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The Transcription Technique: A Simple Way to Improve Your Listening Comprehension

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

I’d like to share a simple technique that has drastically improved my listening skills (many language learners say that listening the most difficult skill to master). What’s more, this technique also helps me with speaking, reading and writing. I know of no other technique that’s so effective at improving all of these skills.

I’ve never heard of any school or language class teaching this technique. And I’ve never seen it mentioned in anything I’ve read about language learning. But it’s incredibly powerful — it has made active listening pretty much effortless for me.

I thought it would be good to share this technique to help others with their language learning. I actually came across it by happy accident. Let me tell you how:

How I Discovered the Transcription Technique

A few years ago, I was taking a Chinese class that focused on listening skills, and mentioned to a classmate that I found listening to the recordings ‘boring’ because the talking speed was too slow. He asked, have you tried typing a transcript while you listen? I hadn’t– in fact, as someone who often has trouble properly understanding song lyrics in my native English, it sounded like an impossible task. Clearly there was a disconnect between my ‘boredom’ and actual skill level. But, I had no problem understanding the recordings overall, and didn’t struggle the next day in class when we read over the transcript and discussed the material, so I decided to take on the challenge.

I opened a blank word document, and hit play. It was hard. Really hard. I had to listen twice to pretty much every sentence, sometimes more. In the end, there were still a few blanks in my transcript, but I had gotten most of it down. It was humbling to see how much I didn’t know, and that put the class I had previously thought “boring” in a whole new light. The other amazing thing was how long I focused on listening to the recording– at least three times longer than I had before. And it didn’t involve forcing myself to focus– that just happened naturally while I was trying to type out what I was hearing.

What is the ‘Transcription Technique’?

In basic form, the Transcription Technique has just two steps:

Listen to a recording in your target language, and transcribe (write down) the recording as you listen.
Record yourself speaking the text that you’ve written down.

You then repeat these two steps until you’ve mastered that piece of text.

This creates a full skill circle from listening to writing then back to reading, speaking and listening.

During the first step (listening and transcribing), I recommend that you listen to a recording in short segments, pausing and repeating the recording regularly to type or write what you hear.

Once your transcript is complete, check that it’s correct before you record yourself reading it aloud.

Does the Transcription Technique Really Work? (Spoiler: Yes!)

Now I’ve explained the steps, perhaps the Transcription Technique sounds like a lot of work. It is! It does take time, but I’ve found it pays back handsomely on every minute I invest in it.

Now, if you’re happy with how well you speak, listen and read, there’s no need to use the technique. However, if you want to improve on any of the above, and especially if you want to practise putting these skills together (for instance, having a conversation where you must listen, understand, process and speak a response), transcription practice can help you move forward, faster.

The 6 Reasons I Use the Transcription Technique

1. I’ve Developed Effortless Active Listening Skills

Close to 100% of the time you spend listening using this technique will be active, since that’s a natural consequence of trying to understand every word, phrase and sentence to write it down. You won’t put on a recording to practice and find yourself zoning out that ‘noise’ by accident.

2. It’s a Super-Efficient Way to Learn All Four Language Skills

With the Transcription Technique you’ll simultaneously practice listening and writing, then reading and speaking. As I mentioned above, every minute I’ve spent on this technique, I’ve noticed my language skills improving.

3. I Can Understand Native Voices at Normal Speed

Making the jump from listening to materials prepared specially for second language learners (where speakers talk slowly, with perfect pronunciation and clear pauses between words) to a regular native speaker (who will likely speak fast, combine words and might have a regional accent) is a big challenge for many language learners.

With the transcription technique, you can not only practise listening to a regular native speaker again and again, but also learn to connect the sounds you hear to words and phrases that you may in fact already know, but which, at first, your brain didn’t connect to the sounds you heard.

This builds your confidence for real life conversations, and comes without the horrific embarrassment you might feel if you asked someone to repeat themselves over and over again in an actual conversation!

4. I’ve Got a Better Understanding of Sentence Structure

If you are learning a language that’s written without spaces between the words (such as Chinese or Arabic) or spoken without spaces between the words (such as French), then listening and then creating a written version helps you learn how to break up a sentence at the right places so that the resulting words make sense.

5. I’ve Developed an Intuitive Grasp of the Visual-Audio Connection

Going back and forth between hearing or speaking and the written language helps your brain build a connection between the visual cues you see and the sounds you hear. Even if you’re learning a phonetic language, such as Spanish, it can be a challenge at first to connect the sounds that you hear to the letters on the page. If you are learning a non-phonetic language, such as Chinese or Japanese, this exercise reinforces the connection between what a word looks like and how it sounds, which you can't get from reading something silently.

