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Podcasts and embedded audio to support language learning

Dr Sean Allan, German Studies, University of Warwick

Undergraduate degree courses in modern foreign languages traditionally consist of two elements: first, the acquisition and enhancement of language skills per se; and second, the study of a foreign culture in its historical and political context. Over the last ten years or so, there have been considerable developments in language-learning technology (many of them prompted by the development of web-based technologies and the widespread availability of satellite television). However, the development of such technologies has often been a double-edged sword; on the one hand, access to authentic material spoken in the foreign language has never been easier; on the other hand, however, there is a clearly discernible drift towards visually-oriented culture (such as film and video) at the expense of the written word. Accordingly, one of the aims of this pilot project was to investigate the ways in which mp3 technologies could be exploited to enhance the study of written texts (in this case Goethe’s poetry). At the same time, the project also explored a number of ways in which podcasting and embedded audio files could be used to support student-learning in the context of conventional language classes in translation and grammar.1

The project was financed by a generous grant from the University of Warwick’s Educational Innovation Fund and, in its initial phase, involved the acquisition of appropriate mp3 technology. Drawing on a survey of equipment that had already been undertaken as part of the feasibility study for the MA by distance-learning in the Department of History, we opted for M-Audio’s Microtrack M24/96.2 This light-weight mp3 recorder was simple to use and was compatible with both Windows and Macintosh platforms; over time, however, battery-life increasingly became an issue prompting us to switch to an Edirol R-09 recorder which was equally straightforward to operate. The Microtrack M24/96 is wholly dependent on a (non-swappable) internal re-chargeable battery; by contrast the posibility of using conventional AA batteries in the Edirol R-09 offered a much greater degree of flexibility – and reliability – when making field recordings. For basic editing purposes, the freeware programme Audacity proved more than adequate; for more complex tasks we used a combination of Garageband (Macintosh) and the considerably more demanding, Adobe Audition (Windows). Audio files were distributed via the web and embedded using Sitebuilder, the University of Warwick’s in-house web-content management system.

Fig1. Dr Sean Allan and Christian Wewerka at University of Warwick Arts Centre studio

Although initial experiments recording lectures were, in the first instance, designed to familiarise the team with the new technology, they also suggested that recording and distributing a 50-minute monologue – something that, at first sight, might appear to be an obvious use of podcasting technology – was unlikely to be effective. Whereas the experience of a ‘live’ lecture can compensate for stylistic and discursive infelicities during delivery, removing the ‘live’ element often resulted in an end-product that was flat and lacking in the tight structure associated with studio-engineered broadcasts (the inevitable point of comparison). Lecturers often felt uncomfortable on the grounds that the recording process had the effect of ‘formalising’ what was, in practice, a much more ephemeral event.3 Indeed the question of appropriate quality – both in terms of technical reproduction and the structuring of content – is a recurrent issue in podcasting. Achieving the standard of a professional broadcast can be a very time-consuming process – and may only be required when a recording is to be archived and revisited over a period of several years; more often than not, shorter, more spontaneous recordings of reasonable (rather than high) quality are likely to provide a more effective return in terms of the effort required to produce them.

The project also set out to investigate students’ current exposure to, and use of, mp3 technology generally. A ‘snapshot’ survey of 95 students taking German-related undergraduate degrees in Years 1 and 2 revealed a number of clear trends. In each year-group some 70% of students downloaded music from the net on a regular or occasional basis. Downloading of podcasts was significantly less frequent: in Year 1, some 44% of students had never downloaded a podcast. All students surveyed owned a mobile phone; but while well over half owned an mp3-enabled phone, roughly 65% of students in both years said they never used it to listen to music. Ownership of dedicated mp3 players was 85% in Year 1 and 70% in year two (with the Apple iPod far and away the most popular mp3 player).4 The proportion of video-enabled mp3 players was much smaller, and most respondents said they never watched video on either these devices or indeed on their video-enabled mobile phones. A significant number of those asked used their PC to listen to music (in each year over 85% of students said they listened to music on their PC either ‘often’ or ‘a lot’). Finally Apple’s iTunes emerged as the dominant software not only for purchasing music, but also for organising mp3 collections (67% of students in Year 1; 50% in Year 2) with Windows Media Player in second place (20% in Year 1; 27% in Year 2).

