How To Use Dictation To Understand Native Speakers

how to understand native speakers with dictationIn this post you’ll learn some great ways to improve your listening skills and understand native speakers in a foreign language using one of the oldest teaching methods of all – dictation!

Dictation… seriously?

You’re probably picturing a Victorian grammar school, with an old headmaster-type reading aloud lines from a Latin textbook, lines of students in caps writing down every word he says onto chalk slates, desperately trying to keep up.

Dictation is seriously old-school. It has no place in language learning in the 21st Century, right?

Wrong.

I think we have a tendency to dismiss old things rather too easily, for no other reason than that they’re old, especially in the age of the internet. And dictation can certainly be one of those things. Ask a teacher if they use dictation and see what response you get 🙂

Old-school it may be, but outdated it is not!

Dictation – think again!

So with traditional dictation, the teacher reads a short passage aloud, multiple times, and the students have to copy it down as accurately as possible.
But let’s think about what actually goes on in those students’ heads as they’re copying down the teacher’s lines.
  • They’re actively listening during the dictation, trying to catch every word.
  • They’re trying to do it fast enough that they can keep up, learning to handle language at natural speed.
  • They’re active after the dictation as they reflect on what they heard and try to make sense of it, possibly correcting some bits where what they’ve written doesn’t make sense.

So while it may seem like an outdated exercise, there’s a lot going on in-the-head. 

And those kids probably did had to do this day-in, day-out for years. 

What if you did that?

What kind of listening skills would you develop if, on a regular basis, you sat and copied out what you heard in French, Spanish or Chinese?

Dictation for improving listening skills

Mad listening skills! 🙂

Have another look at the list of bullet points above. Do those sound like skills you’d like to develop in your target language?

Absolutely!

I like dictation because it really makes you work. If you have a tendency to be a bit lazy in your language learning, maybe spending a bit too much time watching foreign language movies, dictation will give you a much-needed kick up the backside and get the cogs working.

What you get is an intense focus on spoken language, and a great answer to the question: “How can I understand native speakers?”.

How to understand native speakers

The mistake that a lot of people make about understanding native speakers is to think that it’s just a question of knowing the words (i.e. if you know enough words, you’ll understand what they say).

But if you’ve tried to understand native speakers in another language, you’ll know that’s not the case!

It’s really common to feel like you know the words they’re using, but you just can’t quite get it.

You need a lot more than the words alone to be able to understand a native speaker. You need to be able to hear how words change when they’re said in full sentences, and at full speed.

For example, try saying the following sentence aloud:

“I wish I was inside again.”

To someone who’s studying English, how many separate words would they hear?

Chances are all they would hear is one big mess! 🙂 It’s really tough because many of those words, when you say them at natural speed, are joined together: “I wish_I was_inside_again”.

This is a part of what’s known as connected speech.

Connected speech is the real key to understanding native speakers, and dictation is the mother of activities to get better at this, because you’re forced to listen to every little word. When you’re face-to-face with a native speaker, you don’t have the time to drill down into every word.

But with dictation you do.

And that’s why you should be using it if you want to improve your ability to understand native speakers.
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How to do it on your own

This isn’t rocket science! You don’t need a teacher to read lines to you.

  1. Pick some audio or video that you’ve been watching recently – something you enjoy and would really like to be able to understand
  2. Choose a short segment of that – maybe one scene from a TV drama or even a short, 30-second monologue. (Obviously without subtitles!)
  3. Your mission: write down on paper every single word that is said.

It’s that simple.

You might have to listen 10 times. You might have to listen 100 times. I transcribed a whole episode of a Japanese drama once – it took about 3 weeks and half-killed me, but it was worth it!

How can you check it once you’ve finished (or when you get stuck)?

If it’s short, post it to Rhinospike.com and some nice person will transcribe it for you. If it’s a bit longer, post a job on Elance.com and pay someone to transcribe it. It can be surprisingly affordable. I recently got a virtual assistant to transcribe an entire 45-minute episode of a Cantonese drama transcribed for less than US$20.

Alternatively, if you have a language partner or a teacher you can ask them to write it out for you.

A word of warning – this can be quite tough, intense work. You will probably feel like giving up 10 minutes after starting! For that reason I recommend you start with only a short 1-2 minute piece of audio.

But, of course…

Regular dictation like this will quickly improve your ability to understand native speakers.

So what do you think? Give it a try?

