In an increasingly busy world it’s become harder to find time to study languages. These days people are more interested in learning while on the go, and podcasts are the perfect tools for that. Finding the right one, however, isn’t so easy. Neither is creating one. What makes a good language podcast? We spoke to the founders of two successful, but hugely contrasting shows, to find out.
It was back in 2005, the year that podcasts started to take off, when Peter Galante, a Ph.D. student studying economics at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University, decided to launch Japanesepod101.
“I felt there was an opening for a Japanese language show,” Galante says. “The idea was straightforward: Introduce a 短い会話 (mijikai kaiwa, short dialogue) between a native and non-native speaker, firstly at a natural pace, then more slowly.”
These conversations are followed with explanations of the nuances of the culture and language behind it.
“Take a phrase like よろしくお願いします (Yoroshiku onegaishimasu),” Galante continues. “There’s many ways to explain it so you need the context.”
Galante explains that this simple phrase could mean “Nice to meet you,” or, when used in a restaurant with your partner, “This one’s on you, thanks very much.”
“The goal was to keep things simple without over-complicated explanations. As they say, より少ないことは、より豊かである (Yori sukunai koto wa, yori yutaka de aru, “less is more”).”
This basic approach proved an immediate hit and within a few months, the podcast was attracting over 8,000 downloads daily.
But Galante wasn’t satisfied and was constantly looking at ways to improve things with help from listeners’ comments.
“In the first few episodes we’d start off with some chit-chat: いい天気ですね (Ii tenki desu ne, ‘Nice weather, isn’t it?’), that sort of thing,” he says. “Listeners told us that wasn’t always necessary so we decided to make the show more focused, going straight into the lesson. This kind of 建設的な批判 (kensetsuteki na hihan, constructive criticism) I appreciate as much as the praise.”
Thanks to feedback, both negative and positive, Galante says his co-founded company has matured a lot over the past 12 years. And his days of arranging everything by himself and “コマネズミのように働いてる (Komanezumi no yō ni hataraiteru, working like a beaver, or literally, ‘dancing mouse’)” are over.
Head of the company’s Tokyo operations, Mayumi Kishimoto, agrees. She says things are very different these days, as “the pod has a large team of planners, writers, engineers and marketers.”
One show, lasting between 10 and 15 minutes, takes around eight hours to produce, featuring professional voice actors and ambient sounds. There’s a range of differing styles available, catering for a variety of levels. Each lesson also has notes and a transcript.
For those interested in something less structured バイリンガルニュース (bairingaru nyūsu, Bilingual News) is a great option. The show, ranking No. 1 in iTunes charts in Japan, is created and hosted by close friends Mami and Michael (who keep their surnames a secret). They touch on a host of topics ranging from 哲学 (tetsugaku, philosophy) to 宗教 (shūkyō, religion). Whether it be 国家機密 (kokka kimitsu, state secrets), 人工知能 (jinkō chinō, artificial intelligence) or セックスロボ (sekkusu robo, sex robots), nothing’s considered taboo.
As well as interviewing special guests, the bilingual pair regularly engage in conversations using a 口語体 (kōgotai, colloquial style) with Mami tending to speak Japanese and Michael focusing more on English. The latter decided to start the show after listening to a podcast by comic duo 爆笑問題 (Bakushō Mondai, literally, “roaring laughter problem”). Hikari Ota, or “Ōta-san,” of Bakusho Mondai, was actually one of Bilingual News’ first listeners.
“I loved their authenticity and freedom of their conversation, but I remember getting lost and wishing I had some English context,” Michael tells us.
When he consulted his father about starting a podcast, he suggested doing “something else that could more reliably make money,” Michael says. “That furthered my resolve to question old models. I then asked Mami to start this podcast with me, not with the demeanor of doing work, but rather as a hobby.”
From the outset, they were clear that the podcast had to be on their terms and that hasn’t changed since they began broadcasting in 2013. Free for everyone, it’s 台本なし (daihon nashi, unscripted) and 検閲なし (ken’etsu nashi, without censorship). There’s no 宣伝 (senden, advertising), 主催 (shusai, sponsorship) or 経営 (keiei, management), giving the pair freedom to speak about whatever they like.
According to Michael they are “just two friends trying to understand this increasingly strange world.” To help them do that, they invite various kinds of people on to the show. His recent favorites include a roboticist and a geneticist. Other times it’s just the two of them. Their conversations can be 実存的 (jitsuzonteki, existential) and sometimes 難しい (muzukashii, difficult).
“We aren’t afraid to disagree or say what we feel,” he says. “While our minds work in distinctly different ways, we still have infinite respect for each other’s ideas and perspectives.”
Always recorded in one take without editing, the dialogue sounds natural. There may be times when you don’t catch what’s being said in Japanese, but that isn’t a big problem, as Michael explains.
“The code switching enables listeners to contextualize the language they’re attempting to decipher without explicit definitions,” he tells us. “When you hear material entirely in a foreign language you can sometimes lose all reference to the subject matter. With this format, you understand the context by default so even if you speak no Japanese, you can still probably follow the conversation.”
Easier than Bilingual News in terms of content and much shorter in length, but without any English, News in Slow Japanese has Sakura reading one news item a week in Japanese, first slowly, then at regular speed. If casual, 気楽 (kiraku, carefree) conversations are more your thing, you should maybe give Learn Japanese Pod a try. For beginners, NHK World’s やさしい日本語 (Yasashii Nihongo, “Easy Japanese”), which is in an audio drama style centering on an international student from Thailand, is a good option.