Why You Should Use Podcasts To Learn English

Published on
November 12, 2019
|
📖
19
min read
Written by
Alastair Budge

Learning English through podcasts is the trusted choice of some of the most successful English language learners. Here’s why you should think seriously about using podcasts to help improve your English speaking, listening, reading and writing.

Why You Should Use Podcasts To Learn English

This guide will explain why listening to podcasts is often overlooked by students, explain why every good English learner should actually make listening to podcasts an important part of their learning routine, and explain how podcasts can be used to help improve listening, speaking, reading and writing. You should find this guide useful both if you are living in an English speaking country and a non-English speaking country.

Whatever your English learning ambitions, listening is almost always an underrated option for language learners.

As an English learner, your primary goal is probably to communicate with people in English. Maybe that’s native speakers in an English speaking country, maybe it’s other non-native speakers in a non English-speaking country.

But if you ask almost any English learner what they want to improve most, it’s not normally listening or comprehension. 

For most students, the answer will be ‘I want to improve my English speaking’.

That’s perfectly understandable. 

Speaking is the most evident display of someone’s understanding of language. You all know the person who is able to speak fluently and confidently, making no grammar or vocabulary mistakes.

But is the trick to getting there just focussing on constantly practicing speaking, making mistakes as you go along and correcting yourself? This is a technique that is particularly popular, and those of you familiar with Benny and his ‘Fluent in 3 months’ blog will no doubt be familiar with it.

The idea goes something like this:

  • Take every opportunity you can to speak with a native speaker
  • Make mistakes, and learn from them

Speaking is evidently a fundamental part of learning English, but the common misconception among learners is that the only way you get better at speaking is, well, speaking.

Unfortunately this isn’t true. 

The result of this misconception is millions of English learners ‘practicing’ speaking while they really would make much better progress through a blended approach, combining speaking with listening. 

And the best way to practice listening is, you’ve guessed it, listening to English podcasts.

Using podcasts as your listening resource will help you improve your speaking - we’ll tell you how later on in the guide. 

This blended approach, which is what most successful English learners will do, has the following benefits:

  • Improved comprehension (e.g. you can better understand native speakers when they speak, so you don’t accidentally answer a question you weren’t asked)
  • Improved pronunciation when speaking (e.g. you’ve spent time listening to native speakers’ accents, so you know how words should be pronounced)
  • Improved connected speech (e.g. you know how words should flow, so you sound less like a speaking dictionary and more like a native speaker)
  • Improved English reading (if you follow along with the transcript)
  • Improved English writing (if you transcribe the podcasts and write summaries)

So, yes, podcasts can help with listening, speaking, reading and writing. The holy quaternity of English mastery.

Here’s how listening to English podcasts can help with each of these aspects of English.

Listening

Evidently, the more or any language you listen to, then better your listening skills become. English is no exception.

By exposing yourself to more English speech by native speakers, you will become familiar with how native speakers actually use language, how sentences are constructed, how English speakers use connected speech and different tones to express different meanings of words. 

Further to this, you’ll improve your grammar and vocabulary through acquisition.

“But I thought you could only learn grammar and vocabulary in class, from a textbook?”

Well, this isn’t true. There are plenty of people who have impeccable grammar without having ever opened a textbook in their life.

How? Well, there are two primary ways in which you can learn a language: ‘Language acquisition’ and ‘Language learning’.

Language acquisition means that you are exposed to a language ‘in context’, and you - over a period of repeated exposure - learn how it is used. This is normally ‘informal’, so you aren’t sitting in a classroom or reading a grammar or vocabulary book. It’s how everyone learns their native language.

Language learning is formal learning. It’s through grammar and vocabulary exercises, and is what you’ll learn in a language school or formal language lessons. You learn grammar and vocabulary through manufactured exercises, not in context. 

This is great for beginners, and useful for a foundation to build up your language ability to a certain level, but actually not as useful for English as for other languages with more complicated grammar systems.

English is so full of irregular examples (1 sheep, 2 sheep etc.) that there’s a persuasive argument that once you have reached a certain level of proficiency these are best learned ‘in context’, or ‘through acquisition’. And of course, learning through acquisition is far more enjoyable than through ‘learning’, which helps with self-motivation.

