How to Practice English from Podcasts

A thank you note to Krista Tippett’s On Being

I was one of the few lucky Indonesians who had the chance to study in the USA, to be immersed in English in and out of school and to have their life transformed by this powerful and unifying language.

All of us international students gleefully absorbed this language into our tongue and practiced it proudly in our daily life like a badge of honor. Slowly but surely English made its way deep into the minutes of our life that we even began to speak English to our fellow Indonesian friends, so spontaneously, fluently, and confidently. It’s a common case. Whether it’s a chat on Messenger, a meet up at the bar, or a social gathering at a coffee shop, more often than not, English would become the primary language. (And there should be a legit ethnographic research on what encourages this happening!)

So we walked our daily lives with English words sliding out from the tongue and then we went home only to find our own language is slightly…dull.

It’s a startling realization that you either deny to understand or you embrace it entirely by immersing yourself deeper in English language. But it’s not a rare scenario that many of us eventually get much better and more comfortable writing in English than in our own language.

There are many reasons for this happening; from the fact that its proper use is never enforced in public life, or that our national language isn’t deeply rooted in our history thus forgoing the cultural attachment to it, to the fact that as a nation we are not big literature readers. Or it could just be a pride thing.

Whatever it is, many of us find solace in English language, especially when you find precise words that arouse your mind and can communicate how you feel.

So one day I simply said to myself that I won’t let English words slip off of my life too easily. This doesn’t mean that I’m ignoring Indonesian, it just means I’d like to put this second language in a more concrete aspect in my life.

So in my new home of idyllic Ubud, a small town in Bali island, I found a job that allows me to have ample opportunities to communicate in English. Aside from that though, I’m mostly interacting with the local people; embarking in the sea of hundreds of different dialects every day and write English privately.

An important habit that began as a curiosity then turned into a source of linguistic learnings, is listening to podcasts.

Design Matters was my first crush, but my real love is On Being, a cross-disciplinary inquiries podcast hosted by Krista Tippett. My admiration lies on; firstly, its deep insights and secondly, for its linguistic nourishment.

The guests that were interviewed by Tippett ranges from author Elizabeth Gilbert and Seth Godin, poet Mary Oliver, blogger Maria Popova, astronomer Natalie Batalha, to astrophysicist-artist Janna Levin. Her guests may come from a wide range of disciplines, but to me, they are primarily storytellers; individuals who deliver their topics, whether about sadness or physics, with poetic human language. Just think of Carl Sagan’s books and use of language.

Otherwise, how else could astrophysicist Janna Levin discussed cosmology without confusing the everyday people? Or Padraig O Tuama, a Christian pastor who shared his religious passion sincerely and convincingly, without being misunderstood? It’s all in the magic of words and the way they use the words.

When the right questions meet precise answers and words, they ignite so many nodes in the brain. Personally, as a foreigner, I’m so intrigued with pair of unlikely words, such as “terra incognita of the mind” or “moral imagination” which play around with the more subtle meanings of each word and the harmonious sound they produce. The result is a melodious sentence that wraps and arouses your mind, very much like a poetry. And as an Indonesian, these sonically pleasant and thought-intriguing phrases captivate me so much that they echo in my head for awhile and I will just need to record these phrases in my notebook.

On Being, in particular, is special to me because I’m so awestruck by how these guests and Tippett herself use words and stories so precise to lead us into a mindful embarkation of life in general. Essentially, they aren’t just experts in their field but great storytellers. And I’m sure that there are plenty of takeaways for linguistic learnings in this podcast, aside of course for inspirations and wisdom.

Last but not least, listening to podcasts is also the perfect complement to reading English books. I find movies and videos too visually distracting to digest words and meanings wholly. I would even argue that this pair; podcasts and books, might be better for learning English than casual chatter with foreigners in real life, no matter how often that happens. Just the nature of these media, books and public radio simply demand the creators to meet a certain professional standard.

Typically I listen to On Being or other podcasts while doing something else; cooking, cleaning, all the chores stuff and occasionally I would listen to it solely. But in the absence of an English-speaking environment, I’ve found listening to certain podcasts to be linguistically nourishing (by this point you know it’s On Being for me).

So if you’re a non-native English speaker living far from English-speaking community, pick up your phone, find SoundCloud and simply browse the night away with podcasts that can sharpen your mind (and language).

Illustration by Elouise Renouf

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