My Name is iPod

My Japanese-language teacher is white, weighs less than a kilo and fits nicely in my jacket pocket. You may know it as Apple's multifunctional music player, the iPod.

Before my wife and I traveled to Japan for the summer, we glued ourselves to our iPods and to the free language-training podcast, JapanesePod101, available on iTunes. We also took traditional classes at a language school, and the differences were stark. In the classroom, we learned the polite and informal names for various family members, how to describe our pastimes and how to make small talk about the weather. On the entertaining podcast, Queens, New York-native Peter Galante and his Japanese colleagues wove instructive lessons around functional tips for navigating Japanese society--like what to do when you miss the last subway at night. Guess which lessons proved more useful in Japan?

Language-training podcasts are a growing breed and among the most popular podcasts on Apple's iTunes service. Since the beginning of this year, more than two dozen language-training series have cropped up on iTunes, offering audio instruction in tongues like Spanish, Italian, German, Greek, Korean and English. Unlike most traditional classes, podcast language training is typically fun and informal, with an emphasis on practical tips. Shows like JapanesePod101 and the pioneering ChinesePod and FrenchPodClass might even pose a challenge to traditional language educators and publishers. "Podcasting brings the teacher to the students. It might sound simple, but this has major business implications," says Ken Carroll of ChinesePod, which is downloaded 120,000 times a week. "One talented teacher can now reach an unlimited audience with practically no distribution costs."

What language podcasters still lack, of course, is the ability to talk one to one with students and help them hone their conversational skills. Ken Carroll of ChinesePod is moving quickly to solve that problem. The longtime Shanghai-based languageinstructor and Dublin native recently created an online certification course for teachers and has begun to connect them with his listeners for individual study, either face to face or over Skype. Podcast language training "threatens the hell out of any business in the industry who ignores the new technologies," Carroll e-mails from China. As the Japanese say when agreeing with such logic, So desu ne.