If you’re interested in learning more about the differences between language acquisition and language learning, you can check out this article.


Speaking & pronunciation

Have you ever heard an Englishman speaking Latin? 

I have (and I’ve been one as well), and I can guarantee you that it sounds nothing like how it would have been spoken by the Romans. 

Imagine learning to speak just through reading and writing, without ever listening to a native speaker.

That’s how people learn to ‘speak’ Latin - from teachers who have never heard anyone speaking it (because the Romans have been dead for almost 2,000 years), and they just end up pronouncing the words as if they were speaking English. And it sounds terrible, just ask an Italian.

The same goes for English.

There are some specific tips in this guide on how to How to use podcasts like a boss to learn English, but to summarise, you can greatly improve your speaking by doing things like:

  • Recording yourself speaking from the transcript, and compare this to the way it was spoken by the podcast host.
  • Shadowing, i.e. speaking out loud at the same time as the podcast host
  • Writing down words that you weren’t familiar with from the podcast and using them in your speech

One of the key aspects of pronunciation in English is being able to recognise sound patterns, such as the difference between ‘sheep’ and ‘ship’. 

Go through the podcast transcript and highlight any difficult words to pronounce, record yourself saying them, and compare that to the way they’re pronounced by the native speaker. The majority of English learners don’t make the effort to do this, and it’s very easy to see the difference between those who do and those who don’t. 

Don’t stop at recording yourself repeating the transcription verbatim. Why not record yourself talking about your thoughts about the podcast? This forces you to use new words and expressions, and talk in a more fluid way.

If you’re an introvert, podcasts can be a particularly fantastic tool 

If you are the kind of person who feels uncomfortable making mistakes, or self-conscious, then practicing speaking with podcasts as an aid can be hugely beneficial. You can do it on your own, and you’ll then feel more confident when it comes to speaking in front of other people.

Of course, many English teachers would tell you to just ‘not feel so self-confident, and to speak up in class’, but that is much easier said than done.


Reading & writing

While listening to podcasts will primarily help improve your listening and speaking, they can also help improve your reading and writing.

For reading, you can read the transcript before listening. What words didn’t you understand? If you’re using a podcast that has key vocabulary, this can be a helpful study aid.

For writing, practice transcribing the podcast and then compare that to the transcript. How did your transcription compare to the real one?

Similarly to recording yourself speaking about your reflections on the podcast, you could:

  1. Write down a summary of the podcast, or write down your own thoughts about the subject matter. Share it with the podcast host
  2. Read more about the subject from other sources on the internet, or books. 


Why are podcasts better than watching TV, YouTube and Netflix?

This is a guide about how podcasts can be so beneficial, but you may be wondering whether you can achieve the same results by listening to the radio, listening to an audiobook, watching films or TV with subtitles, or watching YouTube. 

Well, we should start by saying that you can listen to podcasts, to the radio, or to an audio book. The benefits we’ve listed above are common to all three, but podcasts are easier for reasons that we’ll describe in the next section.

The important thing to get the most out of any listening resource is that you are 100% concentrating, and there’s no video or other stimuli to help you understand. 

So this means no Netflix, no YouTube, no TV.

Why? 

Watching videos is a passive activity. Incredibly passive. 

You can just slouch down on the sofa and switch on the TV, and your brain doesn’t quite switch off, but almost. 

There are even studies that suggest that your brain is more active when you’re asleep than when you’re watching TV. 

With audio, you don’t have external stimuli. It’s harder to ‘guess’ what’s going on just by context, which means you have to really exercise your brain.

Of course it feels harder than flicking on YouTube, but that’s exactly the point. For every person who has managed to get fluent from watching videos in English there are another 100 who have made almost no progress whatsoever. 

If you can understand podcasts and audio without visual stimuli, then you will find understanding conversation so much easier, because you have taught yourself to not rely on external stimuli to understand.


Why are podcasts better than radio or audiobooks?

