Decided that podcasts are a great way to improve your English, and want to know the best ways to use them like a boss?
Great, you’re in the right place.
Not sure whether you should use podcasts to learn English? (Spoiler alert: you should) - read our guide on Why You Should Use Podcasts to Learn English (complete with how to choose the right podcast).
Finding a podcast to listen to and pressing play is just the tip of the iceberg. This guide will show you how to turbocharge your learning with podcasts.
First, it’s important to understand the difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ learning.
Let’s start with the bad one - ‘passive’.
Passive learning means hoping that learning will happen ‘in the background’. It’s assuming that your brain has this magic ability to just absorb information without you thinking about it. Maybe you’ve read articles about how to ‘learn English in your sleep’, or how you can just learn a skill without really putting in any serious effort.
I’m sorry to break it to you, but it doesn’t work. Or rather, it works, but at a significantly slower speed than active learning.
Active learning means that you are pushing yourself, you are putting your brain into fifth gear, and pushing yourself to learn. You are focussing 100% on learning, there are no distractions.
This guide will focus on active learning, but there are a few examples of passive learning as well - sometimes passive learning is better than no learning, but it’s no substitute for active, or real learning.
Think about it like this. If learning actively means that you improve at 5 times the speed, but that it might be twice as hard (or perhaps half as ‘fun’) to do, you end up at your goal 5 times faster, but it feels twice as hard while you are doing it.
Ask yourself - would I rather be an exceptional speaker after 6 months of active work, or 3 years of passive work? If you’d still choose the longer time period but with an easier ride, that’s fine. The rest of this guide probably isn’t for you then.
Examples of active learning:
listening to English podcasts with a notebook and transcribing them, reading a novel, writing in English
Examples of ‘passive’ learning:
watching Netflix/YouTube with English subtitles, watching English films on Netflix/YouTube (with or without subtitles), listening to English podcasts while driving or while washing the dishes.
Without going into the neuroscience behind this, learning a language requires you to make your brain work. You have to actively work to create the neural connections, and if you expect to be able to learn a new language passively, in the background, then it will just take you significantly longer.
So, there are no ‘hacks’ or ‘shortcuts’ to language fluency. The only real ‘hack’ is to move yourself from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ learner, focus, and work hard.
Podcasts can be a vital tool to help you, and here are our favourite ways to use podcasts to learn English like a boss.
1. Listen first without a transcript or the key vocabulary
Try to first listen to the podcast without any kind of aid - so if the podcast you are listening to comes with a transcript or key vocabulary, don’t look at it the first time you listen to it. This will force you to really understand what has been said from a contextual point of view.
You can note down words that you don’t understand as you go along. Sometimes you will find that just by writing them down you will realise what they mean there and then.
You will also often find that you write down a word, then later on in the podcast you realise what it means, as it is used again in another context. Doing this means that you’re more likely to remember the word or expression, as you have actively discovered the definition.
Plus, it’s much more interesting to learn vocabulary and grammar in context (e.g. to hear them as part of a normal sentence and understand the meaning) than to learn them from a textbook.
2. Use the key vocabulary and transcript
If a podcast comes with a transcript (try to choose one that does), then think of it as a crutch, as something for you to fall back on when you don’t understand something after really trying.
The transcript can help you follow the speech. If there’s a word that you can’t understand, check the transcript before looking at the key vocabulary. Perhaps it is just pronounced in a way you weren’t expecting.
If you are listening to a podcast that has vocabulary with it, us that only if you can’t understand a word in the transcript.
If you are short of time, then you can test out reading the transcript as you are listening to it. This will help develop your reading skills as well. But if you are interested in focusing on listening as well as reading, then make sure you listen to the entire podcast without the transcript for at least one time before opening it.
Yes, just reading the transcript as you listen along will make it easier to understand, but push yourself to try to understand it without the transcript first.
3. Change the speed of the podcast
One of the most frequent complaints about native English speakers is the speed at which they speak. With podcasts, this isn’t a problem.
Too fast? Slow the speed down. Too easy and you want to push yourself? Speed it up. You will actually be amazed at how well you can understand.
Note though that we wouldn’t advise speeding up the podcast beyond 2x if you really want to give yourself a chance of understanding everything. More than 2x becomes hard in your native language, and so doing it in a language you’re learning is, well, even harder.
All major podcast apps will allow you to adjust the speed (see below for how to do it on Spotify).
Yes, if you are adjusting it down to 0.5x it might sound like the speaker has had a few drinks, and yes, it’s not the same as real life with native speakers, but this can really help you understand.
4. Write a summary of the podcast
Write a summary of what the podcast was about. What were the key arguments? What new things did you learn? Did you agree with everything that was said?
Try to use slightly different structures to express the same idea.
For example, if the speaker of the podcast said “The moon, sun and stars have of course captivated the minds of philosophers since the beginning of time”, think about a different way of conveying the same idea. For example, “the stars above have long held a strong allure for philosophers”.
Why is this important?
Firstly, it’s about comprehension. If you can accurately summarise everything that has been said, this means that you have understood the gist of the podcast. If you didn’t understand every word, this is ok, as long as you have understood the main points.
Secondly, it gives you the opportunity to use any new pieces of vocabulary, sentence structures, or expressions that you heard used in the podcast. It’s only through practicing these expressions yourself, and contextualising them that you will be able to commit them to memory and be able to reuse them yourself.
You can share your work in the Learn English with Podcasts Facebook group and get feedback from the community.
