On Language Learning Through Podcasts

5 min read

As a trilingual podcast creator, I work on the subject of language learning through podcasts constantly. We always consider how our shows can educate at Studio Ochenta, because people come to our multilingual shows in their native language, or in a target language for learning, and we have to think about what those two audiences have in common. The answer: they’re looking to be entertained and learn something along the way.

Learning languages through podcasts is all about striking a balance between those two goals. But finding the right show to start you on this journey of ‘edutainment’ means finding something that matches your learning level.

Where does one begin?

If you search “Spanish Podcast” on Apple Podcasts, you’ll most likely stumble upon one of a couple hundred shows teaching you the basics of español, like Español Podcast, Easy Spanish, and Habla Español. These are mainly ‘listen and repeat’ shows, where the listener can hear phrases or words and repeat them for memorization purposes. These types of podcasts are designed to teach the basics of conversational Spanish for your next trip to Mexico or for brushing up on your vocab before a visit with Abuela.

If you’re an intermediate learner, you’ve got shows like the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, or Slow News in Spanish, or ¿Qué? from EL PAÍS. These are narrative- style podcasts that offer those who already know the basics more complex content to interact with, but always with a pedagogical tone, i.e. teaching you how to say "¿Dónde está la biblioteca?” and “Hola, ¿cómo estás?"

If you’re already pretty much bilingual, you can exit the language learning genre, and enter the big world of “Podcasts in actual Spanish made for Spanish speakers.” This is where you can hear the myriad accents and dialects from Latin America and the diaspora.

But there’s a problem, and it’s not lack of interest. It’s SEO. If you’re looking for podcasts in Spanish that aren’t specifically in the language learning genre, it’s a lot harder to find them because language learning shows are the number one search result when you’re looking for podcasts in languages other than English. This presents a particular challenge for language learners, where the audio content they use to learn stops before that crucial third advanced, or fluent, level.

As an avid language learner, myself, I went through all these stages of learning too. I listened to Coffee Break French, and then slowly dipped my ears into RFI’s news and documentary shows. As I advanced in my learning, talking with native speakers, and hearing natural conversations in this new language would have helped a lot in reaching more advanced levels. But before actually going to France, I had zero access to native speakers; all I had were podcasts. I turned to these native speaker-led shows to teach me more than just grammar. Over the years I have consumed dozens of French podcasts, shows about feminism in France (La Poudre), shows that deal with coming-of-age issues (Entre), shows that explored the experiences of French people of color (Kiffe ta Race). These French podcasts bridged the gap for me, blending learning and entertainment completely to eventually achieve bilingual understanding, in tandem with living in France.

Essentially, the key was understanding language from the point-of-view of the people who speak it every day, which meant listening to podcasts for native speakers of the language. So, one goes from learning how to order breakfast, to hearing folks talk about more complex subjects, like family relationships, societal issues, climate change and so on.

How can you access these audio resources?

Here are 4 steps you can take to enhance your language learning experience through podcasts, regardless of your level.

Of course, you can do a quick Google search for “Best podcasts in Spanish,” but you’ll have better luck finding shows in the local language by doing your search in the language you’re looking to learn. For example, you could try “Mejores podcasts en español” or be even more specific with “Mejores podcasts de comedia en español,” and you’ll find some gems!

Step 2: Subscribe to newsletters about podcasts

Podcasting is global and that means each market also has its podcast fan communities and newsletters. LOS PODCASTER@S is the biggest community in Latin America. For French speakers, Le Pod is the best one I’ve encountered. These communities share show recommendations and have discussions on related discord servers to continue the conversation after you've listened to shows. Use Step 1 to help you find one in your target language.

Step 3: Use Transcripts

This is one for both listeners and creators.

If you’re a creator: transcripts are essential. When you’re making content that can be accessed on the WORLD WIDE WEB, chances are your audience isn’t a native speaker of your language, so transcripts are essential to helping non-native speakers enjoy your audio content.  It's also important for those in the D/deaf and HOH community to have access to those transcripts to fully enjoy the material.

If you’re a language learner: don’t let the language barrier stop you from listening to another language. Use show transcripts for more active listening experiences. Just like in a language learning class, work with a show transcript and look up anything you didn’t understand. Rinse and repeat.  

Step 4: Follow podcasts on social media

If you’re learning a language, and you’re a user of social media, you’re more than likely following an influencer or creator making videos about learning that language.

Tiktok and Instagram are also an excellent source of language learning, and not just the creators teaching you how to say hello. Pay attention to those podcast creators you encounter on a global feed, whose captions allow you to understand the local culture through their POV. Following podcasters that post in your target language will help with understanding local slang and dialect-specific terms. Listen, watch, and take notes on the expressions they use, and you’ll be able to incorporate those into your next conversation.

In the end, if you’re looking at podcasts for language learning, you should approach it much like you would a language learning class. Start at the beginning and work your way up depending on your comfort level. There are over 2.4 million podcasts out there, including over 600,000 in languages other than English, all you need to do is take the first step.

If you’re looking for where to start on your podcast language learning journey, check out Studio Ochenta’s fiction and non-fiction podcasts (available with transcripts!) in up to 26 languages over at ochentastudio.com.

Lory Martinez is the founder of Studio Ochenta and host of Mija podcast in Spanish. Lory speaks English, Spanish and French fluently. She grew up in Queens, NYC and after working in public radio she emigrated to Paris, France, where she produced podcasts in a number of languages. In 2019, she decided to found Ochenta to help others share their stories too.