The language experts who create Babbel’s courses aim to get learners conversational in a new language as quickly as possible. Starting in 2019, Babbel’s Learning Media Team began to supplement the lessons and Review in our app with other experiences targeting learners’ communicative skills. We asked ourselves how we could help learners build up their listening skills without looking at their device’s screen, perhaps even while doing another task like driving or cooking.
Podcasting, a popular medium for news and entertainment, was a promising new sandbox to explore. We initially defined engaging audio learning experiences as those listeners could enjoy hands-free, on the go, to supplement and expand the communicative skills covered by the Babbel app. We wanted to reward our learners with a sense of achievement as listening skills gained in the app allowed them to comprehend and engage with long-form listening passages.
The experiment has been a success: since launching in 2019, each of Babbel’s language learning podcast series have found an audience, picking up hundreds of thousands of listeners within just months of launching. They have cumulatively been downloaded over 1.5 million times! Babbel Podcasts have also won a prestigious education award.
Julia, can you tell me a bit about your role at Babbel and how your team contributes to the production of Babbel Podcasts?
Julia: The Learning Media team is a group of media experts that collaborates with Babbel’s Didactics team to create things like podcasts and videos to help our learners build proficiency in a new language.
We produce content that will actually teach you something and help you reach your language goals. In the case of podcasts, this means, for example, training your listening comprehension skills by hearing native speakers share engaging stories about their life and their culture. It involves using audio to deliver a lesson on grammar topics or review what you’ve already learned in the Babbel app while you’re cooking or out for a walk. We continually improve our approach through lots of testing, iterating, getting user feedback, analysing learners’ data, and publishing a lot of content at a fairly rapid rate to find out what works and resonates for our audience.
Ted, you create Babbel’s English language courses, as well as host several Babbel podcasts, including the podcast Parlez Away for beginner-level French learners. What is the connection between the Babbel app’s pedagogical method and purely audio-based learning with podcasts?
Ted: Well, as you know, at Babbel we are big believers in the communicative approach. We know that most of our learners’ end goal is to have real conversations in their target language, and both the podcasts and the content in the app are designed with this in mind. We strive to teach relevant, useful vocabulary and grammar, while also providing cultural tips to increase immersion.
I would say the main difference lies in the focus of the approach. For our in-app lessons, a user might train multiple different skills in one session, from reading, to writing, to listening, and even speaking, so we can be a bit more holistic with our approach. On the other hand, with the purely audio format of podcasts, we have to be more precise to ensure we give enough guidance. With this added support, listeners can make the most of podcasts as a learning tool.
And what do you think the greatest benefit of podcasts is for the learner? Is it a supplement to their learning experience in the app or can it stand alone?
Ted: I’d say the freedom to choose when and where to listen is a huge benefit. Listeners can passively absorb some of that new language on the commute to work, or sit down at their desk for a focused session to really pick up some new grammar or vocabulary. That being said, podcasts are just one piece of the puzzle. There is no such thing as a “stand alone” way to learn a language. You have to read, you have to write, you have to speak, and you have to train your ear. Podcasts, of course, are where you should look to do the latter. To brush up on the other skills, there’s all the content in the app!
Julia, what have you learned about the podcasts’ listenership so far?
Julia: We spoke a lot at the beginning about podcasts being a hands-free option so you could learn while driving or cooking, or otherwise on-the-go, so we were a bit surprised when we got so many requests for transcripts of the recordings because it kind of went against the on-the-go, screen-free spirit. What we learned is that our learners actually want options to be able to learn the way they want to learn. While we are sure some listen while jogging, others also listen while sitting at their desktop computers focusing and reading along.
The feedback from learners has been excellent so far. We have received literally hundreds of emails and messages telling us how podcasts have helped . One user recently wrote to tell us that Ted’s podcast Parlez Away inspired them to pick up learning French again after a 36 year break since she graduated high school. The most common request we receive is to produce more content!
Ted, I’m especially interested in the topic of motivation in language learning. Motivation is one of the key predictors of success in learning a language, and most scholars agree it is essential. How do you think our podcasts can contribute to or reinforce learners’ motivation?
Ted: As Julia said, we know that our podcasts are already motivating people to get back into language learning, but why is that? Well, for one, I think it offers a safe, low-pressure, and entertaining way to get back into the swing of things. For some people, learning a language can be a bit scary, and being able to take things at their own pace (rewinding, changing the playback speed, reading along with a transcript) can alleviate some of that anxiety. Also, if the content is interesting and engaging, which I would say our podcasts definitely are, then it’s much easier to do the “work.”
The market for language learning podcasts is surprisingly crowded. What are some aspects that make Babbel’s podcasts unique?
Julia: Our approach to podcasting is innovative in a number of ways. For one, Babbel offers the only storytelling-based podcasts for beginner-level English learners. It is currently available for French and German native speakers. This poses unique challenges as learners at that level have limited vocabularies and need a lot of structure and guidance.
Ted: Those podcasts proved we can produce authentic audio materials that are accessible to beginner learners. Having an “aural guide/narrator” who provides tips and context in the listener’s native language, as well as offering a dynamic transcript with each episode have probably been our most successful experiments, and are huge contributors to their success and popularity.
Julia: I’d also mention that we use a proprietary, AI-based “text complexity analyzer” to check if our podcasts are appropriate for the learners’ proficiency level. It evaluates how fast our podcasts hosts speak, the relative difficulty of the vocabulary in the text, and the complexity of their sentence structure.
Another successful experiment has been providing “dynamic” transcriptions of the podcasts text. These provide visual cues and enable learners to control the speed of the playback. This empowers learners to be more self-directed and listen more deeply, which can really aide their comprehension at the beginner levels.
Finally, I’m incredibly proud of the team for continuing making our podcasts remotely during the pandemic. It took a lot of creative problem solving to get out the content that we have produced in the last year, and I’m proud the media team’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and produce high quality work from home studio set ups!
Ted, in honor of your podcast for advanced English learners, I’ll give you “the last word.” Can you give us a preview of any exciting new podcast formats on the horizon? Is there anything you’d personally like to experiment with in the future?
Ted: We’re just about to release our newest podcast: Speaking of Berlin, aimed at English speakers learning German. The format is quite similar to the German language podcast for English learners Auf Sprachreise. In each episode, we hear a true story in German, with narration in English (provided by yours truly) to make sure that listeners don’t get lost. Our approach for this podcast will be just a bit different than how it was for Auf Sprachreise, which had quite a big focus on grammar, with tips and explanations woven throughout each episode. This time, the narration is more focused on supporting comprehension and helping the listener enjoy the story.
As for what I’d like to experiment with? I’d love to produce some more radio drama-esque podcasts spanning different genres, from mystery, to sci-fi, to historical fiction. As I mentioned before, one of the biggest benefits of podcasts for our learners is the freedom they allow. My dream would be to have a massive library of audio content for our learners, giving not only the freedom of when and how to listen, but what to listen to as well.
Babbel Podcasts are available for free on all major podcast streaming services like Apple Podcasts and Spotify, as well as for subscribers directly in the Babbel mobile app. A comprehensive overview of all podcast series and where to stream them can be found here.