Your English skills are pretty good right now, but you want them to be great because you’ve relocated to the USA for a year or more, and you want to make the most of your time here. You want to speak English more effortlessly, sound more like a native speaker, use vocabulary and slang like an American, and be able to really connect with others and sound like one of the top American executives while communicating at work. You want to go from a B2 level to a C1 level or above on the CEFR English proficiency test. So today we want to give you a way to improve your English that’s easy, time-sensitive, interesting and free.
Ready? Here it is: Listen to podcasts during your commute to work. Now please understand that we’re not talking about podcasts that are designed specifically to help you learn English. You already have a job in the US, so you speak English well already. And those English-learning podcasts are just not very interesting or motivating at your level. You need something more. Not to mention, they teach a lot of formal language, when it’s the everyday vocabulary that your ears are missing during conference calls or Friday morning meetings with the team.
Instead, we’ve seen that professionals who are studying English with Fluency Corp benefit the most when they listen to English-language podcasts that tell compelling stories.
What Makes Podcasts So Effective for Improving English?
A conversation is made up of 3 things: questions, answers and stories. That’s it. Most of your day is spent listening to conversations or participating in conversations, so shouldn’t you prepare for conversations? Most of your day is not spent listening to lecture-style presentations, news reports or documentaries that have a narrator. You might attend conferences a few times a year, but 99% of your day is spent interacting with others, so you should listen to conversations in order to prepare yourself for conversations. We think it’s quite logical to practice doing the activity and be engaged in the activity that you want to get better at doing!
· Human beings are just wired to love stories. How do kids get fluent? We read them stories, tell them stories about family, and the TV tells them stories. The more you want to know what happens next, the more you’ll keep listening. When you are engrossed in a podcast, you’re getting the much-needed experience of listening to native English speakers conversing, telling stories, and asking each other questions – listening to conversations will prepare you for conversations.
· You’re more likely to retain the English vocabulary you acquire from a podcast. If you pick up some new English words while listening to a memorable story, those words will also stick in your memory. Learning a vocabulary list of words often causes students to use the words in the wrong context. If you learn the phrase in a story, you learn the exact context in which to use it, and you won’t forget it quickly!
· You’ll get to hear a lot of different accents. In formal classes, English instructors tend to exaggerate what they’re talking in order to ensure learning is clear, which doesn’t sound at all like a native speaker. Also, if you only hear how one person speaks, then you’ll get used to that way of speaking. One of our Korean clients had been working in the US for about 5 years when a British colleague came to visit. He called us laughing after his first meeting, “I didn’t understand anything he said!” He was very surprised at how different it sounded. Luckily, the colleague was only there for a day, but we encouraged him to start listening to some British podcasts if he thought he would be working more with this gentleman. Reality is, there are a lot of accents in any language even from state to state in the US, so it’s good to get used to diverse ways of pronunciation.
· Podcasts give you a constant source of intriguing facts and stories that are great conversation-starters to use with native English speakers. And the more conversations you have with native speakers, the more you will improve your English skills.
Podcast Picks for Upper Intermediate English Learners
We regularly recommend podcasts to Fluency Corp students as a way to supplement what they are learning in their language lessons and to improve their English faster. Here are a few of our podcast picks for English learners who are at a CEFR Level B2 (upper intermediate) or higher.
· “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” NPR’s current events quiz show is fun to listen to, and it helps you master both humor and casual conversation in English, not to mention keep you up to date on current events around the world – you’ll be cracking up while you learn. To increase your learning, read the transcript while you are listening or afterward. You can even share the transcript with your English teacher and ask them to explain why certain jokes are funny.
· “Planet Money.” By using conversational language and fascinating stories, this podcast actually makes it interesting to learn more about the economy.
· “Hidden Brain.” Explore the unconscious patterns that drive what we do. Recent episodes have talked about everything from how we recognize faces to what factors really predict our success in life.
