work in Italian!
10 Great Italian Podcasts Every Italian Learner Should Listen To
1. “America 24”
A couple of years ago, I decided I would give up my bad habit of following the daily, ridiculous intrigues of American politics, and that my only source of American news would be “America 24” with Mario Platero. I haven’t entirely stuck to this, but in the periods when I have, this podcast has given me enough of a summary of what’s going on in America to be relatively informed about my homeland without getting too far into the weeds.
“America 24” offers a daily five-to-ten-minute look at the major themes in American news. It frequently gives a quick run-down of the news of the day, but spends most of its time focusing on one particular issue that’s in the news. Thus for a short format it still manages to offer some good insight and depth, particularly when Platero interviews experts.
I know it seems counterintuitive, but for Italian learners who like politics, I really recommend using a podcast like this one rather than an Italian podcast about Italian politics. Since you’re less likely to know about the parties and the “characters” involved in Italian politics, it can be much harder to follow native Italian news sources as they don’t provide some of the background you’ll need as a foreigner, even if you understand absolutely every word.
Also from Radio 24, this weekly podcast on technology has a roundup of tech news and offers some depth on trends in the sector, new products and gossip about who is being sued by whom or which startups have just been bought out. The emphasis is on what’s going on now in the Italian and international tech worlds, and what is expected in the near future.
Major recurring themes are consumer technologies and video games, but many other areas are covered: computer translations, wireless payments, financial software, chip development, etc.
Predictably, the Italian is fast and enthusiastic, so you may want to use your podcast player to slow it down a bit.
As with my first recommendation, I think Italian podcasts about non-Italian subjects are great for learners, as the background that you need to understand something is more fully presented.
In this case the subject is Brazilian culture—usually music. Max De Tomassi chats with his guests (usually Italian speakers, and if not the conversations are translated into Italian) about trends in Brazilian music as well as the history and gossip on major artists. This being an Italian podcast, the conversations also frequently devolve into topics like food (which regions in Italy have the best potatoes came up recently), but things eventually circle back to Brazil.
For an Italian radio host, De Tomassi speaks relatively slowly, making this a bit more approachable for learners. The conversation segments are interspersed with Brazilian music. This gives you nice discrete audio chunks to focus on and go back through again as necessary, and the fabulous music serves as a luscious reward for your efforts to understand and improve your Italian.
All kinds of Brazilian music are covered, from samba funk to chorinho, frevo and MPB. And if you don’t yet know what those are, this podcast will explain from a very basic level the history, the artists and the major songs that form the universe of Brazilian popular music. It’s not, however, a podcast about just any Brazilian music. The selections are, to my taste, excellent.
This, from Italy’s Radio 2, is your first answer for any of you who want to replace an addiction to silly drive-time “morning zoo” radio programming with something similar, but that will improve your Italian (see also number 7 below).
“Caterpillar” is actually an afternoon radio chat program, so it’s not quite as brash and obnoxious as morning zoo. The “Caterpillar” hosts are Massimo Cirri, Paolo Maggioni and Sara Zambotti and they discuss news and social trends without much depth and in bite-sized chunks.
You might not get a lot of new information, but you can at least get an overview of what’s going on in the world and what Italian people are thinking about it. The hosts do endeavor to provide some insight and humor. Plus, people call in from around Italy to chat, so you get exposure to a variety of accents.
This monthly podcast takes on physics in a broad sense and at a very approachable level for total non-scientists like me. Topics are often tangible and relevant to regular humans, including microwave ovens, light and X-rays. But even when the subjects get more esoteric, like Brownian motion, elementary particles or the Big Bang, as much as possible the podcast keeps things relatable to daily experiences.
Unlike most of the other podcasts presented here, “Fisicast” is mostly tightly scripted, which has advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, we’re more likely to get carefully researched information presented in an organized fashion. The downside comes out of the fact that people tend to repeat themselves in actual conversations, so more conversational podcasts give Italian learners the opportunity to catch something the second time around (and with a slightly different phrasing) if they miss it the first time.
With “Fisicast,” you may have to use the back button, or pause and look up words.
This daily podcast is produced in Rome but its subject is the provinces; if you’d love to travel throughout small-town Italy, this is the podcast for you.
The podcast revels in local oddities and traditions, and Italian regions have these in spades. Subjects include dialects, food, news, festivals, parties and tourist sites both on and off the beaten path.
Guests and listeners from across Italy chime in with their own suggestions and information. The hosts’ goal is to provide an audio portrait of Italy as a whole that goes beyond the typical “Rome-Milan axis.”
This podcast, which translates as “the roar of the rabbit,” is the downloadable form of the daily morning drive-time radio show on Italy’s Radio 2.
Antonello Dose, Marco Presta and many others provide their humorous take on the day’s news and trending topics. They often veer off into their own uninformed opinions and stories only tangentially related to whatever topic is at hand.
Some segments, particularly the satirical songs, require a knowledge of Italian popular culture; you may want to review these with an Italian language exchange partner. You might find it frustrating when guests talk over each other, but actual groups of Italians shout over each other simultaneously in pretty much any conversation, so this podcast is great practice.
This sober, intellectual radio program is from RAI Radio 2, Italy’s public broadcaster (the program name translates as “at eight in the evening”). It has been running for more than a decade and takes up topics in arts, sciences and in particular history and covers them with quite a bit of depth over a series of episodes.
In podcast form, the radio program is broken down into different podcasts by subject. You can search your podcast app for “Alle Otto della Sera” to see the range of options or take a gander at the directory by category. Some of the podcasts are from quite a while back, but they’re still available for download.
Since many of us who get into studying Italian are really following our stomachs, one of the podcasts in this series that I’d recommend for learners is “La Storia in Cucina” (Cooking History). It goes from the basic scientific reasons why humans transform their foods through cooking to the history of cooking from a very Italian perspective. It all leads up to an episode on globalization and the movement to return to local foods.
This history podcast is a part of the larger radio program “Mix 24” from Italy’s Radio 24. In the parent program, Giovanni Minoli provides a more in-depth discussion of items in the news or trends in the culture.
In this, the history segment, an historical figure or moment gets a 20- to 25-minute treatment from a present-day Italian perspective. It includes interviews with historians and sometimes primary sources. Minoli’s stated goal is to relate history to the present moment, to help us better understand where we are now.
This long-running podcast covers takes on hot topics in politics that touch the science world, as well as fascinating subjects that can be quite far from the headlines.
This means it can cover anything from neutron telescopes to homosexuality in animals. It can get a bit in the weeds sometimes—do I really need to know the exact amounts of energy generated by various forms of wave power generators? And personally, I find the background music a bit annoying. But I’m willing to stick with this podcast anyway, as there’s a lot of great information on intriguing subjects.
The speakers are generally slow and not difficult for non-Italians to follow, and the science is also at a level appropriate to the non-scientist.
There is of course a wider world of Italian podcasting to enjoy, but I hope that this gives you a starting point.
If you find particular guests or radio stations whom you enjoy, they can in turn lead you in the direction of other podcasts.
And hopefully, as more Italians begin to catch on to the joys of podcasts, there will eventually be more on offer. Regardless, you’ve already got more audio available than any one Italian learner could ever listen to—and all the more reason to keep learning this fantastic language.
Mose Hayward writes regularly about music, podcasts and the life of a digital nomad—as well as the best Bluetooth speakers for travel, which allow one to integrate these three things.
Oh, and One More Thing…
How about some video with that audio?
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