Bilingual News podcast storming the charts in Japan

Can simply listening to your iPod help you speak Japanese (or English…) more fluently? One Tokyo-based pair seem to think so, and having only started the Bilingual News podcast in May, they are already topping the iTunes charts in Japan…

Interview by Matthew Holmes

It helps that the semi-anonymous duo behind the Bilingual News podcast have fluent tongues themselves: Michael was born and raised mostly in Japan but is half American and spent some time in the US as a boy, and Mami is Japanese but says she “learned English from Britney Spears” and speaks with native flair.

The two tell Tokyo Weekender they came together as friends who loved chatting about complicated topics including “philosophy, anthropology, religion and science” and their relaxed, natural style has won them fans who have formed something of a language learning/swapping community on the pair’s Facebook and Twitter feeds.

“On a deeper level (the podcast) is about initiating a more open conversation between Japanese people and the rest of the world”

It is Michael and Mami’s fluency of ideas as well as their language skills that seem to have contributed to their relatively sudden success – that and the fact their irreverent chats in fields as diverse as “a recent overweight call girl bust or evidence of psychedelic drug use in cave art” caught the ear of comedy-duo Bakusho Mondai, who referenced it on their hit show.

None of it is scripted, to the point that, Michael explains, the two don’t even discuss opinions or insights on the chosen topics before coming to record. “One problem with a lot of the formal, more ‘professional’ podcasts, is that the structure itself obstructs natural thought or conversation. I think in order to learn to speak a language it helps to learn to think in that language first. Most podcasts try to tell you what to say without teaching you how to think.”

“On the surface the podcast is about language study,” says Michael. “But on a deeper level it is about initiating a more open conversation between Japanese people and the rest of the world.”

Bilingual News Podcast iPods
The ever evolving iPod… We’d guess most of you will listen to the Bilingual News podcast through an iPhone? (Ivailo Djilianov/Flickr)

So what next? What if a sponsor came along or a figure from the publishing industry offered to open the chequebook?

“Honestly I think sponsorship would ruin the concept,” Mami says. “We’re sure they’d start telling us what to say, and we’re really trying to avoid that. We want to choose topics we like, not topics we’re told or we think people like.”

So fans needn’t worry chart-topping status will alter the free-speaking philosophy – but they are also not likely to get any closer than virtual first name terms with the pair, and they’d like to keep it that way, for now.

“We’re not interested in being famous,” Mami says. “But,” adds Michael, “I do want Bilingual News to help and influence as many people as possible and evolve into something beautiful.”

Below follows a full transcript of a Q&A session Weekender had with Michael and Mami:

Firstly, tell us a little about yourselves and the Bilingual News podcast: what is it all about?

Michael: On the surface the podcast is about language study. We take turns summarizing news items we have selected in both English and Japanese. We follow that up by having an authentic conversation about the topic – I will speak in English and Mami will speak in Japanese. We’re both bilingual so we can communicate in real time using both languages fairly comfortably. At a deeper level the podcast is about initiating a more open conversation between Japanese people and the rest of the world. I am half Japanese and half American. While I do have experience living in the U.S. as a young boy, I was born in Japan and most of my formal education was here in Tokyo.

“We don’t have corporate sponsors, so we can basically say whatever we want, and to me that is the most important part.”

Mami: I am full Japanese, born and raised in Tokyo. Our podcast offers people chance to listen to authentic conversation both in Japanese and English – If you listen to it, you can easily tell it is not scripted at all. We don’t have corporate sponsors so we can basically say whatever we want and to me that is the most important part.

What inspired you to start the podcast?

Michael: The first podcast I really listened to was Bakusho Mondai (爆笑問題), initially to improve my Japanese. I was impressed with how freely they were able to speak on such a widely distributed medium. My ideas regarding various social or political issues have always had a habit of straying from the mainstream so I really admired their approach. In an impossibly unlikely turn of events, Ota of Bakusho Mondai somehow discovered our podcast and recommended us on his show. Over night our podcast ranked #1 for iTunes podcasts nationally.

Mami: Michael and I have been best friends for about four years now and we share similar interests in complicated topics including philosophy, anthropology, religion, science, etc. We always find interesting topics or new findings on the internet and discuss them endlessly, so about a year ago we started saying we should start our own podcast together; back then it was just a vague idea but it always stayed on our minds.

How is it different to other podcasts/language shows?

Michael: We keep it very casual. We also make sure not to discuss any opinions or insights among ourselves about these news items before doing the actual podcast so that the experience encourages listeners to follow our natural thought process. One problem with a lot of the formal, more “professional” podcasts, is that the structure itself obstructs natural thought or conversation. I think in order to learn to speak a language it helps to learn to think in that language first. Most podcasts try to tell you what to say without teaching you how to think. We don’t have any corporate presence or advisors telling us what we can and cannot say and so our podcast is an honest window into the mind of someone who thinks and communicates in a language other than your own.

“One problem with a lot of the formal, more ‘professional’ podcasts, is that the structure itself obstructs natural thought or conversation.”

Mami: As Michael said, because we don’t have corporate sponsors, we can talk about whatever we find interesting. Usually, the more the topics are crazy, sensitive, or regarded as taboos, the less people would have the access to them. We cover stories that mainstream media would avoid – I think this is one of the reasons why people think our podcast is interesting. Also we never “teach” English or Japanese on our podcast. We try to keep it simple and fun so people keep listening to it and naturally improve their language skill. We also do not patronize our listeners. We don’t dumb down our conversations or we don’t speak slowly. Our listeners always say that they love it because it is so chilled and authentic and they don’t feel like they are forced to study English/Japanese.

Say my Japanese is weak – how can you help? (also, how about if my English was poor?!)

Michael: Listen to our podcast! Ask us questions on Twitter or Facebook! We cover a range of difficulties when we choose topics. Some are relatively straightforward, like the recent overweight call girl services bust, and some are more difficult, like the evidence of psychedelic drug use in prehistoric cave art. Assuming you speak either English or Japanese, half of the podcast will be in a language that you understand so nobody has to start from zero.

Mami: Our unique bilingual conversation style allows you to understand what we are talking about even if you understand only one of the languages. We have Japanese listeners who do not understand English at all and still enjoy it. Say you only understand English: you can assume what I said in Japanese by listening to Michael’s reaction or response. Maybe at first you won’t pick up anything I say but if you keep listening, slowly you will get used to listening to Japanese. We are not celebrities or corporate podcasters so we keep our distance really close to our listeners. We talk to them via Twitter and Facebook all the time and they can ask any questions if they did not understand some words or topics on our podcast. And all of it, of course, comes free of charge for our listeners.

What kind of topics do you cover? How do you decide them?

Michael: We both pick topics that we enjoy. Mami tends to lean towards more obviously relevant social issues while I am endlessly fascinated by the puzzle of the human race.

Mami: We pick topics that we would talk about even when we are not recording. In the past we talked about 3D printers, sex and science, new findings on some planet or other, underwater forests, etc. A lot of people have told us that they are puzzled by how we are picking stories and how we always dig up such weird topics.

Do you guys want to be famous?

Michael: I don’t particularly have any desire to be famous. I do want the Bilingual News podcast to help and influence as many people as possible though. I think this can grow and evolve into something beautiful.

Mami: We are not interested in becoming famous as individuals. I want Bilingual News to be popular – I am so happy that it has been #1 on iTunes Japan. I honestly believe that it can help people learn English/ Japanese and get new information that they had never heard of before.

To listen to the Bilingual News podcast go to: http://ow.ly/nkMfT

Main illustration by Liam Ramshaw

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