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  • Laura G. Nistor

    great post! I’m a teacher myself and people can’t understand when I say dictation is a powerful tool, I’ve tweeted this for them to see. You make so much more sense than I explaining it!

    • Hi Laura, good to hear from another dictation fan 🙂 I hope it’s useful for your students!

      • Laura G. Nistor

        very useful, and you actually gave me some interesting ideas on how they can practice it on their own.

  • The idea of producing your own transcript and comparing it with a native one… genius!

    Listening can be frustrating because it takes a lot of trial and error in talking to people and/or a LOT of intense listening (like when I was taking my uni courses in Chinese in Shanghai and I had to listen very intently to understand anything). This is a better way for the early stages.

    • Hey Kieran! Yeah exactly… I’m definitely a fan of extensive listening, but, like you say, you need to support yourself from time to time and slow it down, spend time with the language (not in real-time) in a way that lets you examine the sounds that you’re hearing, challenge your ears (did you really hear what you thought you did?), push yourself to be better at processing information.

  • luke

    Hi Olly,
    I have been studying English for a couple of years by now, and I’m still struggling with my poor English listening skill. From time to time, I used to use dictation to practise listening but I gave it up because I thought that it was a waste of time. After having read this your article, I realized that perhaps I made a big mistake!! Anyway I don’t think I’ll need to post any audio files to Rhinospike or to pay someone to have an audio file transcribed. They are a lot of resourses on the web for an English learner. 🙂
    I liked to listen to the short BBC’s audio files here:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/language/wordsinthenews/
    but I was used to read the transcript before listening it and then write it down.
    Do you think that I should first try to catch the words (and write them down) and then check them?
    Do you think those short audio files can work well?
    Cheer, Luke.

    • Hi Luke, thanks for your comment. Your English is fantastic, so well done!

      One of the advantages of learning English is that, as you say, there are loads of good resources available, and those short BBC audio files sound perfect. The power of dictation comes in the “struggle” to hear as much as possible. Therefore, I recommend you try to understand and write down as much as possible without looking at the text. Only refer to the text when you can’t do anything more from the audio on your own.

      • luke

        Thank you for your prompt reply Olly, and for your compliments on my English too. I appreciate, even if I have a lot of work to do to become fluent. So, It seems that I must go back to my old habit and rediscover the “power” of dictation 🙂
        Greetings, Luke.

        • It’s always been my experience that if you’re finding something tough, it’s a sure sign that you’re doing the right thing! 🙂

  • Brad Stokes

    I’d be thinking this would also be great for orthography practice as well…

  • james Satve

    how to learn english like native for this you have to join us at
    http://preply.com/en/skype/english-native-speakers

  • John

    Wow, this technique sounds like a real hidden gem. I will definitely be using this. Would you also recommend listening to music in the target language to practice transcribing, or do you think it’s better to practice with regular speech? Or perhaps both? Thanks for sharing!

    • Music’s a funny one because lyrics don’t tend to mirror real spoken language very much. They’re more poetic. By all means study songs, but I don’t see much value in using them as a dictation exercise.

      • John

        Thanks, Olly, for the fast response. That’s a good point.

  • John

    One more quick quesion… I did this for the first time two days ago. I am studying Levantine arabic, and I listened to a 30 second monlogue from a 19 year-old talking about his family. Since I am still pretty new to Arabic, the words just ran together (the connected speech you were referring to). I pushed through and wrote the whole thing down. It took about 1 hour! I only understood a few of the words, and the rest I tried to write (in Arabic script) as best I could hear them.

    Since 90% of what I wrote was misspelled when I checked it against the transcript, I began to wonder if I needed to wait on a strict dictation exercise here in the beginning level. Instead, perhaps I should focus on reading along with the given transcript and listening until my vocabulary grows a little more. I read the English translation given and 1 day later (yesterday) I listened to it over and over again in the car. It was amazing how each time through I would pick out more of what he was saying! So, I am curious as to what your advice would be a newbie. Do I spend time listening and reading along, or do I continue in the strict dictation method with no exposure to the transcript? I apologize for taking so mich space!

    • Good question. I would wait. The point of dictation isn’t to learn new words. The point is to train you ear to hear the way words are spoken naturally in fast speech. The ideal scenario is that you already know the words, but you struggle hearing them. That’s where dictation really helps. At your stage, I’d focus on reading and listening – just what you described!

      • John

        Thank you!