The results of the survey suggested that while some students might download the mp3 files we created to their PC and/or mp3 player, a significant number would probably play the embedded audio files directly from the web. In the final version of the project on the website of the Department of German Studies, it is possible for registered students to do both; in the case of the (publicy accessible) poetry podcasts, external visitors to the site can stream audio files off the web but cannot download them without additional software. Deciding which mode of delivery was best not only raised some questions about what exactly a podcast is  – is it a file that is downloaded, or can it also be an embedded audio file? – but also raised questions surrounding the ownership of intellectual property, and the extent to which content-creators are willing to share their work with others. The decision to make the Goethe poetry podcasts public (rather than password-protected) was, in part, motivated by the desire to promote our department by using the podcasts to attract external visitors to its homepage.

Fig2. German Studies web page

The first part of the project was an attempt to address the issue of vocabulary acquisition for students in Years 1 and 2. In part, the guiding principle behind this mp3-based approach to audio-learning was not fundamentally new. Lists of vocabulary were prepared that focused on groups of lexical items based on the same root verb, and these were recorded as mp3 files by a native German-speaker. For instance, one set of podcasts was devoted to different semantic inflections of the verb ‘gehen’ when combined with a range of seperable and non-seperable prefixes (e.g. abgehen / ausgehen / mitgehen etc.). Although these tables were also available in printed form, students were encouraged not only to use these to practice their pronunciation, but also to commit these to memory by listening to the sound-files. For Year 2 students we adopted a slightly more conventional approach, whereby lists of core vocabulary were extracted from texts used in translation classes, converted to pdf documents, and recorded as (downloadable and streaming) mp3 podcasts. Statistical analysis of the webpages where the podcasts were embedded suggests that, as might have been anticipated, use of these e-resources was at its most intense during the period leading up to exams. Informal feedback from student focus groups conducted by a member of what was then the university’s Centre for Academic Practice and Development (CAPD) suggests that students had reviewed all the material on at least one occasion; in particular, many students appreciated the ability to download the files as it enabled them to engage in other activities (such as sports, cooking, travel etc.) while listening to the audio files.

The other part of the project was targeted at enhancing a first-year cultural module on German Culture in the Age of Enlightenment that involves the study of Goethe’s early poetry. Students who have never studied poetry before often feel alienated when they are confronted with short, dense texts written in the eighteenth century and in a foreign language. Many have never experienced poetry being read aloud and consequently have a relatively restricted sense of its formal qualities such as rhythm, metre and pace. In particular, the brevity of many poems means that students do not spend sufficient time reflecting on the individual lines as they read through it; listening to a performance has a retarding effect that opens up new avenues of interpretation for the listener.

Although it is possible to obtain commercial readings of Goethe’s poetry on CD, copyright restrictions meant that it would have been impossible to have distributed these recordings over the web. (Although the poems themselves date back to the 1770s, the recorded readings are still subject to copyright). Moreover, in a number of cases the recordings of the poems we wanted either did not exist or were – for a variety of reason – unusable. Making our own recordings enabled us to control not only the production of the recordings, but also the distribution of the end-result. Having annoounced an opening for a poetry performer in the on-line forum of the Potsdam Film School, our original advertisement was rehosted within hours by a professional web-based casting agency. As a result over 130 applicants submitted either mp3 files and/or links to personalised pages with audio samples; this enabled us to cast the position from the UK.

Eventually we selected Christian Wewerka, an actor with some considerable experience of classical roles. Over an intensive two-day period we recorded 28 poems by Goethe in the – regrettably rather rudimentary – University of Warwick Arts Centre studio. The files were recorded using a Marantz PMD660 recorder, edited using Garageband , converted into mp3 format using Switch and uploaded to the web using the university’s own in-house software Sitebuilder. One of the unexpected spin-offs in working with Christian was the (for me) wholly new experience of ‘directing’ the readings, a process which forced me to look at the material in a fresh light and rethink my own approach to the relationship between performance and interpretation. Ideally, it would have been advantageous to have reviewed the material after an extended period of time and to have made a number of minor amendments – but that is, alas, a luxury that only professional recording companies enjoy!