6. I’m a Better Contextual Learner

With transcription, you learn to figure out words based on context as you listen. The becomes especially apparent when you run into a sound that you can’t understand. You can’t look it up in a dictionary, so what do you? Look at the words surrounding your blank to see what might make sense, and see if anything you think of fits with what you’re heard. This skill is invaluable in real world conversations when you need to understand the overall thread of a conversation, but don’t understand every word.

The Transcription Technique: An In-Depth Step by Step Guide

Step 1: Find a suitable audio clip.

Some things to keep in mind as you pick yours:

  • Start short: Just 30 seconds or one minute is good to start; if you want this can be a part of a longer audio recording
  • Make it level appropriate: it should push you out of your comfort zone, but if you don’t understand anything that’s being said, you won’t be able to transcribe it! Aim for 50-80% general understanding when you do a ‘test listen’
  • Interest: Pick a topic that interests you’ll, as you’ll be spending a significant amount of time with this recording.
  • Transcript: If the audio comes with a transcript (or is a video with subtitles) this will make it easier to check your work at the end. However, DO NOT look at the transcript / subtitles before step 6, as that defeats the purpose of doing this
  • Don’t rush: Take the time to pick a recording that’s right for your level and interests, as this is the most important factor in determining your results

Step 2: Listen once without trying to write anything down, just focusing on getting the big picture and general context. If you’re having trouble with this, consider going back to #1 and picking an easier recording.

Step 3: Set up a blank Word / Google doc, or a pencil plus a blank piece of paper if you prefer to write by hand. If you want to hand write, double spacing your lines will make steps #7 and #8 easier. Restart the recording, and begin writing what you hear, pausing or rewinding the audio whenever needed. If you listen to something a few times and still can't figure out what's being said, don't worry– put a () in place of the words you can't figure out, and keep moving forward until you finish the recording.

Step 4: Read over the first draft of your transcript– does it seem logical and generally make sense? Almost all of the time you'll have a some blanks– but that’s ok if it makes overall sense. As you read, think about what words might make sense there based on the context, and write them in, leaving the () around them.

Step 5: Restart the recording, and this time pay special attention to those () areas, and see if the combination of sound plus context makes any () clearer. You’ll often have a few “aha moments” at this step.

Step 6 (OPTIONAL): If you have remaining () areas after step 5 and want to really challenge yourself, go back and do #4 and #5 again to reduce those pesky () even more.

Step 7:Have a native speaker friend / tutor / teacher take a look at your transcript to correct it and fill in any remaining blanks. Or, if you have a transcript or subtitles, use those to correct your transcript. My favorite way to do this step is to print out my transcript double spaced, and then hand write corrections. Hand writing the corrections seems to help me remember them better. However, you could also use Word with tracked changes activated (Google Docs automatically tracks changes). If there are any words you don’t know, look them up in a dictionary.

Step 8: Take your fully correct transcript, set up your recording device, and listen one last time while reading along, giving your brain a chance to connect the sound of the phrases you originally couldn’t understand with the written words (which you’ve already looked up if you didn’t know already).

Step 9: Record yourself reading your transcript.

What Are You Waiting For?

Having doubts about whether you can do this? I know you can. But if you’re feeling a bit hesitant, just commit for 25 minutes to start. Pick an audio clip and set a timer.

So that you have absolutely no excuse to not try this, here are a few places where the perfect recording is waiting for you:

Your textbook, or an online course, if you’re using one. Almost every language textbook or online course includes accompanying audio / video resources. Depending on your level, this may be a recording of the lesson, or supplemental materials. Skip ahead a lesson or two, and listen to a recording– just don’t give in to the temptation to peek at the written text or transcript first!
Movies. Pick a short scene (or part of one). This is great if you’re trying to make that jump from listening to materials created for foreign learners to regular native speakers. Having the video can also give you some visual clues to meaning if you are stuck but don’t want to look at the transcript (don’t cheat!). Also, being able to turn on subtitles makes it easy to check your transcript.
News sites. A wealth of short videos, often with native speakers who have relatively standard pronunciation but are still speaking for a native audience. Many international news outlets (e.g. the BBC) have stories and videos in multiple languages. Sometimes there will even be closed captioning available.
Podcasts / radio shows. These tend to be the most challenging, as there are no visual clues and you can get people with heavy accents speaking at length (e.g. podcast guests or listener call-ins). Getting through one of these will boost your confidence to talk with native speakers like no other, though!

This list is just a starting point, so if you’re inspired to look elsewhere for a recording, go ahead!

author headshot

Katherine Whitman

Creator, Panda Toes

Katie lives in Beijing and has studied Chinese for 15+ years. She helps Chinese learners achieve practical, real-world fluency at www.panda-toes.com.

Speaks: English, Mandarin Chinese

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