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Learning Spanish With 'Radio Ambulante'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Radio Ambulante discovered something interesting recently. About 20% of the audience for the Spanish-language podcast, which is distributed by NPR, are not primarily Spanish speakers. Lots of the audience is listening not just for the great journalism but to learn new language. So to help them along, Radio Ambulante developed an app called Lupa. We're joined now by Daniel Alarcón, the host. Bienvenidos, Daniel. Thanks for being with us.

DANIEL ALARCÓN, BYLINE: Thanks, Scott. Great to be here.

SIMON: Was this a surprise - this 20% figure?

ALARCÓN: Yeah. I mean, we knew there would be some people listening to Radio Ambulante for that reason, but, you know, 1 out of 5 is quite a high number. And, of course, you discover a portion of your audience like that, it's so significant. And you think, what can we do to serve them and to make the journalism we do a little bit more accessible?

SIMON: So how'd you come up with the idea of Lupa?

ALARCÓN: Well, I think we were thinking a lot about our own experiences learning languages. What happens? You're in a classroom, and you think you got it. And then you step out into the street, and you don't have it at all because people don't speak in textbook. They speak a real, living language.

And we thought that's what we offer. We offer all the accents and all the vocabularies and the ways people speak Spanish across Latin America and the U.S. So give them the real language the way it's really spoken, but some scaffolding so they can understand and build their vocabulary and build their understanding of the stories.

SIMON: The scaffolding meaning - because we've taken a sneak peek - you can actually slow down the pace.

ALARCÓN: Right. That's not all, though. I mean, 'cause you can slow down on your - on most podcast apps. What we do is you slow down without distortion, one. And also, we have sort of three settings that allow you to either read along with the transcript in Spanish, read along with the transcript partially covered so only the kind of the tricky bits are translated, or read along in English. And the idea is to train your ear so that eventually you don't need the transcript at all.

SIMON: We've downloaded the app. Could you walk me through something?

ALARCÓN: Yeah, sure.

SIMON: What do I do?

ALARCÓN: So we'll play a clip, and then I'm going to ask you to click on a word that's got a green line under it so you can see the vocab.

SIMON: OK, on the screen now it says, (speaking Spanish). And it says in English, obviously, where Reza's (ph) parents are from and where he lived until high school. Let me press play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ALARCÓN: (Speaking Spanish).

So what you hear there's my voice. It's slowed down a little bit. You can control the speed that you'd like. And now, Scott, are there any words there that are underlined?

SIMON: It says - madre soltera is underlined.

ALARCÓN: OK. Click on it.

SIMON: It says madre soltera, single mother.

ALARCÓN: Single mother, right. So you get the translation there of the words in real time. And that's the kind of scaffolding that I'm talking about, Scott, so that you can sort of get the stories, get it at your own pace. And when you need help, the vocabulary's right there.

SIMON: What have you heard from folks about this?

ALARCÓN: Mostly, we've heard from people who've been using our content already are excited. I think that they see this as a way to make Radio Ambulante sustainable and a way to make our journalism and the stories that they already love accessible to more people. So there's been a lot of sort of like, oh, I'm going to give this to my girlfriend or my best friend who doesn't - who speaks a little bit of Spanish, and this is going to help them sort of understand the podcast that I've been raving about for these last years.

SIMON: Daniel Alarcón, the host of Radio Ambulante, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ALARCÓN: It's always a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.