There are a few reasons that podcasts should be the weapon of choice for most English language learners:

  • Accessible 24/7 from your phone (rather than having to tune in to the radio)
  • Rewind easily if you need to listen again
  • Normally less than 30 minutes long, so each episode is a manageable size
  • Ones aimed at English learners often come with materials to help you (e.g. key vocabulary & transcripts) 
  • Thousands of options to choose from, whatever you are interested in
  • Self-learning - learn at your own pace, outside the classroom, with no pressure about not understanding. You learn at your own speed. Especially good for introverts!
  • Many podcasts allow you to speed up and slow down the playback speed, and download the audio for offline listening (All Leonardo English podcasts do this)

But what podcast(s) should I listen to?

Well, this depends on two main things:

  1. Your English level
  2. Your interests

Firstly, if your English level is advanced (C1 or above), then you can try to listen to podcasts aimed at English native speakers. 

If this is you, you’re in a fortunate position. There are over 700,000 podcasts, and a total of 27 million episodes, the vast majority of which are in English.

So you have the choice of almost every subject you might be able to think about. From sheep shearing to industrial design, you’ll probably be able to find a podcast about something you’re interested in. 

If you’re looking for something ‘topical’, then try to look out for a podcast about current affairs. But if you are more interested in trends, history, and non-topical subjects then there is still a plethora of options for you.


iTunes podcasts
Choice of English language podcasts

But don’t be overwhelmed by the choice. Pick a few that are about subjects you’re interested in, listen to an episode, and if you either don’t find it interesting or it’s far too difficult to understand, then choose another one.

The advantage of listening to podcasts aimed at native speakers is, well, they’re aimed at native speakers, so the speed and vocabulary used by the hosts is likely to be similar to what you might hear in a ‘normal’ English speaking environment. 

The disadvantage of anyone listening to podcasts aimed at native speakers is that, for anyone below C1 it’s likely to be quite tough to use native speaker podcasts efficiently, as you will either not understand enough to make it enjoyable to listen to, or you’ll have to stop and pause too frequently to make it an enjoyable experience experience. 

As a general guide, you should aim to find a podcast where you can understand around 80% of the speech. If you understand much more than 80% then you probably aren’t being exposed to enough new words and phrases, and if it’s much less than 80% then it might not be so enjoyable to listen to.

In addition, podcasts aimed at native speakers often don’t come with transcripts or key vocabulary, so following along can be tricky.

Pro tip: If you can’t see podcasts in English in iTunes / Apple Podcasts, try changing your country on iTunes (see below):


Change language in iTunes
How to change your country or region on iTunes
Then change to English

Luckily, there are an increasing number of podcasts aimed at English non-native speakers. These are broadly split into 3 categories, we can define as:

  1. Podcasts about learning English
  2. Podcasts about British / American / Australian life & culture
  3. Podcasts that tell you weird and interesting stories


Learn English podcasts on iTunes

Podcasts about learning English

The first category is of podcasts that teach you things like pieces of vocabulary, weird expressions, and educate you about the English language itself.

This is great for people who are relatively early in their English journey, so may be below level B2. If you are the kind of person who loves learning new vocabulary and grammar, then this could be a good option for you.

In general, these podcasts will teach you new pieces of grammar or vocabulary, but not ‘within context’. This means that more advanced learners may find them slightly manufactured or unrealistic. 

If you are above a certain level then you will be better off learning vocabulary and grammar through contextual learning, not through specific vocabulary and grammar podcasts. 

They can be a really good alternative to learning from a grammar or vocabulary book though, as the host will almost always be speaking in ‘normal’ English, so it won’t be as manufactured and robotic as if you were just learning from a textbook.

Our favourites:

BBC 6 Minute English: This is a great one to get started with. It is produced by the BBC (so you know the quality is top notch), and each podcast is just 6 minutes long. Although it is aimed at language learners, the content is still interesting, and the hosts speak clearly and at a reasonable speed.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: Yes

Accent: British (mixed)

VOA Learn English Podcasts - the VOA is ‘Voice of America’, and they have a vast collection of podcasts aimed at English learners for all levels. There are podcasts on grammar and vocabulary, and also some more interesting topics. The speed is quite slow - if you’re a beginner you should find this relatively easy to follow, but advanced learners may find that it seems a little manufactured.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: Yes