5. Download the audio as well as the key vocabulary and transcript
You can download almost every podcast to listen offline. Many podcasts will also offer downloadable versions of the key vocabulary and transcript.
This has two main benefits:
- If you’re going somewhere with a bad internet connection - let’s say you are listening on the metro, you’re getting on a plane, or maybe you are going camping in the middle of nowhere - then your learning won’t be disrupted.
- But the larger tip is to download these to listen offline, then switch your phone into airplane mode. No distractions, no internet, no nothing. Just 100% focus on the podcast.
If you want a break from the screen altogether, then download and print the transcript. This way you can also annotate it - circle words you don’t understand so that you can come back to them. Underline phrases that you want to reuse. Use the transcripts in the way that you get the most benefit.
6. Make your own vocabulary list
Any good language student should have their own little black book of vocabulary, expressions, and phrases. If you don’t have one already, then go and buy one today.
This book is where you should write down every new piece of vocabulary, expression or structure. How you categorise it can be up to you, but I actually like to keep mine relatively unorganised - new words or expressions just go in chronological order, and I also write entire sentences in there to practice using them immediately.
Make sure that you review this vocabulary book on (at least) a weekly basis, and try to put every new word or expression into use that week. Without sounding like a broken record, it’s only through practicing using these phrases that you will actually improve.
If you aren’t really a ‘pen and paper’ type of person you can even build your own vocabulary app (no technical skills required).
7. Transcribe the podcast
This takes time, but is an excellent skill and will pay dividends. Before you look at the transcript provided, try to write your own transcript as you are listening.
You will probably need to pause and rewind as you go along, but that’s nothing to be worried about. Even native speakers would have to do this.
If you have access to a laptop, then try transcribing it on a keyboard, as this will mean you can transcribe more quickly. You can slow down the playback speed to 0.8x so that you give yourself a little more time.
You should then go and compare your transcription to the transcription provided. How did they differ? If you got a word wrong, or you didn’t manage to catch that word, why do you think that was? Listen to the word again, and practice saying it yourself.
8. Read the transcript aloud
This might sound like a strange thing to do, but listening is a vital component of being able to speak properly, and pronounce words in the correct way.
Take the transcript and read it aloud.
If you can, record yourself doing it. Pretty much every smartphone has an inbuilt recorder in - no need to worry about anything more professional than that.
Then listen to yourself over again, and compare this to how expressions were spoken by the native speakers in the podcast.
What was different?
If there are differences, make sure you go back over and over again and record yourself saying that word or expression again. Don’t just listen to it and think ‘ah ok, that’s how I should do it next time’. It’s only through practice that you will actually remember.
9. Shadowing the podcast
If you aren’t familiar with what this is, we've written a guide on Shadowing in English.
In short, it’s a technique used by advanced language learners where you listen to a text in a language, then practice saying it at the same time as the original speaker.
So in practical terms, you would do this:
- Listen to the text once—if you don’t have at least a general idea of what’s going on, you might be better off choosing an easier topic
- Listen to the text a few more times until you are confident that whatever you still don’t understand you won’t be able to figure out from context through subsequent hearings
- Listen to the text while reading the transcript and look up any words you’re not confident about
- Listen to the text and repeat with a minimum delay—rinse and repeat until you can read it confidently at the same speed as the recording, then do it once more and move onto the next track
This is a remarkable technique pioneered by scholar and polyglot Alexander Arguelles, and it’s one I’ve only started doing recently. But the results are incredible, and podcasts are the ideal mechanism for shadowing.
Check out Julian from Doing English talking about Shadowing.
10. Make time for it every day or week
You need to make sure that you set aside a set period of time per day or week.
You’re an adult, so far be it for us to tell you how to manage time, but what is clear from almost every language learner in the history of time is:
If you don’t set out a fixed period of time for study, you won’t do it.
This can be as little as 10 minutes per weekday before you get in the shower. Or it can be 1 hour of transcribing podcasts every lunchtime, with 3 hours on the weekend.
Everyone has their own professional and personal commitments, but there is always time to squeeze in listening to podcasts. You just need to find the time, and stick to the routine. Not doing this is one of the most common mistakes people make when learning English.
Note, just because you have set aside time to listen, and because this guide started by bashing ‘passive’ learning, this shouldn’t mean that you can’t spend time listening to podcasts while you are doing other things - out walking, on the metro, or in the car.
You should just remember that 30 minutes listening to a podcast on the metro, while looking around you and thinking about what you have to do at work that day does not have the same value as 30 minutes sitting down with a notebook, on Airplane mode, in 100% concentration.
You can even combine passive and active listening. If you have a 30 minute commute, you can listen to the podcast in the morning, then when you get home in the evening you can listen to it again in an ‘active’ mode, notebook and pen to hand, ‘in the zone’.
11. Join a learn English with podcasts community
Finally, you’re not alone. There is a community of people all around the world who are learning English with podcasts.
Meet like minded people, share experiences, study tricks and make new acquaintances. Learning English isn’t a competition, and the more people share in the community, the faster everyone makes progress.
The Learn English with Podcasts Facebook group is a place to share information, tips, and tricks. It’s also where the best podcasts from the week are shared by the community.
Good luck! These are just 11 ways to use podcasts like a boss to learn English.
Not sure what English podcasts you should listen to? Check out our favourite podcasts over in the Why You Should Use Podcasts to Learn English guide or get started with the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.