It’s also comprehensible to an English speaker

I’m going to share some thoughts on foreign language podcasts today. This is prompted by two separate but connected things: a recent judging conversation I had for the British Podcast Awards and a very interesting interview with Adonde Media CEO Martina Castro in the Hot Pod newsletter (keep scrolling down past the Canada stuff to find it).

Obviously, by “foreign language” I mean foreign to me, ie not in English. As I’ve already said countless times in this newsletter, the vast majority of podcasting and podcasting revenue is currently in the United States, with the UK, Canada and Australia trailing somewhere behind. I can see in the stats for the British podcasts I produce that there is plenty of crossover between these territories, enabled of course by their shared language — my pop culture podcast, SRSLY, gets about 20 per cent of its listeners from the US, for instance.

But non-English language podcasts certainly do exist, and in lots of cases are beginning to break away from their amateur or radio origins and distribute more widely on the internet. For people who want to explore all this additional audio content and who are sufficiently skilled in a second or third language to just press play and listen, you can’t really do better than to switch the location of your iTunes store (click on the flag button right at the bottom of the screen on the desktop programme) and browse as normal.

For those, like me, who have a faint scattering of vocabulary in a few languages but certainly aren’t proficient enough to listen to a whole podcast without help, there are still a few options to help you get involved. Chief among them is Radio Atlas, a brilliant project that I feel quite evangelical about and would like as many people as possible to be aware of. It’s run by the producer Eleanor McDowell, and it’s succinctly described on the website as “an English-language home for subtitled audio from around the world”.

When you play a Radio Atlas episode, you hear the original audio (which could be from Iceland, or Argentina, or the Faroe Islands, and might be recently published or from years ago) but you watch a simultaneous video with elegantly-designed subtitles. This way, you can still appreciate the production and sound design of the original work, but it’s also comprehensible to an English speaker.

There’s a different quality to the way you listen to Radio Atlas. You can’t wash dishes or exercise at the same time, like you can with a podcast in your native language. You have to watch the subtitles intently while you listen to keep up with the narrative, and this isn’t compatible with distraction.

It’s a bit like watching a subtitled film, I suppose, but more intense because there’s nothing to look at except the words. I find that my imagination works a lot harder in concert with the audio, and I really enjoy the effect it produces — almost like meditating, sometimes.

Another great resource for exploring audio in another language is Radio Ambulante, an NPR production telling Latin American stories and aimed at the US’s Spanish speaking population. To my knowledge, they don’t produce subtitled episodes, but you can achieve almost the same thing by listening to the Spanish audio while reading the English transcript for the episode. Radio Ambulante has been hugely influential — I’ve heard people describe it as This American Life but for Spanish speakers.

Then there’s a whole subset of podcasts that are actively aimed at people like me with poor language skills who want to improve them. The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is one such, and it’s told in easy-to-understand language (even I can get most of it, with a bit of pausing and googling) with frequent English interjections. I recommend it, and I fully expect we’ll be seeing other Duolingo podcasts for different languages soon.

Do you like to dip into podcasts in other languages? Tell me all about it — this is an area where I’m very keen to learn more.

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