Fig3. Christian Wewerka at University of Warwick Arts Centre studio

Having a set of poems available as mp3 files (supplemented by downloadable versions of the German text in pdf format) meant that this aspect of the module could be easily integrated into our recently overhauled e-learning environment. It  now represents a valuable resource which can be quickly accessed during formal lectures and small group tutorials, and – by students – during private study-time. A particularly useful feature of the mp3 files is the linkage between the audio file and the text on the webpage that enables the user to click on a linked hypertext and ‘jump’ quickly from stanza to stanza. In addition, the web pages also contain links to embedded YouTube videos of musical settings of the poetry. While the majority of these refer the student to performances of Schubert’s ‘Lieder’ based on the poems, others direct the student to contemporary re-workings of these classic texts (such as Rammstein’s ‘Dalai Lama’ which is based on Goethe’s poem ‘Erlkönig’). By presenting such classical material within a contemporary e-learning environment, the project has played a key role in breaking down the prejudices that some students still have against non-contemporary poetic forms material.

Though it is a little early to assess the full impact of the project in its final form, CAPD interviews with student focus groups revealed that the poetry resource in particular had been very positively received and extensively used. Interestingly, the majority of those questioned said that they played the files directly off their PCs. Indeed the pre-project questionnaires and post-project feedback suggests that while students are happy to play our audio files off a webpage, downloading (non-musical) mp3 files into a dedicated player is still something that relatively few do. In part this might be explained by the fact that, currently, the poetry podcasts are not distributed via iTunes, the students’ preferred music-mp3 management tool – and this is an avenue that clearly needs further exploration.

There can be little doubt that podcasting is here to stay. Although one of our aims had been to encourage students to embark on the creation of their own mp3 files as a supplement to conventional note-taking, this aspect of the project was not quite as successful as we had hoped; although the technology is relatively simple the cost of suitable mp3 recorders still remains something of a disincentive. Nonetheless, as part of the project, we staged a podcasting workshop that introduced the participants to basic recording and editing techniques  – and which was well attended by both staff and students. As a result we hope to see more student-produced material to supplement our students’ entry into the university’s recent pod-casting competition.

[1] For an overview of the uses of different types of mobile learning devices in higher education, see George M. Chinnery, ‘Emerging Technologies. Going to the MALL: Mobile Assisted Language Learning’, Language Learning and Technology, Vol 10.1 (2006), pp. 9-16. Accessed online at:

[2] The model we purchased is now discontinued; details of the new (updated) model can be found via this link.

[3] On issues relating to the production of E-lectures see Val Brooks, ‘Reflections on the Experience of Recording an E-lecture’, Interactions, 8.3 (2004).

[4] For a detailed overview of an initiative in August 2004 by Duke University to distribute Apple iPods to 1600 first-year students, see Yvonne Belanger, ‘Duke University iPod First Year Experience Final Evaluation Report’ June 2005. Accessed online at:


Belanger, Yvonne. (2005) ‘Duke University iPod first year experience final evaluation report’ (June 2005). Accessed online at:

Blankenship, Laura (2007) ‘Podcasting in Education. A Perspective from Bryn Mawr College’, Academic Commons, Issue 4 (Feb 2007).  Accessed online at:

Brooks, Val (2004) ‘Reflections on the Experience of Recording an E-lecture’, Interactions Vol 8.3 (2004). [Educational Technology Web Journal], University of Warwick. Accessed online at:

Chinnery, George M. (2006) ‘Emerging Technologies. Going to the MALL: Mobile Assisted Language Learning’, Language Learning and Technology, Vol 10.1 (2006), pp. 9-16. Accessed online at:

Dempster, Jay (2004) ‘The changing face of e-pedagogy?’ Interactions Vol 8, No 2, [Educational Technology Web Journal], University of Warwick. Accessed online at:

Evans, Liz (2006) ‘Using Student Podcasts in Literature Classes’ Academic Commons, Issue 3 (Sept 2006).  Accessed online at:


Podcasting Goethe’s early poetry at:

Citation for this Article
Allan, S. (2007) Podcasts and embedded audio to support language learning. Warwick Interactions Journal 30 (2). Available online at:
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