Skip to content

The Magic of the Radio

Short intro

At the end of summer and after the holiday I felt that my English needed a boost. It had become a tiny bit dormant and I started missing the sound of English. 

I used to binge watch series for reanimating my English and that seemed to be “killing two birds with one stone”: I could relax and get some listening practice. Or so I thought. Then I understood that series weren’t actually a good way to rest – after a couple of hours I could start developing a headache. Also the series that looked interesting were often American, but I very much prefer the British accent and culture in general. So, a new method was needed. 

Also, if you come to think of it, with videos we may focus on the picture more than on the sound (unless you make it your job to understand every word). With series, it may be more about the action, so it’s easy to ignore what you don’t understand. Subtitles make our life easier as well. So, all this may make us lazy and unwilling to strain our ears to understand what’s being said.

The advantages of listening to the radio

But with the radio, all you have is the sound, the constant flow of speech (if it’s not primarily a music station). You may check the schedule of the programmes online and read their descriptions (which may not give enough information for you to understand how interesting it is), but that’s it. No transcript, no subtitles. Topics and speakers may change quite quickly and it may take a while to understand what’s going on. So you are, in a way, forced to strain your ears and make more effort to understand the language. And then decide is it worth listening to? 

What I like even more is that, given the nature of the radio, you may 1) listen to it attentively, 2) tune in and out to understand what they are talking about and decide whether it’s interesting for you, and 3) just leave it in the background. In this sense it’s different from podcasts, because with them you choose from the beginning what to listen to, with the radio you can’t (well, if it just works in the background). 

If you have a natural tendency to focus on details (a kind of technical mindset), then the radio may teach you to develop the other (almost opposite) type of listening – for gist (the general information), together with the skills of guessing the meaning of words by the context. 

Also, I know that for some learners it’s not easy to focus on listening for long. At one point, they may start feeling overwhelmed with the speech and their attention starts wandering. Have you experienced this? If you watch series, this may not be that noticeable: when your “listening attention” switches off, you still follow the picture. But with talks, like TedTalks, chat shows or longer lectures, it may often be the case. 

So, what’s good with the radio, is that you can train this skills of focusing on what’s being said little by little:

  • Turn on the radio and leave it in the background
  • Tune in for a moment – what are they talking about? Does it seem interesting? Is it something new or familiar?
  • If it does, stay for a little longer to find out more (for a minute, then for 2-3 minutes, 5 and so on). The idea is to focus on the content, not the language. 
  • As soon as you start getting tired and losing your focus, just tune out.
  • Repeat the above =)

My radio is in the kitchen. So, if I leave it on, I go through these steps every time I go to the kitchen to make myself a tea or coffee. And also at meal times and when I cook. Sometimes, when I hear political debates, I just switch off the radio and put on some music instead. But sometimes I accidentally tune in to something that sparks my curiosity, like some topics or a drama, and I stay till the end of the programme.

How listening to the radio influences other language skills

I’m not sure how it works exactly, but it seems that, even if you only have the radio in the background, your pronunciation becomes better (even if you don’t repeat anything) and your passive knowledge of the language gets activated. An interesting effet I experienced: after a couple of weeks of lazy listening it became easier to pronounce words. And I thought less about how to say what I wanted to say. Words just came to mind and the speech was effortless. The effect was in both English and French. Isn’t it convenient? =) Almost no effort was made, but the improvement was there. 

And, the cherry on the pie, after two weeks of almost daily listening (but maybe for 2-3 hours in total), some of my thoughts switched into English) I had experienced the same when I binge watched The Mentalist last year. But, also my whole body was pumped with adrenaline (it’s a crime series after all and with a love story) and my head was throbbing and overloaded (the effect of the bright screen?). With the radio, no such side effects. And I especially like the fact that my sensitive eyes rest while I’m activating the English I know, learning new cool expressions and finding out more about life in Britain. 

If you do decide to make an effort and listen more carefully to how the language is being used, your passive vocab will likely grow substantially, because of the sheer variety of the programmes available. If it’s a morning show (something from 6 to 9 o’clock in London which is 9-12 in Moscow), the topic (and speakers) may change every 5-10 minutes just to entertain the listeners (and to help them wake up, I guess). So it’s a good idea to keep a notepad at hand to write down some expressions or just repeat them quickly after you’ve heard them. 

Finally, what to listen to? 

Well, maybe I’m boring, but for now I only listen to BBC Radio 4. No music there, only discussions, news, dramas, and all other sorts of “spoken-word” programmes where people share their knowledge, opinions, life stories and feelings. Very interesting. I make my little discoveries every day. 

But back in September I actually started with BBC Radio 2. It’s a music station (although not modern music, I suppose, or not mostly) with occasional discussions. BBC Radio 1, however, “specialises in modern popular music and current chart hits throughout the day” (Wiki). So if you want to hear informal chats with actors, musicians and other celebrities, you might like it. 

BBC Radio 3 “broadcasts classical music and opera, with jazz, world music, drama, culture and the arts also featuring” (Wiki). BBC Radio 5 Live is the principal BBC radio station covering sport in the United Kingdom. BBC Radio 6 Music specialises in alternative music. 

The BBC website is now blocked in Russia, which is a shame and very unfair, I think, but somehow I can listen to it on the special device we have called S10 WiFi Music Streamer (it comes with an app where I can choose a radio station or other options). 

However, I’m sure there are tons of other available resources. Here’s a website where you can see the variety of them and listen to some stations live. 

As for American radio stations, I don’t really know because I don’t like the sound of American English. If you can recommend some, please share them in the comments for the other readers. 


Try listening to the radio in English in the background and see for yourself what results it brings) 

Cover Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *