Podcasts have enjoyed a boom in recent years, but if you associate them mostly with true-crime mysteries, other storytelling, and chat programs, know that they can also be an invaluable tool for travelers preparing for their next trip. A secret to learning the basics of a foreign language, or coming to master it at a more fluent level, is incorporating it into your daily life by listening to native speakers as often as possible. Podcasts alone are unlikely to be sufficient but they can be one resource—and often a free one—allowing you to use time commuting or on a treadmill at the gym to review the subjunctive or hear the news in the language you are studying. Here are some of the best podcasts, targeting students at all levels, in five different languages.
Beginners: The Radio Lingua Network is an institution in the world of podcasts, having launched in 2006 with Coffee Break Spanish. The podcasts are short, between 15 to 25 minutes each, and cover the basics of the language (one lesson might be on describing likes and dislikes; another on giving directions). Episodes are free but if you sign up for a course, typically with around 40 lessons ($104, with discounts for multicourse bundles), you also get lesson plans, videos, and bonus audio. The popular podcasts are also offered in Chinese (Mandarin), French, German, Italian, and Swedish.
Intermediate: For students looking to become more familiar with conversational Spanish, especially Mexican Spanish, No Hay Tos is a podcast with two Spanish teachers, Héctor Libreros and Roberto “Beto” Andrade, chatting about current events, recent trips, and topics like Mexican sweets. Patrons of the show ($10 per month, through Patreon) have access to transcripts, show notes, and bonus videos like a tour of Mérida or another consisting of interviews with residents of Veracruz, explaining the characteristics of the accent typical of that city.
Advanced: Radio Ambulante, a Spanish-language program from NPR, wasn’t designed as a language-learning podcast, but for advanced students it’s an excellent way to improve comprehension. Episodes are deep dives into stories ranging from the weighty (the fall of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori) to the whimsical (the baffling system for street addresses used in San José, Costa Rica). Students can download free transcripts and translations, while Lupa is a learning app built around Radio Ambulante and available for $10 a month.
Beginners: Much like Coffee Break episodes, Learn French by Podcast programs are short bite-sized lessons, typically between 10 and 20 minutes. The accompanying PDFs consist of an annotated transcript highlighting grammatical concepts and vocabulary covered in each episode. The podcasts are free while most lesson plans cost one credit each (credits start at $1, with discounts for larger purchases of multiple credits).
Intermediate: Public radio networks are often a great source for podcasts for students at all levels. Radio France Internationale (RFI)’s Journal en français facile is one example. The 10-minute podcasts cover the news of the day, both from France and around the world, at a slightly slower speaking pace. Transcripts are provided for free on the broadcaster’s website.
Advanced: The transition from understanding a language when spoken by an instructor who enunciates clearly and with a familiar accent to being able to follow a number of different speakers can be a challenge. The French Voices podcast provides a way to get over that hurdle through interviews with speakers from various backgrounds. The website highlights vocabulary from each episode and includes links to additional reading.
Beginner: The Deutsch – Warum Nicht? podcast is a decidedly uncool podcast, with a dated feel and references (it was originally produced in 1991, so just roll with the mentions of cassette tapes). The episodes follow the story of Andreas, a journalist who also works as a doorman, and all the people he meets. One of the things that makes it most appealing, however, is that all the accompanying lesson plans and other German learning materials are free.
Intermediate: The same broadcaster that distributes Deutsch – Warum Nicht?, Deutsche Welle, has a daily news in slow German podcast, Langsam Gesprochene Nachrichten. Episodes are typically under 10 minutes—they only include several top stories, about both events in Germany and the rest of the world—and the Deutsche Welle website posts free transcripts. The German here is slower than the French is in the RFI podcast, but at just the right pace for learners still working on their comprehension.
Advanced: For the serious student of German, Sozusagen dives deeper into the language’s idioms and etymologies. Episodes cover topics like the differences between various dialects of German, the rhetoric of populist politicians, and the unique German spoken by the descendants of 19th-century immigrants to Brazil. The podcast is entirely in German and its primary audience is native speakers.
Beginner: Podcast pickings are slim for Arabic, and those that do exist are perhaps best viewed as supplements to more formal classes or websites like Duolingo or Rocket Arabic. That said, Arabicpod101’s podcasts, while unsystematic as they jump around to different topics, can help expand your vocabulary. Arabic with Sam’s podcasts are introductions to both the language and Arabic cultures, though for a more structured course, you’ll have to turn to the same teacher’s Arabic in 60 Steps website.
Intermediate/Advanced: While the audience for podcasts in the Arabic-speaking world is still in its infancy, BBC Xtra is a news program in Arabic that allows students to develop their comprehension by listening to headline stories. Rumooz, from Al Jazeera, is a series of half-hour profiles of prominent figures in the worlds of culture, politics, and business, both from Arab nations and beyond, including (so far) Che Guevara, Zaha Hadid, and Steve Jobs.
Beginner: The Coffee Break series mentioned earlier has one season of 40 podcasts that provide a good introduction to spoken Mandarin. While it appears to have stalled in March 2019, additional episodes may eventually be added in a second season. Chinese Learn Online has member plans (from $20 per month) with flashcards, lesson plans, exercises, and other learning tools, though it is also possible to download its more than 400 podcasts for free on Apple podcasts.
Intermediate/Advanced: As you listen to the podcasts in Popup Chinese’s rich library, you can read along and save words from the programs’ transcripts into a customized vocabulary list. Access to most of the podcasts, as well as accompanying transcripts, quizzes, vocabulary lists, and a writing pad (to practice your Chinese characters) require an annual membership of $100. The episodes serve not only as lessons in Mandarin but also cover various aspects of Chinese culture. At beginner and intermediate levels, the focus tends to be on navigating aspects of daily life, while more advanced podcasts touch on topics like the country’s hip-hop scene, Shanghai slang, and artistic and literary luminaries.