Accent: American

British Council Learn English Podcasts - the British Council is, as you might have guessed, is a British organisation specialising in international cultural and educational opportunities. They have a series of podcasts for English learners, and also have their own iOS and Android app. Listening to it feels more like a traditional listening exercises, but they are great for people just starting out on their language learning journey.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: Yes

Accent: American

Adept English: This has been going since 2014, and run by a British professional psychotherapist called Hillary. There are over 200 episodes now, and she speaks slowly and very clearly. Solid choice for beginners and intermediate learners.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: No

Accent: British (English)

Espresso English: This podcast is for learners with a relatively basic knowledge of English, and it will teach you about grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. It has more of a classroom feel, and so if you are looking for a free alternative to English classes, this could be a good option.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: No

Accent: American


Podcasts about British / American / Australian life & culture

There are a plethora of podcasts about life and culture in English speaking countries. 

These are great for general conversation and ‘small talk’, and really, life is 80% ‘small talk’. You’ll generally hear native speakers talking to each other in a fluid, natural way, and it will be very much like you would encounter in a native speaking environment. 

Listening to these kinds of podcasts is often like eavesdropping on a conversation between native speakers, and this can be great. It’s like real life, and for the most part at least, you’ll pick up new phrases and vocabulary through acquisition as opposed to through learning them in the classroom.

One downside to some of these podcasts is that some more advanced learners may find this a little frustrating, as (with the less polished podcasts) the type of conversation can be a little banal and straightforward. But this is a rarity and by following some of the podcasts below you should find something that you enjoy.

Note that although these podcasts tend to be about normal life and culture, they have some great content in there as well - it’s not just people talking about the weather and what they did last weekend.

Our favourites:

Luke’s English Podcast (or LEP for short) - Luke is a London-based comedian and English teacher, and he has the longest-running English podcast out there, with over 600 episodes. He talks about lots of interesting subjects, and the style is conversational, so it feels like you are just having a chat with him. 

Has transcript: Yes (for some the transcripts are ‘crowd-sourced’)

Has key vocabulary: Yes (but not always with definitions)

Accent: British (English)

All Ears English - AEE for short is probably the American version of LEP (above). It’s a fun, conversational podcast between American ladies Lindsay, Michelle, and Jessica. Although all 3 of them are English teachers, the podcast is fun and entertaining, and it’s almost as if you were eavesdropping on a conversation between friends.

Has transcript: Yes (but for a $7.99 weekly fee)

Has key vocabulary: No

Accent: American

Culips Podcast: The Culips podcast is produced by a team in Canada, and has a range of excellent materials. They have some podcasts that talk about learning English, but also have an extensive collection of podcasts on other topics.

Has transcript: Yes (but for an $89 annual fee)

Has key vocabulary: Yes (but for an $89 annual fee)

Accent: American (Canadian)


Podcasts that tell you weird and interesting stories

If you are the sort of person who isn’t content to listen to everyday conversation, and you want to learn about new concepts, ideas, and stories, then you will probably be better off with a podcast that promises to teach you new things at the same time as helping you improve your English.

At Leonardo English, we produce podcasts on weird and interesting subjects, ranging from the history of the English breakfast to how black holes are formed. Each podcast also comes with a transcript and key vocabulary, so it makes it much easier to follow along.

Just remember though that, although these types of podcasts are aimed at English learners, they won’t do things like explain each word, or how to use certain terms, and therefore will really only be suitable for learners who are at an Intermediate level or higher.


Our favourites:

Leonardo English - We don’t normal blow our own trumpet but, well, if we didn’t think that the Leonardo English podcast was one of our favourites then something would be very wrong. We produce podcasts about history, economics, philosophy and more. From black holes to seas that disappear, Leonardo English is the podcast for people who want to learn about the world while they learn English.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: Yes

Accent: British (English)

Clover English - This is a new one, but it definitely deserves a place on our list because, well, it’s quite unique. Kerry Campion de Santiago is an English teacher from Northern Ireland, and recently started this podcast that focuses on Irish culture. If you are curious about Ireland, or you’re fed up of hearing English, American or Australian accents, then it’s worth checking out.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: Yes

Accent: British (Northern Irish)

Feel Good English: This is an interesting one from an American who spent 8 years living in Sao Paulo. He talks about some interesting subjects, mainly about personal motivation, happiness, and productivity. Good if you want some inspiration.

