How to choose the right podcasts to help you learn a language

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about how listening to podcasts can help you to learn a language.

Podcasts often get overlooked when people are thinking about improving their listening skills. People go straight to YouTube and TV, but audio podcasts are great because rather than letting you rely on visual clues, they really get you to listen to what’s being said.

So if you want to find out about the benefits to language users, check out the previous article. This article is for anyone who sees the value of finding some podcasts to listen to, and who wants some pointers on what kind of things to look for, and how to choose the best ones for what they want to achieve.

This is not just about podcasts for learners of English

Firstly, it’s important to point out that I’m not just talking about podcasts for people who want to learn English. I produce a podcast like that – the English with Kirsty podcast, and they certainly have their place in helping people with questions about grammar, vocabulary, or what to do in certain situations when you need to use English.

However, once you’re at an intermediate or advanced level, it’s good for you to get some other input too, and to listen to things that weren’t specifically made for learners. They give you a taste of real English in use, and as there are podcasts on every imaginable topic, you can probably find one on your area of work or your hobby. It’s much more interesting to listen to something that generally interests you.

What type of English do you want to listen to?

This may not matter to you, but when you’re making your selection, think whether you care about whether it’s British English, Australian English, American English etc. If you’re trying to work on your own pronunciation, listening to people who speak in the way that you want to will help you.

Also, if you’re working with people who have a certain accent, maybe you can find a podcast on your chosen topic that is made by people with that accent. This is good if you want to surround yourself by it so that you become really familiar with it.

Conversation or polished performance?

There is a lot of information out there. My podcast is semi-structured. I don’t read from a script, but I usually have some bullet points so I know what I want to cover and don’t forget anything.

Other podcasts are scripted – such as documentaries. There may be short interviews with people, but as far as the presenter is concerned, the words are clearly pronounced and people aren’t generally thinking as they’re speaking. This is good if you need to listen to business presentations at work. It’s also good if you are using the podcasts to learn about a specific topic in English.

Some podcasts are much less structured. They’re a conversation between two or more people, and even if they have a basic idea for a topic, maybe the people themselves don’t know where the conversation will end up. This type of podcast is good for understanding general conversation. People do change their mind in the middle of a sentence sometimes. People go off on a tangent or get distracted. They don’t always express themselves clearly. They laugh or interrupt one another. If you want to practice listening to general conversation, this may be a good type of podcast for you to listen to.

Length

How much time do you have available? What is your concentration span? As it’s a podcast, you don’t have to listen to it all at once, and you can go back over things if you didn’t understand something. However, if you’re new to podcasts, something that has 15-minute or 30-minute episodes will probably be better to start with than something that goes on for 3 hours each time!

Do you actually like the presenters?

I know there are podcasts that I would never choose to listen to because of the person presenting them. People who shout all the time give me a headache! You might not like someone who swears, whereas for someone else it wouldn’t be a problem. Your friend might find someone’s sense of humour hilarious, whereas it gets on your nerves. If there’s something that annoys you about a podcast or its presenter, you won’t enjoy listening to it.

Sound quality

When was it last updated and how regularly do episodes come out?

This is a bit of a dealbreaker for me. It could be that the episodes are amazing, in which case I might take the time to download some old episodes, but when I subscribe to a podcast, it’s usually because I want to have it in my feed, download new episodes as they come out, and not think about sourcing more new content. If the feed is never updated, you won’t get any new content automatically.

What do your friends recommend?

They may not all like the same things as you, but other people have given me some great tips over the years.

Try some out

The only way you’ll really know whether you like something is to subscribe to a few and see which ones you enjoy.

Be selective – if the topic for this week doesn’t interest you, you can delete it. But if you try some different podcasts out, you can see which ones you enjoy, which ones you find are helping you with your language skills, and which ones you always want to skip. Just remember to have a feed clean-out once in a while so that you don’t get overwhelmed with episodes that you are never going to listen to.

So – what are some of your favourite podcasts?

More from English with Kirsty

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Kirsty working with students



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