According to an annual report published by EF (the English Proficiency Index), which ranks 100 countries and regions by English language skills, Italy comes in at 36th place globally and 26th in Europe. Not only does the country come way below the top-ranking countries (the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway) but it also lags behind Portugal and Poland, countries that opted to systematically invest in English language learning just 10 years ago. The report also highlights the poor English language performance in secondary schools, especially in state schools, where just 30% of pupils achieve level B2 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, the minimum required by the Italian labour market. To compete on the global job market, at least level C1 is required.
There are many reasons for this shortcoming, one is surely the ineffectiveness of the more traditional teaching methods, which focus solely on learning the rules of grammar by heart. In many cases, the goal is simply to get a certificate to look good on a CV as quickly as possible, disregarding the fact that language is a living subject and a constantly evolving cultural system. Despite all the time, resources and effort spent, knowledge of the language of Shakespeare and the Beatles so often stops at the infamous “the cat is on the table”, a phrase that troubled the dreams of so many students around the world and turned out to be quite useless in any conversation.
There are many, less traditional ways of learning or improving a language such as watching or listening to podcasts, free of charge and available anywhere on any kind of mobile device. Learning by listening is the fastest and most natural way to begin to speak or practise a foreign language. It is much more in tune with our lifestyles - always on the go and always ‘on’. According to a study published by Nielsen, in 2019 12.1 million Italians listened to podcasts, 16% more than in 2018. The number of regular listeners also grew by 23%, compared to a 10% rise in the previous year.
Increasing numbers of people are choosing this method to learn to speak English fluently. The web and app stores offer plenty of choice for all levels, from beginner to advanced. Here are the 5 we picked out for you.
Speak English Now with Georgiana
Georgiana is a polyglot teacher who likes to call herself a “rebel of the language teaching system”, her aim being to break the mould and teach English in a non-conventional way. On her website she explains her few simple rules to make the learning process easier:
· Rule #1: keep context in mind when using a dictionary
· Rule #2: don’t worry about the rules of grammar when you speak
· Rule #3: learn through repetition
· Rule #4: practise listening
The goal is to achieve ‘automatic speaking’, in other words to learn to speak fluently and spontaneously, just as children do in their pre-school years. At that age, they don’t know how to read and they surely don’t know any grammar, but they can still speak. They do it without knowing any rules, they simply listen and repeat what they hear, make mistakes and start over again because, as Georgiana says, “you don’t really know a language until you can speak it.”
Speak English Now, with more than 20 million downloads on the main platforms (from Spotify to SoundCloud and iTunes), contains 125 episodes lasting on average around 15 minutes on a variety of topics like ‘How to learn English with Netflix’, ‘Valentine’s Day in the USA’ or ‘Global Pandemic’. You can download a pdf transcript for every episode, which will help you to follow the recording when you are just starting out.
BBC Learning English
What can be better than practising your English with the BBC? Download the app on your smartphone or go to the website BBC Learning English, then select the kind of content you’d like to listen to based on your level and where you need to improve. Each recording has a transcript and quiz questions to help you practise. All content (audio and text) can be downloaded and consumed offline. Here are the shows we recommend:
The English We Speak (Intermediate level): every Tuesday a three-minute episode focuses on phrases, slang expressions and idioms in the spoken language.
News Review (upper intermediate): comments on the week’s news with a focus on key words and their meaning using synonyms. When you’re done, take a test to find out how much you’ve learnt.
6-Minute Grammar (available at basic and intermediate levels): English grammar explained in six minutes with practical examples, videos and quizzes. Every week, six different presenters explain a specific topic like the correct use of adverbs or phrasal verbs, among many others.
English at Work (intermediate level): an animated series that focuses on Business English. Each six-minute episode features a typical situation like answering the phone, taking a phone message or how to tell someone what to do using the right kind of language.
The Language Learning Show
Azren ‘the Language Nerd’ is a polyglot English mother-tongue teacher from India. At the tender age of six, he leant to speak French and by the time he was 17 had a perfect knowledge of Spanish too. Today, he speaks five languages, but he has promised himself that he will speak eight by the time he is 45. This language nerd is the author of one of the most popular podcasts on Spotify, the Language Learning Show, also available on Instagram, Snapchat and Tik Tok. The show is aimed at those who already know some English and want to improve.
Each episode deals with one of a broad variety of topics though the underlying thread is, of course, his passion for languages and foreign cultures. Azren also offers practical advice on how to learn several languages at the same time and reach what he calls ‘near native level’. In a 2018 episode entitled ‘Why Some People Progress and Others Don’t’, the young teacher explains that the secret to learning a foreign language faster is to keep an open mind and be prepared to make mistakes.
New Yorker: The Writer’s Voice
If it is true that we learn a language faster by reading stories rather than a text book (because stories provide us with a context which helps us to understand the words), then these podcasts from The New Yorker is ideal for practising listening skills, improving pronunciation and diving into modern American literary culture.
In the Writer’s Voice, popular American authors like MacArthur Foundation fellow Ben Lerner or Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, read extracts from their books which can last from just a few minutes or up to an hour. To listen to them all, you need to subscribe to the magazine but all the episodes are also freely available on the website of New York Public Radio, co-producer of these high-quality podcasts.
Business English Pod
For those who work in international environments or aspire to do so but feel they do not have the right skills or sufficient knowledge of the English language, Business English Pod offers more than 500 video lessons showing how to best deal with almost every possible business situation: for example, running a meeting or making a telephone call with colleagues abroad, negotiating a salary increase or giving brilliant answers to job interview questions.
The episodes vary in length depending on the subject matter and contain clear, slowly spoken dialogues to allow even beginners or lower intermediate levels to follow the flow of the conversation, with a transcript also provided. On the website you can purchase a variety of other study materials and extra content.
Whatever your choice, it seems that the best way to really learn a language properly is to make mistakes. As Amy Chua, American academic and writer, wrote in her book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ (published by Penguin Group in 2011): “Do you know what foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery.”