Has transcript: Yes

Has key vocabulary: No

Accent: British

Our advice is to test out a few different podcasts and see what you like. Almost all are free, and some have extra membership tiers where you can get access to bonus materials.

Download a few, see what you like, then delete the ones that you don’t meet your needs. Or keep on listening to several, the choice is yours.

Need some more reasons why podcasts are great?

The great thing is that you can listen to a podcast how, where, when, and why (or rather, for whatever reason) you want.

How you want

Depending on your schedule and preferences, you can either listen to a podcast purely for enjoyment as you are doing something else, whether that’s sitting on the metro on your way to work, in the car, washing the dishes, or at the gym. Or you can decide that you want to supercharge your learning and follow some (or all) of our tips about How to use podcasts like a boss to learn English

This just depends on how you want to learn, and how much time you have. 

Where you want

In your car, at your desk, as the beach, on a break during language class. Podcasts live on your phone, and many allow you do download them for offline use so you don’t even need a data connection. 

When you want

Maybe you like to listen to a podcast first thing in the morning, or perhaps you want to put one on when you are tucked up in bed for the evening. Maybe you’ll just listen to it when you’re on the bus or in the car. It doesn’t matter. 

Why you want

This is an important one. Everyone has a different reason to want to improve their English. It might be to communicate in a business environment. 

Maybe it’s to get a certain score on the IELTS in order to get into university. Maybe it’s to communicate with your in-laws. Or maybe it’s just for intellectual curiosity.

Whatever your ambitions, you can use podcasts in a way that will help you best achieve your goals. If you don’t really need to read English, then reading the transcripts may not be so helpful. If you really need to improve your writing, then make sure you are transcribing. 

In summary, podcasts are very flexible, and you can use them in whatever way you need.

How to listen to podcasts?

So, you’ve decided that you’re ready to take the leap, but you want to know where you can actually listen to all these podcasts?

Whether you’re Apple, Android, or something saucier, listening to a podcast is as simple as downloading a podcast app and subscribing to a podcast. This could be via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, BeyondPod or any other podcast app. 

A well distributed podcast should be on every app, so if doesn’t matter what app you decide. 

For podcasts with transcripts and key vocabulary, this will normally only be available on the website for that podcast, although some podcasts also distribute these through email.

Checklist for any English podcast:

While you should choose the podcasts that you enjoy listening to the most, and get the most value from, here is a general checklist to help you evaluate any podcast.

It’s by no means a definitive guide, but should help you choose one to suit you needs.

  • Is the podcast hosted by a native speaker? If not, then you may learn non-native pronunciation and the host may make errors.
  • Can you understand around 80% of the podcast?
  • Is it available on the podcast app you use?
  • Is it about a subject that you are interested in?
  • Do you enjoy listening to it? 
  • (BONUS) Does it have a transcript and key vocabulary?
  • (BONUS) Has the host learned another language? If so, they’re likely to better understand the needs of English learners.
  • (BONUS) Does the host have experience as an English teacher? If so, they’re likely to be better at explaining concepts to language learners.


Tips for learning English with podcasts

Finally, here are our parting motivational tips for how to get the most out of learning English with podcasts:

  1. Never give up. If you find a podcast hard to understand, choose a different one. There is a podcast for all levels, and you can listen to different types of podcasts as your English level improves, so that you’re exposing yourself to different subjects, accents, and types of speech.
  2. Set aside a set amount of time per day / week. Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, make sure you keep a routine. Just like any skill, you will only improve if you set aside time to work on it, and then you actually stick to it. No matter how busy your day, everyone has 10 minutes.
  3. Start a notebook. Even if you’re listening on the metro or on the bus, note down interesting things that you’ve learned as part of the podcast. If you want to go 100% digital, check out our guide on how to create your own vocabulary app using just a Google account.

If you are interested in understanding all of the ways in which you can use podcasts to learn English, you should check out How to use podcasts like a boss to learn English.

Have you had success with using podcasts to learn English? 

Let us know in the comments or join the Learn English with Podcasts Facebook group

And if you’re the kind of person who is naturally curious about the world and loves learning how things work, then you should check out the Leonardo English podcast.