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Podcasting enables 24/7 foreign language study

MIT's Foreign Languages and Literatures (FL&L) section is exploring ways to use podcasting and mobile media players such as iPods in foreign language teaching, thus enabling their students more frequent and non-traditional ways to hear and speak foreign languages.

Podcasting is a method of publishing audio and video files to the Internet, allowing users to receive files automatically.

Five professors in FL&L have now incorporated podcasting into their curricula; of these, Tong Chen, lecturer in Chinese; Kurt Fendt, research associate in German, and Margarita Ribas Groeger, director of Spanish language studies, have actively used podcasts this past fall.

Language Learning and Resource Center (LLARC) systems programmer Joshua Aresty has supported faculty and students in planning, creating, and using podcasts this year.


The common goal in the faculty podcasting projects is immersing students, as much as possible, in a foreign language during the course of a semester. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices (e.g., cell phones, MP3 players), students can now experience many types of media in nontraditional surroundings 24 hours a day. They can fit in a few minutes of language learning while riding the bus, walking the dog, or exercising in the gym. Podcasting, as a distribution medium, has changed the learning landscape, providing many more opportunities for immersion.

With the availability of free, authentically spoken material online and the ability to stitch together ("repodcast") various podcast sources into a coherent narrative, LLARC has found that it can create effective instructional tools for coursework.


Tong Chen is a Lecturer in Chinese at MIT. He is using podcasting in several courses to prepare students for in-class presentations and assignments. Listening at their convenience, they gain a deeper understanding of class material. As background for a class on the Chinese New Year, for example, students listened to a relevant episode in the course podcast from ChinesePod, a web site for learning Mandarin. This and other relevant material were shared using Google Reader.

In addition, Chen has recorded short paragraphs as podcasts. Students transcribe this audio material into Pinyin with tone marks. After they receive corrected transcriptions, students re-record the same material and send the new audio clips to Chen for another round of correction.

Other listening assignments include filling in the blanks and true-false questions. Chen used a free service at to upload course assignments. These, along with other feeds, were aggregated through Google Reader and cleaned up using Feedburner to create a podcast for the students.

Video to go

Kurt Fendt is research director in FL&L and Comparative Media Studies. German Culture, Media, and Society, an upper-level class, is taught entirely in German. This fall, the course focused on recent German short film productions and radio plays. Much of the content came from recent film festivals and radio art programs which, due to copyright restrictions, were made available as streaming media through the Metamedia framework and on iPods provided by LLARC.

Students further subscribed to at least five German podcasts from a variety of public radio and TV stations and other sources. The primary goal was to explore emerging forms of media convergence and how traditional German media institutions seek to incorporate user-created content into new forms of programming.

Podcasts by phone

For her intermediate Spanish class, Lecturer Margarita Ribas Groeger wanted to give her students more opportunities to improve their fluency in speaking. Using student-created podcasts seemed like a good way to accomplish this task.

Looking for a simple way for students to create their own recordings, Groeger found an application, Gabcast, that lets the students post audio assignments to a class blog on WordPress by dialing a toll-free number and recording a message. This obviates the need to transform audio files to MP3s or upload them to the blog.

In addition to written assignments, Groeger asked students to describe orally a favorite location, comment on a film, or respond to a news article -- in Spanish. These recorded messages were available for the rest of the class to listen to, opening up the possibility of online audio discussions. Other assignments, also using Gabcast, helped students with their pronunciation and intonation.

Even though all the students' recordings were accessible on the Gabcast site, having a blog allowed Groeger and her students to add written comments, pictures, and other links to the audioposts.

At Groeger's request, LLARC is investigating tools that would allow for an oral threaded discussion, in the style of a regular online forum.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 10, 2007 (download PDF).

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