To learn the Japanese language, get pod-agogical

by W. David Marx

With Internet blogs beginning to challenge traditional print media, it was only a matter of time before a new medium broke radio’s traditional choke hold on free audio programming. Enter podcasts, the downloadable MP3 audio files that feature mixes of music and chatter created by amateurs worldwide. Although many of these podcasts so far have been little more than running commentaries on daily life or digital mix tapes from computer-savvy teenagers, the format should lend itself nicely to disseminating free educational content.

In Japan, many are taking advantage of this new medium and bringing a high-tech twist to age-old language learning. Almost a dozen active educational Japanese podcasts have appeared in the last few months, ranging from basic lessons on daily greetings to advanced vocabulary builders.

Users can download the files for free from the iTunes Music Store or other Internet sites and listen at their convenience, rather than be tied down by fixed radio or TV scheduling. As most lessons are around 15 minutes, listeners can pack a couple for the daily commute.

So, who is responsible for creating these educational audio files? While some seem to be related to commercial pursuits, a fair number emanate from a mixture of Japanese and foreign individuals helping to bridge the cultural gap.

Nippon Voice Blog (www.voiceblog.jp/nippon) is a podcast that introduces learners to new words and concepts through the explanation of seasonal events such as setsubun. The podcast offers listening comprehension with authentic Japanese narration, and the Web site’s accompanying transcripts extend the exercise into reading practice.

Beginners may find it difficult to enter directly into this Japanese material, but the popular podcast www.JapanesePod101.com attempts to teach the language within a bilingual environment. Translation firm Eklaren, Inc. started offering the free 15-minute daily podcast last December, and now averages 8,000 downloads a day. Creator Peter Galante started to make the audio lessons after being impressed with Chinesepod, an audio tool for students of Mandarin. Galante hosts his podcast in English, explaining most of the lesson’s key concepts, while authentic Japanese natives sound out the words with proper pronunciation. According to Galante, one of the most popular features of the podcast is the portion in which Japanese speakers slowly pronounce the words syllable by syllable for easier comprehension. “Japanese is spoken so fast and sometimes it is overwhelming,” Galante explained. “So we introduce and breakdown words to make the language more bite-sized.”

The advanced learner who needs little pampering can dive right into Japanese educational podcasts created by Japanese for Japanese. Kanda Podsayings (podsayings.po-di-um.net/en/kanda) for example, offers 45-second daily sessions that explain a particular business concept. A recent lesson looks at the changing nature of customer complaints. The creator Masanori Kanda primarily targets Japanese white-collar employees, but the difficult vocabulary and accompanying online transcriptions can be an educational vitamin boost for the longtime foreign student. On the other side of the spectrum, Japanese Classical Literature at Bedtime (eloise.cocolog-nifty.com/rodoku) gives a new vocal life to quintessential Japanese authors such as Basho.

Seeing that most Japanese language podcasts are free services, the downside is that students get what they pay for. The dialogues are mostly recorded in less-than-ideal conditions, and the musical interludes consist of cliched shakuhachi flute and cheesy background music. Although the podcasts do make good auxiliary material for those wanting to hear the spoken language in real-life settings, currently none of the services offer complete language programs with a valid pedagogical framework. Few of the creators appear to have experience in formally teaching Japanese.

The inevitable competition and commercialization of podcasts, however, may raise the bar. Many have come into life as part of a larger business scheme. For example, the Learn Japan podcast (talksushi.libsyn.com) includes short advertisements for creator Nick Kemp’s Talk Sushi subscription-based Internet language learning service.

For those living far away from native speakers, podcasts bring real-time exposure to the language and culture of contemporary Japan. Those struggling to pick up the language here can certainly take advantage of this free podcast boom too, but perhaps, the best thing may still be to remove the earphones and just listen in on the outside world.