Stealth learning in the field

This practical activity helps you deal with daily situations in a foreign environment and prioritise the learning of the language being used around you.

Who is this for?
Any level beyond beginner.

What do I need?
A smartphone or any other discreet recording device. Optional: Skype.

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Amazing little veggie café tucked away in a Firenze backstreet

Amazing little veggie café tucked away in a Firenze backstreet

This activity is beautifully simple and is directly relevant to whatever situations you find yourself in while using the target language.

1. Take an activity that you find yourself doing regularly in the target language – ideally one that you find challenging and where you perhaps don’t always understand everything that’s said to you:
– buying a coffee
– renewing your commuter pass
– making a restaurant reservation
– asking about alternative sizes in a clothes shop

2. Go and do it as normal and record the whole thing on your phone (all smartphones come with voice recordings apps). I find that the best way to do this is to set the recording running beforehand, then place your phone (face down) on the counter inbetween you and the other person. This way you get decent recording quality and the other person doesn’t know you’re recording the conversation! You can do this with phone calls too (a really valuable exercise) by making the call itself on Skype on your computer and using your phone to record.

3. Listen back to it and identify anything that was said to you that you didn’t understand. Listen repeatedly and try to transcribe it word for word. Don’t worry if you don’t understand some of the words – start by identifying individual sounds and build it up from there. Words will eventually emerge.

4. Take what you’ve transcribed to a native speaker and have them check it, explaining any language that you still don’t understand.

5. Then, have them listen to what you said on the recording and suggest how you could say it better.

6. Commit it all to memory and practice – especially the corrections of what you said.

7. Go back to the situation of the original recording and do it all again from the beginning. Be sure to brush up on the language you’ve studied before you go back in!

For added challenge: transcribe every word of the recording, paying close attention to the small details. Choose a more challenging context – how does applying for a credit card over the phone sound?

Too hard?
Start with the most familiar situations, like ordering a latte from the local Starbucks. Skip the transcription stage. Instead, play the recording to a friend and ask them to explain the bits you didn’t understand.

Repeat, ad infinitum!

Leave a comment below and tell us what situation you’d like to record yourself in!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Kieran Maynard

    This is an awesome idea. I’ve done this to record lectures, but it never occurred to me that I could record actually ANYTHING in the target language. Great post!!!

    • I always found that the most effective way to improve quickly is to get direct feedback on the language you’re actually using, rather than relying on published material to somehow know what you need. Smartphones revolutionising the opportunities for doing this!

  • Excellent advice! A time saver and a great way to record a genuine everyday conversation. Thanks for the tip Olly.

  • Bryce Carson

    One tool that I’ve found really really helpful for this is a Subtitle Editor called Aegisub. It’s cross-platform and free! But you can use it on any kind of file (just audio from my phone), and can select, and replay little chunks of the conversation with awesome keyboard shortcuts. The other thing that is great is that the same controls can output clipped files that I throw right into my flashcards or send to my language teacher.