The best thing about learning English is that there are so many amazing resources for doing it. One of the reasons that English is so commonly spoken across the globe is that you can find English resources everywhere – and not just in dusty old textbooks. Learning English needn’t be boring. Sometimes you have to study grammar and vocabulary, but you can also learn English through the fun stuff like TV shows, songs, novels, Hollywood movies, comic books, etc.
A few years ago, I was in South Korea and I met a man on the Daegu subway who spoke English with a very natural American accent. I asked him where he studied and he said he wasn’t a student. In fact, he claimed to have never studied English at school! He told me that he was a huge fan of rap music and just picked up lyrics along the way. Between imitating music and movies, his English developed to an incredible level.
Last year, one of my Chinese students asked me how she could improve her listening skills and I told her the same thing I tell all my students – there are essentially two necessities. The first is to be constantly listening to English, and that means doing the stuff I mentioned above – movies, TV shows, songs, etc. Then second is close listening, which means not just hearing the sound, but paying close attention. A good example of this are the lessons I give on this website, where I ask you specific questions about TED talks. The most recent one requires you to listen for numbers, which is an important skill.
When I spoke to my student, I casually mentioned one additional source of English for her to listen to: podcasts. I forgot about this until four months later, when she thanked me for introducing her to the idea. Her English had drastically improved, and she credited it largely to spending two hours each day listening to podcasts!
I strongly believe that the most important part of learning a new language is your level of interest. You may have the best teachers and textbooks in the world, but if you’re not interested, you won’t learn. Conversely, if you are enthusiastic, your abilities will improve very quickly indeed. Therefore, it is very important to find learning materials that boost your level of interest.
Podcasts are great for a few reasons. Chiefly among these reasons is the fact that they’re normally free – and you don’t have to download them illegally to listen. If you have an iPhone, just go to the Podcast app and search for thousands and thousands of free podcasts. They’re generally paid for by advertisements during the show. Because there are so many, there’s always something to choose from! Pick one that matches your interest. From football to politics to gardening, there is truly something for everyone.
You will find some podcasts that require quite a high level of English proficiency to understand everything, but there are also many of them which are quite accessible. Look around until you find something that interests you.
It is important, as I said above, to choose something which interests you. Ultimately, I can’t tell you the “best” podcast to listen to. I would advise you to listen to a few, and then choose the ones you like. Pick something related to your hobbies and interests and search for it. Or else look at the most popular podcasts online, and give them a try.
The ones I like best are:
- No such thing as a fish – it’s very funny and filled with interesting facts about all aspects of life
- Plumbing the Death Star – again, this is very funny; it also deals with pop culture and geeky topics
- Stuff you should know – this is a very accessible show that takes one topic per week and discusses it in basic terms
- Freakonomics – the hosts talk about everything in life from the perspective of economics
- WTF with Marc Maron – the popular host talks to guests from his garage
- The Nerdist – a wide range of guests talk about various subjects
If I had to recommend one of the above to an IELTS student, I would suggest “Stuff you should know.” It’s really easy to understand and if you can follow it, you’ll feel more confident going into the IELTS exam knowing that you can listen to native speakers talk at length on a wide range of subjects. The hosts are funny and soft-spoken, and the material is always fascinating.
You can find a list of the most popular podcasts in the world here.
More IELTS Listening Practice
If you want some more authentic IELTS listening practice, then you can check out this video I made that replicates section four of the listening exam: