Podcasts: an essential tool for foreign language self-study

By | December 14, 2013

I’m not exaggerating when I say that Podcasts are one of the most important tools for self-study, especially for experienced students of Japanese who are living outside of Japan.

I’m always surprised when I mention to people I listen to podcasts and they have no idea what that means, or have only a vague clue. Hopefully anyone who reads online blogs would be familiar with podcasts, but just to be safe I won’t make any assumptions.

Podcasts are a digital medium which consist of a series of episodes available for download or streaming online. They can consist of audio, video, and other formats, but audio is the most common and I will use “Podcast” to refer to “Audio Podcast” for the rest of this post. In Japanese the loanword ポッドキャストis used, and there is also the phrase 音声ブログ (voice blog).

One of the best things about podcasts is they can be listened to anytime, on a walk, while commuting, or even at work. I listen to Japanese podcasts on my way back and forth to work every day which gives me 30-40 minutes extra of precious Japanese listening practice.

For beginner level students, there are some podcasts available online which teach Japanese basic using English. One of the more popular sites is http://japanesepod101.com, which I’ve read mixed reviews for. Some people claim there is a good amount of free material, whereas others claim this side is fradulent and tries to cheat you out of your money. In any case, be careful about handing out your credit card information to sites like this. Generally speaking, I would stick primarily to using textual materials except for when learning pronunciation.

For those with several years of Japanese experience, I would just stick to purely Japanese podcasts. In other words, podcasts targeting native speakers. You can find many of these via a quick search of “ポッドキャスト” on google. The last few months I’ve been listening to a few podcasts from this site: http://podcast.1242.com. There are also sites which rank popularity of Japanese podcasts, such as http://podcast-bp.com/ranking/. Another good source of high-quality podcasts created by broadcasting giant NHK is http://www.nhk.or.jp/podcasts/.

The other great thing about these Japanese podcasts is that the language used is much closer to what people would use in Japan, at least compared with many anime and TV dramas. Try and find some minor podcasts with little production which are created by non-professionals. Those provide a window into what everyday native speakers sound like.

Though it ended in 2008, DogCast (http://www.voiceblog.jp/dogcast/) is one my favorite podcasts – especially the episodes recorded by “Chin san”. He also co-hosted a more professional podcast called “Samenchuu”, which can be downloaded here: http://tunein.com/radio/Samenchu-p416577/. Chin san did a great job at telling stories about his personal experiences in a way that makes them funny and entertaining, and also used some great background sounds such as waves at the beach.

If my blog is something that is useful to you, then odds high are that many of these blogs will be extremely difficult to follow, whereas others you might be able to grasp the basics. It all depends on the speakers accent/speed, conversation topics (if you have background knowledge about them), and how many people are speaking (or laughing) at once.  Even within the several shows hosted on ニッポン放送(http://podcast.1242.com), there are some that I can comprehend pretty well (“An’s Anytime Andante”) and others which I struggle to keep the pace and get lost in a sea of words I’ve never heard before.

Don’t let yourself get frustrated if you are clueless when you start listening to any of these podcasts. The more you listen you will adjust and start to pick up more words, and this improvement of your listening ability will be very satisfying. I typically have two goals when listening to the more difficult podcasts:

  • I try to pick out sentences here and there that I understand, and try to understand the general topic.
  • I try to commit a few words I don’t understand to memory, and as soon I get to a place where I can research I look them up. This is a good skill to hone that will help when watching TV shows or dramas also. At the beginning you may only remember one new vocabulary word, but eventually you’ll be able to keep 5-10 in your head at a time.

If you have the patience you can even try listening to one of the shorter podcasts repeated a few times in succession. Each time you’ll likely pick up more words and nuances you missed before. If you are super hardcore you can take it to the next level and try to transcribe everything you hear, including transforming the words into appropriate Kanji when needed. You can then use that to identify words and grammar that you are unfamiliar with, and study each of those in detail.

One final note – Although I mentioned above that the speech used in podcasts can be close to what you would hear if you lived in Japan, in truth the speech will usually be more advanced than if you tried to start up a conversation with a random person from, say, a coffee shop in Japan. Thats because many podcasts focus on a specific domain and there are many 専門用語 (specialized terms) thrown around. Also for the more professionally produced ones, the DJs try to speak as quickly as possible to get in a lot of information into a small segment of time.

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