I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on my own language learning experiences and how they affect my teaching. It has come up lately with regards to using podcasts in the classroom.
I’ve been an avid podcast listener for many years, and like many, one of the first podcasts I started listening to was NPR’s OG podcast, This American Life.
I’m just going to assume everyone knows This American Life (so if you don’t, just go and listen to their recommended episodes to start). Lots of people have written on how to incorporate podcasts featuring the narratives of ‘everyday people’ such as This American Life, Serial and others, into English language teaching and learning: here, here, and here, for example. I’ve recently gotten into an NPR podcast that I would probably describe as a Spanish-language equivalent of This American Life, Radio Ambulante. As an additional-language user of Spanish, listening to this podcast has given me a lot of first-hand insight into what an additional-language user of English might experience listening to This American Life or other similar podcasts, either in the classroom or on their own time.
First, and most places you see podcasts like This American Life recommended for learners of English do only recommend it for advanced learners, it’s pretty challenging to listen to podcasts that features real-life stories and narratives from everyday people. Many of the episodes feature long-form stories with many intertwining characters. It’s the next step up from podcasts in simplified language such as Voice of America, or even podcasts in controlled, standard language such as lots of stuff on BBC or CBC. To help mitigate this, both Radio Ambulante and This American Life feature transcripts of their podcasts, which are an invaluable learning tool, and Radio Ambulante even features English translations of their episodes.
Something that contributes to the difficulty of these pdocasts is the following: you’re hit over the head with sociolinguistic variation when you listen to Radio Ambulante. The podcast focuses on Latin America, so in a given episode you’ll hear the regional variety of Spanish used in the country that episode focuses on, but then you’ll also hear the variety used by the host(s). You also get exposed to a lot of social varieties of Spanish, be they those associated with different social classes, or different racio-ethnic varieties, or maybe even code-switching/translanguaging. It can be tough for me to wrap my ear around some varieties, especially non-standard varieties or those from regions I’m less used to. The hosts/narrators of Radio Ambulante do a great job of paraphrasing very localized words or terms for their pan-Latin American audience. This American Life and other NPR podcasts are very similar, featuring stories from everyday people from all regions of the US and elsewhere, in all their sociolinguistic glory. The podcast S-Town, for example, unfolds in Alabama English, and I can imagine it would be very challenging for a learner to follow. At the same time, using these types of podcasts in class would force you to bring up the subject of sociolinguistic variation and raise your students’ critical language awareness, something I’m very much in favour of.