Saturday, April 28, 2012

Podcasting: The Language Student's Best Friend

Her head bounces to the beat of the music in her head. One two three four one two three four. Step close enough to her and you can hear a little of the music playing through the speakers embedded in her ears. 

Perhaps the MP3 file is a song performed by Girls Generation or Big Bang or Rain. Perhaps it is A-Pop, K-Pop or J-Pop. From Bangkok to Seoul to Tokyo, many people are tuned into their favorite recording artists on their MP3 players. Few people in Asia, however, have learned that the MP3 player is their best friend to help them develop their language skills.

The MP3 player is a “pod,” a “streamlined enclosure” that holds things. In the case of the MP3 player, it contains a lifetime of music carried in a pocket or clipped to a belt or hung around one's neck while working, resting and playing. However, a pod need not only be filled with music.

The popularity of the pod opened the door to a new form of mass communication called “podcasting.” Mass communication began with broadcasting, using a transmitter to send a signal over a large geographical location. The signal is picked up by a radio or a television. In the early days, if you liked a program and wanted to listen to it, one had to be in front of the radio or the TV or else they would miss it. Audiocassettes and the video cassette recorder (VCR) would make it easier to watch programs if they were missed the first time around.

Podcasting is similar to broadcasting, but the delivery of the content is over the Internet. Programs can be downloaded as soon as they are ready.

Most people are familiar with the iTunes Store, where they download new music or TV programs. Unlike the music and the TV shows, most podcasts can be downloaded for free. And there is something for everybody to be found.

For English as second language students, the BBC and the Voice of America produce podcasts that range from five minutes to half an hour. Pick the easiest one you feel comfortable with, and listen to it over and over again until you can repeat word for word what the announcer was saying. A Korean teacher of English I worked with in Chuncheon used this technique to practice her English. She was a very good speaker as a result. She was a modest teacher and didn't think too highly of her skill, but the teachers she worked with agreed that her skill was very close speaking like a native speaker. A student may also encounter new words and build up their vocabulary, as well as develop a good ear for listening and improving their pronunciation. People needing help with grammar skills will benefit from Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips, produced by Mignon Fogerty.

There are also a number of podcasts dedicated to helping students practice speaking foreign languages. I have found podcasts produced for students of Chinese, Korean, Thai and Japanese languages.

Many other podcasts are available for download, covering topics such as astronomy, martial arts, economics and environmental issues. There is a podcast out there dedicated to your interests.
I have had a lifelong interest in history. I used to look at books about the American Civil War and World War II when I was in elementary school. I don't have access to many English history books here in northeastern Thailand, so podcasts help make up for it. 

Hardcore History with Dan Carlin has produced some of the most compelling shows I have heard over the years since I started listening. “Ghosts of the Ostfront” is a four part audiobook that explores the battles between Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia during WWII. While he does explore the politics of the time, he goes deeper into the human experience of what it must have been like to be on the front lines for both sides. Carlin approaches history as a fan, not as a teacher, so history isn't as boring as it could be. The downloads are free, but past shows have been archived and may be purchased for a small fee.

Foreigners interested in learning more about the history of east Asia are encouraged to check out three podcasts. Topics in Korean History with Alex Hawkins is a chronological telling of the history of the peoples who have lived on the Korean peninsula for the last 5,000 years. Lazlo Montgomery hosts The China History podcast, and has spent several episodes looking in depth at the various dynasties and personalities who have made China the country that it is today. The final podcast I recommend is Cameron Foster's The Short History of Japan podcast.

Since I started listening to podcasts I have learned about the independent Irish and Celtic rock music scene thanks to Marc Gunn, gained good freelance writing tips from Mur Lafferty, and am working on foreign language skills, as well. I know it has helped me. I am confident that podcasts will help you, as well.

James Heald
contributing writer

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