Listen and Learn With Podcasts

By Nick Kolakowski
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 25, 2007

In the beginning, the iPod let you listen to every CD you owned, even when you were stuck on the Red Line. Then Steve Jobs said, "Let there be video," and lo and behold, you could watch "Lost" die a slow, overwritten death on a two-inch screen. But while people seem content to load their little devices with as many songs and TV shows as possible, podcasts (think of them as radio programs that you download) tend to be neglected.

Which is really too bad, because some of the more educational ones can help give you a truly brainy rep -- if you listen to them regularly. The free podcasts below can teach you how to say, "Where'd my job get exported to?" in Mandarin and why, psychologically speaking, listening to that Regina Spektor single makes you burst into tears.


This isn't your parents' language instruction; the various hosts liven things up with a hefty dose of occasionally risque humor. You'll be up-and-bantering in no time with lessons updated throughout the week such as asking for the time, phone call etiquette and World Cup terms. A quirky Saturday show fills you in on Asian cultural mores. Learn, for example, why Shanghai keeps getting compared to the Wild West.

Pros: Teaches practical Mandarin; your waiter at Chinatown Express will truly believe you can talk the talk.

Cons: Given the language's complexity, you could quickly find yourself stuck on "Drive faster!"

Find It:

Grammar Girl's Quick & Dirty Tips for Better Writing

"The quick and dirty tip here is that you use 'farther' to talk about physical distance and 'further' to talk about metaphorical, or figurative, distance." Hey, you knew that. But just in case your grammar knowledge has gone a little soft, Grammar Girl is here to make sure your apostrophe placement doesn't make you look like a total idiot.

Pros: Creator Mignon Fogarty has an engaging style that doesn't make you feel bad about misusing the word "badly."

Cons: She still can't help with your terrible spelling.

Find It:

Great Speeches in History

This podcast features actual recordings of famous speeches, such as Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream," as well as actors re-creating speeches from ancient eras, including Jesus's Sermon on the Mount.

Pros: Impress your next date with some choice quotes from Socrates or Queen Elizabeth I.

Cons: Some speeches are probably not delivered with the same degree of gravitas that the original speaker used.

Find It:; search "Great Speeches in History."

UC Berkeley

Chances are you've forgotten much of what you learned in college. After all, the history of clinical psychology and Sartre don't really help much when you need to turn in that quarterly report by noon. Fortunately, the University of California at Berkeley is here to help you re-explore the life of the mind while you're trapped on your commute, with recorded lectures from 2006 on such topics as "Existentialism in Literature and Film," "Physics for Future Presidents" and "Human Emotion," which seeks to break down why we cry, love and feel the way we do.

Pros: Discover everything you ever wanted to know about why objects fall, why French actors smoke so many cigarettes and why the words " 'N Sync reunion tour" send you into a Hulk-like rage.

Cons: Audio quality varies; some of the podcasts have fuzzy sections that are hard to hear.

Find It: Available on iTunes.

Understanding Computers And the Internet

In your heart of hearts, your dream is to become the next Bill Gates. That's where this Harvard Extension School podcast comes in: Professor David J. Malan tells you about the differences between Macs and PCs (clue: only one presents the dreaded Blue Screen of Death), how Web servers work and more. Malan has an engaging style that draws you in, although he gets a little esoteric at points. (You can also watch the lectures online at{tilde}cscie1.)

Pros: Learn how to program -- or at least figure out some idea of how your operating system works.

Cons: Many lectures are on video, requiring a video iPod. Some large files take a while to download.

Find It: Available on iTunes.

The World Beyond the Headlines From the University of Chicago

From a hefty university comes an equally hefty podcast: Madeleine Albright, scholar Robert Pape and many more talk on such topics as changes in the Arab world, globalization and the United States' strained relationship with Iran. Guaranteed to give you the knowledge to keep up with even the most wonkish conversationalists on the Hill. (You can also listen to the lectures online at

Pros: Opportunity to learn how the world works from some of the brightest minds out there.

Cons: Some of the world's brightest minds aren't the most gripping speakers, especially in an hour-long program. Lectures quickly plunge into detail, which may turn off all but the most ardent foreign relations junkies.

Find It: Available on iTunes.

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