Learning English outside the classroom – Part 1: How to learn English with podcasts

Learning English outside the classroom - Part 1: How to learn English with podcasts Espresso EnglishThis is a guest post series by Alastair Budge, the founder of Leonardo English and the host of the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, a podcast for intermediate English learners and curious minds. The podcast comes with subtitles, a transcript, and key vocabulary, and is trusted by 100,000 students in 157 countries.

This is Part 1 of our series on learning English outside the classroom. Check out Part 2 – Learning English with Netflix and Part 3 – Learning English with YouTube

Podcasts are my favourite tool to learn any language, and are actually one of the most underutilised tools used by English learners.

So, how can you use podcasts outside the classroom to improve your English?

Well, they are one of the most versatile tools, and there are plenty of detailed guides on how to use podcasts to learn English.

Here are some of my favourite tips from the listeners of my podcast for learning English that have helped them improve their listening, speaking, and even reading and writing.

Before you start

1. Find a podcast that suits your level

It’s obvious, but worth underlining. Don’t choose a podcast that is too easy, and don’t choose one that is too hard. 

If you are just getting started, then you should probably choose one that also has some speaking in your native language.

If you are Intermediate or above, then you should probably be fine with one that is just in English.

If you feel comfortable enough, then you can listen to podcasts aimed at native speakers, but this can often feel like you’re jumping in at the deep end.

It’s fine to not understand everything. In fact, you shouldn’t listen to a podcast where you understand everything. If you understand everything, you won’t learn anything new.

The magic ratio is around 80:20. Aim for a podcast where you understand 80% of it, but that 20% of it is new. If it feels too easy, you probably aren’t learning enough.

2. Make a habit out of it

Podcasts are very easy to listen to. They live on your phone, you can listen while doing something else (although beware of the dangers of passive learning), and they don’t require anyone else to be there. 

So they’re very easy to fit into your day.

But if you don’t make a habit out of listening to them, you won’t do it. So carve out a regular time in your day or week, and make sure you actually listen to them.

3. Find a podcast that interests you

Learning happens most effectively when you are using materials that are actually interesting. There’s nothing worse than feeling that learning English has become a chore, and it’s something you fear doing.

There are over a million podcasts available for you to listen to, from everything on dog breeding to swimming pool maintenance. Or less niche subjects, like business, philosophy, or sports. There’s something for everyone.

Even for podcasts aimed at English learners, there is a large variety that you can choose from.

Are you interested in one that talks about life in a particular country? Or perhaps you want one that teaches you interesting things about the world (like the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast)? 

Or do you want to listen to one that teaches you grammar and vocabulary (like the Espresso English podcast)

There’s something there for everyone, and it’s very easy to test lots of them out. Just press play, have a listen and see what you like.

How to use podcasts effectively

So, you’ve chosen a podcast. You’re sitting comfortably, and you’re ready to learn.

You just close your eyes and press ‘play’, right? Surely there’s nothing more complicated than that?

In fact, getting the most out of a podcast for English learning purposes is a bit of an art. But when done properly, this technique pays dividends and can help you improve your listening and speaking skills.

Here’s what I suggest.

1. Listen with nothing

When you first listen to a podcast episode, try listening with nothing. Don’t press pause, don’t look up words, don’t get caught up if you don’t understand a word or sentence.

This helps you build up your confidence. If you’re the kind of person that worries if they don’t understand something, then learning to not worry if you don’t is actually a skill that you need to develop.

Research has shown that learning happens most effectively in low anxiety situations, and so listening to a podcast and learning to accept that you won’t understand every single word is actually a very useful skill to master.

You’ll also be surprised that the meaning of words or phrases that you didn’t understand when you first heard them will become clearer when you hear them in another context, later on in the podcast. 

Learning through acquisition is how we all acquire our first language as children, and using this technique when you first listen to a podcast, in order to try to ‘acquire’ meaning through context is a far more effective way than listening to a text in class with definitions provided in your mother tongue, so you don’t have to do the work yourself.

2. Listen with vocabulary

If you’re listening to a podcast aimed at English learners, they often come with vocabulary provided, which explains some of the harder words. 

If you’re listening to one of these podcasts, then you can listen to it again after looking through the key vocabulary. 

If there are words that you didn’t get the first time around, then this will help fill in the gaps.

If you want to give yourself even more of a challenge, you can look at the key vocabulary words, and try to guess your own definitions. This is a great exercise to improve your English writing and will help you remember vocabulary in English.

3. Listen with a transcript or subtitles

With some podcasts for English learners, like the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, they come with a transcript.

This allows you to follow along with the speaker and will help you see exactly what they have said. It can be particularly useful if the host speaks fast, uses unfamiliar words or expressions, or if you just want to be 100% sure of what has been said.

If there’s a transcript, you can also shadow the podcast. Shadowing is a language learning technique where you copy the voice of a native speaker, so you end up improving your speaking and pronunciation just by mimicking the host.

It’s a fantastic technique, and well worth using if you have never heard of it.

As a final note on podcasts, you may have thought that only TV or movies come with subtitles. 

Not so fast. With the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, we actually built subtitles within the website, so you can follow along with the podcast. You can even tap on a word and your browser will give you the definition in your language.

Read Part 2: Learning English with Netflix