Core Study Sequences: Transcribing Audio

This is Part 6 in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day, and today is about transcribing audio.

In these articles I talk about how I’m using my Core Study Time – a 30-45 minute period at the start of every day which I set aside for intensive study.

Before you read this, you should go back and check out the previous posts in the series:

  1. My CRAZY 5am Language Routine
  2. Core Study Time In Your Language Routine
  3. Core Study Sequences Part 1: Listening Comprehension
  4. Core Study Sequences Part 2: Learning Vocabulary
  5. Core Study Sequences Part 3: Lesson Preparation
  6. Core Study Sequences Part 4: Glossika Language Training
  7. Core Study Sequences Part 5: Studying Dialogues
  8. Core Study Sequences Part 6: Transcribing Audio
  9. Core Study Sequences Part 7: Reverse Translation

Transcribing Audio To Improve Comprehension

“Native speakers always talk so fast! I can’t understand anything?”

It’s a common complaint, with three main causes:

  1. You don’t know the words they’re using
  2. You can’t distinguish one word from the next
  3. The strain of processing the information in real-time is too much

In this study sequence we’re focusing on the second of the two: Distinguishing words from each other in speech.

Why does this matter?

Well, when native speakers talk, they don’t pronounce each word clearly and separately for your benefit! (You might have noticed!)

What happens instead, is that words run into each other… sounds get omitted (“elision“), and even change when put next to certain other words (“assimilation“).

For example:

  • Sounds getting missed out:  don’t know > “dunno”
  • Sounds changing:  hand bag > “hambag”

This can cause you all kinds of problems as a learner, and so it’s well worth dedicating study time to improving in this area.

If all you did with your day was spend time speaking with natives, you’d learn to understand native speakers over time. But, actually, that’s a rather inefficient process – huge amounts of uncontrolled input, and a fair number of awkward conversations, until you get to the point where you understand everything!

But rather than relying on the “natural” method (which could take years), you can take a shortcut:

Focus your ears on real spoken language, in great detail, such that you learn identify and get used to the way individual words sound in speech.

And you can do this by transcribing recordings of native speakers talking.

The Process

The process of transcribing audio is really straightforward.

  1. Find audio recordings of native speakers talking (ideally 2+ people, but can be a monologue too)
  2. Not too long… keep it under 3 minutes
  3. Transcribe it, word for word, onto paper

In case you’re not sure, transcribing literally means writing down what you hear, one word at a time.

Important: This is a listening exercise, not a vocabulary exercise.

In other words, you’re not doing this in order to learn new words. You’re doing this to learn to identify words you already know when spoken naturally.

Therefore, try to choose material that’s as close to your level as possible – you don’t want to be swamped by unknown vocabulary.

You might need to do some digging around to find the right material for transcribing.

Ideally, you want to find audio that already comes with the transcript. The example I gave in the video was Radio Ambulante, which is a great Spanish language channel.

Apps To Help With Transcribing

Once you get into transcribing audio, you’ll soon encounter the fiddly problem of how to listen to difficult sections of audio on repeat.

There are two awesome apps I’ve discovered that really help out with this. They allow you to loop sections of audio, jump back/forward by a few seconds, and so on.

For Android users, I recommend the Smart Repeat app. I wrote a review of it here.

For iPhone users, I recommend Speater.

The full version of each app costs around $5, but it’s well worth it, as it makes transcription a joy!

(If you don’t mind sitting at a computer, you could also use Audacity, which is free.)


I often go through periods of transcribing audio a lot, as it really helps me improve my listening comprehension.

It’s a great activity to devote your core study time to, and an intensive period of doing this over the course of a few weeks will pay off!

Spend a bit of time finding the best audio, and remember to start small. It’s better to start with one short minute of audio and to complete it, than to aim for 10 minutes and never finish it.

Enjoy!

Would you use this routine yourself? What problems would you have?

Please do share this post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it useful, then leave me your comments or questions below!

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  • dandiprat

    Thanks for the advice on Speater. I’ve been looking for something like that.

  • Neil Moss

    Yes, me too. Thanks for the Speater recommendation Olly! This is going to be so helpful with training my ear to faster audio. I wish I knew about it earlier.

  • ElfinW

    Olly, I loved your post because I am a big fan of transcribing audio ! Could you give me some suggestions on audio with transcript for other languages ? Like French for advanced learners and German ? Or how I can go about looking for it ?

    • For German I found a lot of good stuff on LingQ. Not so sure about French, because I generally just listen to French podcasts these days. A google search for “podcast transcript” in the target language should do the trick.

  • Marie

    Hey, I’ve never done that ! It sounds very useful ! Thanks to you, I bought Speater for my Iphone, and it made me able to listen to the Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4. The epsode about Brexit is so funny ! I think I managed to understand about 75 % of the podcast. And I spent a good time ! Many thanks Olly !

  • Max

    Seems like a really great tactic, thanks Olly! I’ve been using dialogues for improving listening comprehension (also got that one from you!), but my brain kinda washes over those word transitions/meldings. I think this’ll be really helpful for maintaining attention on the listening, as it makes the whole process more active. Would also be a good opportunity to practice my hiragana handwriting, the four pillars and all that, haha 🙂

    役立つ方法、ありがとうございます!

    • Cool, exactly! Make sure to do it with new dialogues you haven’t heard before, so you’re coming at them fresh!

  • So helpful as usual Olly! For those learning German you might want to check out http://www.nachrichtenleicht.de/ – for beginners transcribing, it might be helpful because they are spoken slowly, clearly and distinctly but I also understand ‘normal speed’ might be more appropriate for what you’re doing here. Also, these are short news items generally 3 minutes so you’re never overwhelmed. You can also download the mp3 audio and print/PDF the transcript if you need to.

  • Pavel Saman

    Olly, do you use paper for your transcriptions? Or do you type at your laptop?

    • I’ve done both! However, laptop is kinda convenient because you can save it, put phrases directly into your flashcards etc.

  • Julia Reed

    Hi Olly!

    thank you for such a great post! Must admit, I have never been a fan of audio transcribing. Actually, you mentioned all three reasons for my disgust. I tried to avoid listening to the audio for a pretty long time; I mean an awfully long time, but then realized that it’s a huge mistake: without listening to native speakers, I’m not going to sound like them. Also, thanks for the apps, Olly. Definitely, will try!