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If you are learning English, you probably want to improve your speaking. In my experience as an English teacher, virtually all my students want to master speaking more than any other skill.
But it is difficult! Speaking is rated by English learners as one of the most challenging skills to master. It can be intimidating and we can be afraid to make mistakes.
People sometimes think that the only way to improve 'speaking' is by actually 'speaking'. But did you know that listening to podcasts can actually help you speak English better? It’s true. The time you spend listening to our English Learning for Curious Minds podcast actually helps your speaking skills (as well as your listening). In this article, we’ll explain how.
Can Listening Really Improve English Speaking Skills?
We’re nothing if not curious, so we wanted to see what the research says about whether listening to podcasts helps improve speaking skills. We found several studies that suggest podcasts not only have a favourable effect on listening skills but also on speaking skills.
One study of students learning Chinese looked at how podcasts improved speaking test scores. It found that students who listened to a podcast improved their score on a speaking test more than those that didn’t. They also had more confidence in their Chinese ability. Similar results were found in several studies of Indonesian students who were learning English.
As researchers Hayo Reinders and Min Young Cho have said, 'Extensive listening has … considerable benefits for vocabulary development, accent recognition, and also students’ ... pronunciation and speaking.'
So research suggests that listening to podcasts can improve speaking skills.
By improving several components of speaking skills. There are five aspects to speaking English: vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, fluency, and accuracy. Listening to native English speakers improves these aspects of speaking in ways that you may not have thought about.
Listening to Podcasts Improves Vocabulary
A person’s vocabulary is all the words that that person understands or knows the meaning of. The more words you know, the larger the vocabulary that you have, and the easier it is for you to speak.
Research has shown that podcasts teach vocabulary effectively. In one study, researchers looked at whether Iranian university students would learn vocabulary more effectively from podcasts compared to more traditional exercises. The researchers found that students learned more words from podcasts than from traditional vocabulary teaching exercises.
Giving listeners the opportunity to learn new words is one way that podcasts improve listeners’ ability to speak. Learning vocabulary in lists is boring, ineffective, and outdated. Instead, you have a much better chance to remember vocabulary that you’ve learned in context. Podcasts provide that context.
This is also why we offer key vocabulary with our podcasts. It is easier for you to learn new words when you’re learning about something that you’re interested in and that you’ve learned in context.
Listening to Podcasts Improves Grammar
Grammar is the system of rules that govern how words are put together to form sentences. It’s the stuff that is usually the focus of English classes. It includes verb conjugation, what ‘countable nouns’ are, where adjectives should go in the sentence, as just some examples.
Grammar is important because it helps us understand each other. It helps everyone use the same structures so that we know what to expect. That way, we can understand when we’re hearing a question, when we’re talking about something that happened in the past, and so on.
Listening can improve our grammar. How? Listening to native English speakers gives learners the opportunity to acquire the language rather than learn it. Repeated exposure to native English gives a learner many examples of correct ways to structure a sentence. It helps the learner form expectations about what sounds ‘right’ and what doesn’t. Then, when speaking, the learner can draw on these examples to create their own speech.
If grammar is like the traffic lights in language that helps conversation run smoothly, then listening is like taking a driving lesson. We can pick up the rules by observing them.
What’s more, some grammar is only used in spoken English. Native speakers often use less formal, non-standard language when we are speaking. We use certain types of grammar we wouldn’t use in writing.
For example, in lots of places it’s common to hear people use double negatives when they speak, or use ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘isn’t’. You will rarely see these forms in writing because they’re not standard. But they’re commonly used in speech in certain regions or communities. Learners can be exposed to a wider variety of grammar and types of English when they listen to native speakers compared to just reading English texts.
This is supported by research as well. Students who engage in 'extensive listening' tend to see improved understanding of grammar rules.
We’ve said before that it’s a mistake to only focus on learning grammar. But grammar is important. Rather than learning grammar with a text book or exercises, we recommend acquiring grammar by listening to native speakers.
Listening to Podcasts Improves Pronunciation
Pronunciation refers to how words are spoken. It includes the intonation a person uses, voicing, and stress.
There isn’t a ‘right’ accent, so there also isn’t a ‘right’ way to pronounce words. Still, English learners do need to pronounce words close enough to how a listener expects to hear them if they want to be understood.
Listening can help with pronunciation. When we listen to native speakers pronounce words, we get better at pronunciation ourselves. For example, a common 'mistake' that learners make is that they put stress on the wrong syllable or on the wrong word in a sentence.
Podcasts help by guiding listeners to stress the correct syllable in a word or the right word in a sentence.
Just listen to Alastair pronouncing ‘Guy Fawkes’ in this podcast. Would you have said it like that?
By the way, some research also discusses the importance of English learners reading a transcript at the same time as listening. Reading while listening helps students engage in active learning. It also helps students learn where the breaks between words are and how to pronounce unfamiliar written words. That’s why we suggest reading the transcripts with our podcasts to get the most out of them.
If you want to take this one step further, you can do ‘shadowing’. Shadowing is speaking along with what you are listening to. It is an effective way to practice pronunciation and get a feeling for the rhythm of the speech.
Listening to Podcasts Improves Fluency
Fluency refers to the ability of a person to speak smoothly, at speed, and without stopping to think too much. Fluency is not necessarily speaking correctly (that’s accuracy). It’s just speaking without being slow and without long pauses.
Some studies have found that listening improves fluency. In one study, Iranian high school students were assigned to either listen to podcasts after their English class or not. The students who listened to the podcasts did better on speaking tests and got better ratings for fluency.
Research has also found that creating your own podcast has a huge impact on speaking ability. That’s not a surprise though, since making your own podcast would give you lots of practice speaking! We’re super impressed with one of our listeners, Daniel, who is doing just that.
To be clear, we don’t suggest speaking fast for the sake of it—this is a common mistake that English learners make. If you need to speak more slowly to be understood, you should. But the research suggests that listening to native speakers can help you speak more fluently.
Podcasts Help You Speak English Better
At Leonardo English, we love podcasts as a language learning tool. Alastair has shared how podcasts were the most useful learning tool for him when he was learning languages. Like Alastair, podcasts have also helped me to learn French and Portuguese.
There are so many great things about podcasts: you can listen to them whenever you want and you don’t need other people, you can do them on your own, you can listen to topics you’re interested in, and you can learn a bunch of new things other than just English. Podcasts help us acquire language in a way similar to how babies learn by focusing on making meaning from language input.
Thanks to the research described above, you can be confident that the time you spend practicing our listening skills is also time you’re spending improving your speaking skills.