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Trying to learn better español? A podcast of true travel stories aims to keep you engaged

For those trying to become more fluent in Spanish, a new podcast by the language app Duolingo uses engaging Latin American travel stories by top journalists and writers.
Natalia Castillejo (Left) is a product manager at Duolingo.
Natalia Castillejo (Left) is a product manager at Duolingo.Natalia Castillejo

If you're trying to learn or perfect your Spanish, you're not alone - it's the second most spoken language, with over 400 million Spanish language speakers worldwide. In the U.S. alone, there are over 37 million Spanish speakers, up 233 percent since 1980.

It's not just non-Latinos who are looking to learn español; more than six-in-ten U.S. Hispanics speak English or are bilingual, according to a 2105 Pew Research study, and many are trying to get a better grasp of the language for personal and professional reasons.

For intermediate Spanish language learners, the popular, free language-learning app Duolingo has launched a unique podcast that uses compelling, true travel stories to keep listeners motivated to find out how the plot unravels.

Duolingo teamed up with Martina Castro, the co-creator of a highly praised Spanish-language podcast, NPR's Radio Ambulante, which is similar in format to NPR's popular radio show, "This American Life."

Castro hosts and helps produce the Duolingo podcasts.

Castro said they came up with a theme of travel stories because “we are more inclined to fall into situations that are more intense or are more surprising....It allow us to go to different countries in Latin America and to experience different accents,” she explained by phone from Chile, where she is temporarily based.

Martina Castro, is a bilingual radio producer and podcast consultant who helped produce the Duolingo podcast.
Martina Castro, is a bilingual radio producer and podcast consultant who helped produce the Duolingo podcast.Courtesy: Alyssa Kapnik

To come up with these true travel stories, Castro said they put out a call to journalists, writers and authors. They then scoured through replies to identify the best ones.

In one podcast, the narrator, who is Chilean, tells her experience of moving to Argentina with her boyfriend and becoming heartbroken when she discovers he had been unfaithful to her.

The stories unfold in slow, easy-to-understand Spanish while the English-speaking host interjects sporadically to clarify portions where the listener may struggle.

“We put English in areas where we thought people would need a break or where they needed reinforcement of what they just heard,” Castro said.

Melissa Baralt, a professor of Applied Linguistics at Florida International University, says research shows there are cognitive benefits that bilingual people acquire.

The best way to learn a language, Baralt said, is through a conversation with someone else.

“We cannot ever get away from the basis of language, and that is human interaction," said Baralt.

For those who don’t have a way of practicing with someone who is fluent, or for those who don't have the resources for private lessons or travel, activities that make learning more interesting like Duolingo are a good alternative.

For Duolingo, launching the new podcast was a logical move since Spanish is the most popular language among its English-speaking users, accounting for over 108 million of their total users.

Natalia Castillejo, product manager at Duolingo, who managed the podcast.
Natalia Castillejo, product manager at Duolingo, who managed the podcast.Courtesy: The Muse

“We believe great storytelling has the power to help with language learning. That’s exactly what the Duolingo Spanish Podcast will offer – stories so good that you’ll want to understand them fully,” said Natalia Castillejo, a product manager at Duolingo who managed the podcast process.

“We are exploring universal themes of love, loss and friendship. And hopefully, along the way, the listener can learn a little about the country where these parties are based. But it’s really mostly connecting with people through stories,” Castro said.