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How BBC Radio Can Help You Learn English

Updated: 5 days ago

Here's our 5 Step Guide to using free BBC content to improve your English - and it's not what you might be expecting!

Step 1: Look in the obvious place

I'm sure you are already aware that the BBC offers great language lessons for English learners: there's free online resources to benefit most learning levels, including a daily 'slow news' podcast, business English sketches and pronunciation guides. The BBC Learning English site has great and varied resources, and if you haven't checked it out for a while, do - they have refreshed old content, got rid of the wacky idiom guy (hopefully he got a place on Children's TV, and can now look bright and bushy tailed at 5am) - and there's also now a BBC English App available to download.

BBC Learning English is the most used free English learning site - and for good reasons: it's all content specifically written to introduce a carefully curated combination of vocabulary and British culture - but this is why you should also look further afield too: for adult learners it is a bit too heavily invested in an official version of British culture - it's undoubtably still useful and a great resource to dip into, but for professional adult learners with an intermediate or advanced level of learning, our other advice is all about find something that is good to listen to - for you.

Step 2: Dip into BBC Sounds and Get Your Ironing Done!

BBC Sounds is different app: it's the one that most UK folks use to listen to radio shows on 'catch up' - and the good news is most of its content is available world-wide (there's only a few guest shows by the likes of Iggy Pop and Bruce Springsteen which are not, for some licensing reason).

There are quite a few music-based radio stations on it - Radio 1 and 1 Extra tend to market a younger audience, Radio 2 is more family orientated, less hectic sounding (and fewer songs with expletives beeped out). Radio 3 is for fans of classical music, Radio 4 talk based (more later) - and I personally love 6 Music - for more alternative tunes.

I also really enjoy the Asian Network for a dip into an English speaking culture quite different from my own (this is my preferred driving station). The accents you hear on this station are likely to be British Indian and Pakistani and not the made-easier, over-enunciated ones on BBC English, but if you are planning to spend time in the UK, you will hear accents like these nationwide so don't discount it too quickly - plus the music is great. Likewise, the presenters of the radio shows on all other stations may talk quickly. It's ok to not understand everything.

Try listening live to different stations - while doing your ironing, sorting out your photos in iPhoto or having a facial - it's all good. Listen passively in real time and find out what the British public are listening to and talking about that day: it's a less intensive way of learning, but it's fun - and you'll come back to it again and again for this reason.

Number 3: Search for Your Thing

Love 80s Disco? Rock? Soul? Dance? Use the search box and search for your genre of music, then listen on 'Catch Up' to older archived shows. Try a few, and when you find a presenter and music combination you like, subscribe to new shows and listen back to any old shows available. Most shows have repeating features and vocabulary - so even if you miss out on a lot of content, 5 shows down the line you will pick up much more. If you like alternative weird stuff, I can't recommend Marc Riley enough (this strange expression means it is to be recommended!): he's chatty, funny, knowledgeable and relaxed and loves all kinds of interesting types of music - he even has an A - Z of Psychedelia - available as a podcast - my style of pedagogy!

Step 4: The Wealth of Radio 4 Biographies

I once gave a friend of Kenny's a lift home - at the time I thought it was his uncle (but that's another story) and drove him around a ton of wiggly single-track roads before I discovered he was just a mate off the football bus cadging a lift (and a bit under the influence of so much 'football' that he had lost a few social inhibitions). I had Radio 4 on in the car when he climbed in, and apparently this made me a bit uncool, old and fuddy-duddy - (personally, I think it makes me a more interesting, enlightened and globally-aware human being).

For example, the programme Outlook, 'true stories of ordinary people and the events that have changed their lives.' So far it has introduced me to the remarkable, inspirational biographies of Surya Bonaly, James Rhodes and many others (they are so inspirational I'm actually excited about waking up at night to listen to them - which is perhaps a little bit uncool).

There are over 1,000 episodes of Outlook available on the BBC Sounds App and I plan to listen to every one. Seriously, how can listening to a show described as, 'After losing his memory, T La Rock forgot he was famous and had to learn to rap again - The Rap Star Saved By a Nursing Home,' make me boring? And what is the 'Iranian Avocado Quest' anyway?

Step 5: Radio 4: More of Less

Step 5 could just be more Radio 4 - as it's so full with art and culture programmes, but to be honest, even for me that can be overwhelming (and a bit smug) at times.

I tend to pick one or two and stick loyally with them. More or Less, by Tim Harford is at first glance a surprising recommendation. It is described as being, 'about the accuracy of numbers and statistics in the public domain' which should sound about as dry as you can get. In fact it is an entertainingly presented look at the inaccurate statistics being widely used in media and social media: really challenging the endemic fake news and false statistics used to sell newspapers or as clickbait by the least scrupulous media outlets. Because it reviews contemporary news it's very up to date - and very enlightening about British press and culture.

So in conclusion, if you are an English learner with a language level beyond lower-intermediate, use the BBC Sounds App to find genuinely interesting content as opposed to a scripted fake conversation* that gets stale quickly. It's a huge site, but there is really is something for every English language learner to enjoy.

Live language learning!

*It has to be said, More or Less does not avoid a cheesy script - but it can be unbelievably funny - is there anything better than economists singing Sea Shanties about Fishing Quotas and how to calculate fractions? Sound a bit niche? It's not, it's very much about the what's happening culturally now in the UK (- and just who could have predicted that a nationwide lockdown would see TicTok propel sea shanties into the pop charts?).

Further links below

Find the BBC Sounds App here.

Find the BBC Learning English site and app here.

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