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:

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.


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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Benjamin Houy says:
25 May 2014 20:38

This all sounds extremely familiar. The problem when you start wondering what the best way to learn a language is, is that you stop learning.
At one point I realized I was spending more time looking for ways to “optimize” my learning, than actually learning.

Olly Richards says:
25 May 2014 20:49

Hi Benjamin, that’s it! Do a little bit everyday, do it well, stay away from Facebook, and you’ll do just fine! 🙂

Kris Broholm says:
25 May 2014 22:10

Haha, I totally suffer from all of the above 😉 Oh well, live and learn (to learn) is what makes me excited about waking up in the morning.

Olly Richards says:
25 May 2014 22:14

Ha… it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, would it? 🙂

Shannon Kennedy says:
27 May 2014 21:40

I am soooo guilty of #17. Great list. I definitely agree that doing *something* everyday makes a big difference.

Olly Richards says:
29 May 2014 06:57

Hi Shannon… you’re not the only one guilty of #17! 🙂

I think the “a little bit everyday” thing can be huge for most people.

Shannon Kennedy says:
29 May 2014 16:50

There’s just something about new books! 😉

Jolanda Caterina says:
8 Jul 2014 18:00

Most of languages learning blogs are written in English! 😉 so I hope one day my English will improve! 😉 to spend all day some time in learning isn’t the problem. but to choose the language makes it more difficult! 😉 I like your blog! j;-)

Olly Richards says:
9 Jul 2014 12:18

Keep reading, Jolanda – your English is already great! 🙂

Jolanda Caterina says:
9 Jul 2014 12:24


Richard Woods says:
9 Jul 2014 16:18

I think it’s 4 and 12 for me. I always had a problem with 4 as –
a) they [the audio] speak faster than I can read.
b) I find it hard to do both; I’m either reading and not focusing on the listening, or listening and not focusing on the reading.
I can still try right?

I think with 12 I was thinking “I’m listening to improve my abilty to listen, so it shouldn’t matter what I’m listening to right? As long as it’s the same language.” It doesn’t do well for confidence; however it has helped with some more natural forms of speech. I’m talking about listening to the radio mainly.

Progress is hard…

Olly Richards says:
15 Jul 2014 23:48

Hi Richard! On your first point, the trick is to just work on one paragraph, or even one sentence, at a time. Work with short amounts of text on repeat rather than long amounts that are too much to deal with.

As for the second point, I think radio etc is all good exposure, providing you don’t consider it “study time”. As you say, it’s mostly going to be above your head. Listen a lot, for sure, but use your dedicated study time to do things that are at your level – you’ll learn much more tangible stuff that way.

Hope that helps!

Brad Stokes says:
17 Apr 2015 12:05

I’d say 1, 4 & 9 would be my weaknesses from the list. I’m back after a little burnout due to an overly busy life. Definitely need to work in some reading whilst listening into my weekly routine…

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