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How to use podcasts to learn a language

Podcasts are an excellent learning tool. You can listen to programs about history, mythology, philosophy and – you guessed it – language. If you’re looking for recommended podcasts, check out our language-specific guides. Here we talk about the best ways to really learn with podcasts.

The best thing about podcasts is that you can listen to them anywhere, but passive listening is not always the best option. You can easily listen to a few hours of Spanish without learning anything substantial. Whether you use podcasts to consolidate your language skills or learn new grammar and vocabulary is up to you, but here are some tips to help you along the way. And if you’re just looking for podcasts to listen to, scroll down (or check out all of Babbel’s podcasts here)

1. Use learning-oriented podcasts
There are two types of podcasts you can use for learning: podcasts recorded in the language you’re learning, and podcasts that are about the language you’re learning. If you are just starting out, you will probably opt for the latter. Yes, it can be tempting to dive into more advanced content, especially since there are so many great programs in other languages. But for now, stick to podcasts that speak your new language slowly, give tips on grammar and vocabulary, and even use English occasionally.

2. Slow down the pace
Many podcast applications offer the option to speed up or slow down the audio. This can be a very useful tool. One of the hardest things about learning languages is how fast native speakers speak. Yes, the people on the podcast will sound like they’ve been drinking too much if you slow them down, but it’s definitely better than rewinding every few minutes to hear the words you missed.

3. Focus on what you’re listening to
If you listen in your native language, podcasts are great because you can listen to them while doing something else. You can listen to a program while you are cleaning your apartment or exercising. This is good because if you don’t pay attention for a few seconds, you can easily pick up the podcast thread again. The same is not true of foreign language podcasts. If you are inattentive for a moment, you can get completely lost. The better you get at it, the less this will happen, but it’s best to listen while doing as little as possible.

4. Keep a notebook for new vocabulary
Okay, now we move on to active learning. It may remind you of language lessons in school, but one of the best things you can do is memorize new vocabulary you hear in podcasts. If possible, try to figure out from context what the word means, then look it up and write down the definition. This doesn’t mean you have to translate it with Google, but use a proper dictionary to understand the meaning of the word.

This can take a long time, and the first few times you do it, you’ll probably fill pages for each episode, but soon you’ll start to notice your progress as you start looking it up less and less. Plus, it’s a great feeling when you can do an entire episode for the first time without looking up a word. You can also use the notebook to create flashcards and repeat the words later.

5. Looking up transcripts
This varies from podcast to podcast, but the finding shows that publishing full transcripts can save you a lot of time. You can read it as you listen to it or look it up if you don’t understand something. This may make it feel less like listening to a podcast and more like reading, but both the written and audio versions really help you learn new language skills.

6. Sometimes play podcasts in the background
The last few tips were about podcasts. Now let’s relax and enjoy some background noise. Yes, I know I said to focus on the language, but listening to the language you are learning is useful in itself. It helps you become familiar with the natural sounds of languages and can familiarize you with a range of different accents.

If the program is not heavily edited, it also helps you become familiar with how native speakers actually speak. Often, learning materials are scripted or rehearsed, so you don’t hear the rhythm of the language or all the “um’s” and “er’s” that occur in normal speech. With podcasts, we get closer to the real language.

7. Find other tools to complement your learning
You may have heard of people who learn a language after watching soap operas, for example, for a few months. This sounds passive and attractive, but it usually simplifies the whole story. Often they are also immersed in the language. So those who learn with podcasts have to turn to other resources in reality.

Look for tools that fill in the gaps left by podcasts. Podcasts are basically audio files. Therefore, you should look for written content in the language you want to learn. Plus, you don’t get feedback on your learning progress, so that’s another thing to consider. There are countless resources – and Babbel, of course – and it’s a fantastic idea to combine them.

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