· “Invisibilia.” If you like “Hidden Brain,” you’ll probably also like “Invisibilia,” which uses storytelling to illuminate the science of human behavior.
· “Code Switch.” This podcast is built on honest and empathetic conversations about race, ethnicity and culture. If you’re curious about diversity in the USA, make sure to check out their point of view.
· “How I Built This with Guy Raz.” As you’re improving your English skills with the podcast, you might also get inspired to start your own company. “How I Built This” has profiled business leaders like Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Whitney Wolfe of Bumble.
No matter which English-language podcasts you check out, remember that you don’t constantly have to think about improving your English as you listen. Just enjoy the stories you’re hearing and language learning will happen on its own.
Language Learning Exercises While Listening to Podcasts
Now, if you’re the more studious, serious student whose looking to get intense about adding more vocabulary, slang, phrasal verbs and more to your daily speech, then here are some exercises you can do while listening to the podcast.
Exercise 1: Highlighting the Transcript
Step 1: Print out the transcript to any podcast.
To get to the transcript, go to the blog online, for example, https://www.thisamericanlife.org/. Then click on any podcast, but not the newest one. The most recently aired will not have a transcript yet. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/676/heres-looking-at-you-kid <–when you click on a podcast, you will see a button at the top that says ‘Transcript’. Go there. Print this.
Step 2: Read for 5 minutes highlighting.
What should you highlight? You should highlight any phrases that you would not say. For the transcript above, let’s look at a few examples. The first sentence that I know a non-native speaker would probably not use is “When you’re in high school, your personality is still up for grabs.” The next one is, “I’d seen them around.” And also, “I mean, they were ripped.” And, “the Jetsyns”.
So in just a few paragraphs, you’ve found tons of phrases that are new to you, or phrases that you understand, but never felt comfortable using. Now, let’s figure out what they mean. If you have a fluency partner or language coach, bring these sentences to your private class. Or, ask a friend. But make sure to bring the whole printout, so that they understand the context. You don’t want someone to give you the wrong definition because you only gave them the word. They need the whole paragraph to completely understand. Please understand, context is everything, and it’s always best to ask a native speaker the meaning. If you Google it, you might get a secondary or old meaning that is no longer used, and then your studying will cause you to learn the wrong meanings. That’s why we always suggest speaking with native speakers to truly learn.
Step 3: Figuring out the definition on your own
Go to Wordreference.com. Why Wordreference and not the dictionary? Wordreference is a dictionary made by real people, who understand the context. A dictionary will give you every meaning and you might learn the wrong one, but just be careful with context and a formal dictionary will work just fine also. For example, ‘ripped’. If you look in the dictionary, this is what you will find:
(of clothes or fabric) badly torn.
“a pair of faded, ripped jeans”
under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs.
“at the dress rehearsal, he was so ripped he couldn’t stand upright”
You have to be careful about context, so think about what the guest was saying in the podcast: “They were super handsome and in great shape. I mean, they were ripped.”
So we can assume that being in great shape has something to do with being ripped. Now, dictionary definition number 1 and number 2 do not fit this scenario. Now, definition number 3 is where we find our answer:
having well-defined or well-developed muscles; muscular.
“through his slightly-too-tight shirt you could see he was ripped”
Step 4: Try to use that word at least 10 times this week, even if it’s talking to yourself. Scenario: you’re walking down the street and a guy with huge muscles walks by, so you say to yourself: That guy is ripped.
Exercise 2: Mimic
Step 1: Repeat in the exact same pronunciation, tone and intonation as the speaker. Do this for 5 minutes. Pretend you are acting. This will help intonation and pronunciation. Listen for the schwa sounds and the true sound of the vowels and consonants. They might not be what you think they are when you listen closely. If you hear something interesting or different, bring it to your private English lesson to discuss.
Do you have questions about improving your own English skills? Are you an HR professional looking for ways to help your company’s workforce learn English? Contact us for a free consultation: [email protected] or (800) 401-3159.