Compared to sitting in a classroom or language lab, learning a foreign tongue from a podcast doesn't feel much like work. In the case of Chinesepod, a free daily podcast from Shanghai with lessons in Mandarin Chinese, language study is actually fun. When I tell people I listen to Chinesepod, they say, "Oh, I'd really love to do that in Spanish/French/Japanese, but I see all these language podcasts on the Web and I don't know how to choose." Here's a piece of advice: Find ones that sound like Chinesepod.
As in most podcasts, the hosts are the biggest attraction. Chinesepod is hosted by Ken Carroll, an Irishman who founded a high-profile English school in Shanghai as well as Chinesepod's parent company, and Jenny Zhu, who gained some visibility as Maria Shriver's translator at the recent Special Olympics. They get right to business (they don't chatter self-referentially about the Web site or the podcast) and they're certainly likable. Because the lessons are predetermined but the accompanying banter isn't, you get to hear Ken and Jenny genuinely interact in both English and Chinese, which is not only interesting but also takes on a frisson of actual social danger—Jenny, the native speaker, is Ken's employee, which makes each lesson an episode of a subtly plotted soap opera. Will Jenny insult Ken's Chinese? Will Ken stop moping that listeners have complained about his Mandarin tones?
They produce one lesson a day. Each is pegged at one of four difficulty levels and lasts between 10 and 15 minutes. Depending on which level you choose, you'll hear more or less Chinese. The "Newbie" episodes contain a lot of English, the "Advanced" lessons hardly any. They're organized around a single theme, from basic newbie topics like "colors" or "comparing cities" to culturally richer material such as asking for favors, buying tea, or flirting. After a brief welcome to Chinesepod from Ken and a hello from Jenny, the material for the day is presented in brief dialogues that, among their charms, avoid the usual absurd banality of most language lessons ("The sky is up. The floor is down.") Then Ken and Jenny discuss items in the lesson (mostly in English but dropping in Chinese asides as a nod to more advanced listeners), elaborating on the grammatical patterns, repeating new words, and focusing on the tones. The only downside is that Ken insists on translating every word of the dialogues; there are more creative ways of matching new words with meanings.
There's also a weekly feature, co-sponsored by the Shanghai Daily, of buzzwords in the news. You learn useful terms like "bu gamao" (literally "not having the flu" but here meaning "not interested") or "fang gu dz" (literally "flying a pigeon" but used to mean "to get stood up"). The idioms and slang are cute, worth telling to your friends even if they're not studying Chinese. The cultural immediacy is a relief—most other foreign language multimedia products seem as if they've been lost in the mail for, oh, say 25 years.
The podcasts are free, but you can purchase transcripts and additional exercises in written Chinese. Ken and Jenny don't cover the written language in the podcasts. But for someone like me, who's interested mostly in listening and speaking, this separation is an asset. There's also a lot to love for someone (again like me) with a language fetish: In one lesson Ken and Jenny discussed a few phrases in Shanghaiese, Cantonese, and Mandarin. And in the lesson on Internet vocabulary, Jenny dropped the English word "e-mail" into a Mandarin sentence, then explained that even though there's a Chinese word for e-mail, everyone says "e-mail." I appreciate these tastes of the global linguistic soup.
For a comparison, I listened to a few other foreign language podcasts (in Russian, Spanish, and Japanese) to see if my enthusiasm for Chinesepod was misguided. It's not. Doing everything as well as Chinesepod does is difficult, or at least rare. Other podcasts suffer from annoying hosts, language that isn't challenging or current enough, or boring lessons that smell like a musty classroom. It's as if they've chosen to do a podcast so they don't have to deal in person with those pesky students.
A few of the other podcasts do have qualities to recommend them: Spanish Phrase of the Day is quick and to the point, and the phrases are useful; an episode of A Spoonful of Russian started with a cute intro from the host's assistant, a little girl named Emily. I also liked Japancast, where I heard one host explain the Japanese in snippets of anime she played.
Still, too many other podcasts sound as if the hosts are working their way through a textbook or a dictionary. Such pedantry defeats the point of doing a podcast. On A Spoonful of Russian, for example, the woman simply reads lists of words. Granted, doing more with the language can be a challenge, but what's so hard about getting two witty, educated people together to talk about talking? (Somebody, please give the blogger LanguageHat a microphone.) The stilted, scripted conversation between the hosts of Japanesepod 101 was so painful, I couldn't listen much past the introduction. Others lack a fundamental understanding of a podcast's limits. I could like Larry Keim, a junior-high Spanish teacher who videocasts his lessons, but he has an inordinate fondness for conjugating verbs.
It's fortunate that a user-centered podcast exists in Chinese, a language that's increasingly important in world affairs. No offense to French speakers, but I'd be disappointed if the cutting edge of podcast pedagogy was coming from a language whose primacy has passed. Too bad there isn't a Chinesepod equivalent in Arabic, something friendly and colloquial that U.S. soldiers could crank up before going on patrol.
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