Core Study Sequences: Studying Dialogues

This is Part 5 in a series of articles in which I show you exactly how I’m learning foreign languages every day.

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

Studying Textbook Dialogues

When I’m not speaking a foreign language, I’m probably studying a dialogue from a textbook.

For me, and many other language learners, dialogues are a staple of language study.


Because they show you language in use.

Whatever the quality of the teaching methodology (grammar explanations etc), if you have nothing other than the recorded conversations between two people, then you have everything you need!

So what’s the best way to study them?

Do you just read them? Or listen to them?

How many times?

And what if you don’t remember the new words later?

Well, herein lies the problem! It’s difficult to know whether what you’re doing is actually working – i.e. whether the time you’re spending on these dialogues ends up helping you speak your target language more fluently.

After many years (and many thousands of dialogues in 9 different languages), I’ve developed a pretty robust process for maximising my learning from dialogues.

I’ve divided the process into four stages:

  1. Challenge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Processing
  4. Ownership

These four stages take you from the very first time you press “play” on the recording, to the point where you have learnt, and can use, all the new words and phrases from the dialogue.

Stage 1: Challenge

When you first listen to new dialogue, you’ve got a small window of opportunity that quickly closes.

That opportunity is to practise your listening skills on something you’ve never heard before.

As soon as you start studying the contents of the dialogue, you’re no longer testing your listening skills, because you know what’s coming!

For this reason, you should spend time listening to the audio recording of the dialogue before you start the study process.

  • Listen to the audio many times over. Start by trying to understand the broader meaning of the conversation. Then listen with increasing focus, eventually trying to pick out every word as accurately as possible.

In most cases, this will be pretty hard.

But that’s ok.

The more you push yourself, the more you’ll learn.

When you simply can’t get any further, or begin to grow frustrated, it’s time to move on.

Time Spent On This: 1 day

Step 2: Comprehension

Having pushed your listening skills, now you can begin to close the gap between what you could and couldn’t understand.

This happens bit by bit.

  • Open the textbook and read along as you listen. Do this many times.

This isn’t about studying yet, it’s about gradually adding some support to the process of understanding.

Listening on its own is tough, so by adding the text to read at the same time, you’re giving yourself an opportunity to catch a few more things.

Once again, listen and read repeatedly, filling in as many gaps as possible in your understanding.

When you can’t get any further…

  • Read the explanatory notes in the textbook, and look up any unknown words. Study the dialogue until you understand 100% of what’s going on.

This part is familiar. It’s the “study” bit.

But it doesn’t end there…

Far from it…

Time Spent On This: Depends on the difficulty, but usually no more than 3 days.

Step 3: Processing

Having “studied” the dialogue, now you need it to sink in!

You see, most people think that once they’ve “studied” something, they’re done!

But it doesn’t work like that.

Do you remember in school how you had to write history essays?

As you were writing the essay, do you remember how many times you had to go back through the books, checking facts and events, in order to make sure you got it right?

How much deeper was your understanding of that period in history after having to write about it?

A lot deeper.

You see, it’s not the studying of the textbooks that teaches you things. It’s the work you do afterwards that helps you consolidate it.

And it’s the same with language learning.

You’ve got to go and do things with the language you learn in order for it to sink in.

So what’s the language equivalent of writing a history essay?

Two things:

  1. Continued Listening: Over the days to come, keep listening to the dialogue audio in your free time. Every day you’ll bring a pair of fresh ears, and you’ll be surprised how much you forget. Coming back to it forces your brain to recall the information it needs to understand.
  2. Copy out the dialogue: This is a trick I learnt from my friend Richard Simcott from Speaking Fluently. Richard likes to copy dialogues from the textbook into his notebook, word for word. Why? Having tried it, I know why. It’s simply a different way of processing the text. It involves some physical movement, and helps get it out of your head and into the physical world. I find that by simply going through this process of writing, you bring more attention to what you’re learning, and it sinks in faster.

Time Spent On This: 2-3 days

Step 4: Ownership

By now, you’ll probably feel like you’ve got a good handle on the dialogue.

Indeed, you might be happy with this level of understanding.

But there’s still more you can do if you want to take ownership of the language you’ve learnt, so you can use it actively in conversation (not just understand it when you hear it).

This is the hardest part, but here’s how I do it…

  1. Flashcards for new vocabulary: I like to select some words and phrases that I think are going to be very useful, and put them into flashcards. Not only does this help me keep my “priority” vocabulary in one place, but it helps me to easily revise it over the weeks to come and commit it to long-term memory.
  2. Speaking: I like to share the dialogues I’m studying with my tutor, and use our time together to practise the things I’ve learnt. Try to always link what you’re studying with opportunities to speak, as it’s the fastest way to reveal the gap between what you think you know, and what you actually know!
  3. Reverse Translation: This is one of my favourite activities, but also very tough to do! It tests not only your ability to understand the dialogue, but the extent to which you’ve learnt it… and there’s nowhere to hide! Step 1: Translate the dialogue into English. Step 2: Cover the original. Step 3: Translate the English back into the target language. Step 4: Compare the two versions. See here for complete instructions.

Time Spent On This: Speaking and reverse translation, 2-3 days. Flashcards, ongoing.

I follow the basic approach outlined about with every dialogue I study.

However, it might not always be right for you to do this in so much depth.

If the dialogues you’re studying are short, easy for your level, or in a familiar language, you can probably get away with less. (For example, flashcards or reverse translation might not be necessary.)

Try it out, notice what’s working (and what’s not), and always remember to adjust what you’re doing to best fit how you learn.

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!

Free 3-Day Email Course

People speak too fast?

Free 3-part email course teaches you advanced listening skills to understand native speakers at ANY speed.

Powered by ConvertKit
Olly's Top Resources For Learning:
  • Sarah Hutchinson

    This was a really really helpful post, thank you!
    I’ve been starting some dialogues and wanted a consistent way to approach them. After listening several times and understanding the new words I’ll repeat each sentence out loud. And I’ve found that copying out the dialogue really does help me remember the vocabulary.
    I’ll need to try your advice about the reverse translation. Hopefully that will help the sentence structure stick better.

    • Thanks for your comment Sarah. The reverse translation definitely helps (you’ll see!) but it is also time consuming. It’s the best way I know to really internalise the language you’re learning, though. It’s ultimately a balance between studying fewer things thoroughly, or more things in less depth. Good luck!

  • Odette C.

    Do you copy out the dialogue only once or do it again for those 2 to 3 days, Olly?

    • Depends… I’m still experimenting with that. But probably only once, to be honest.

  • SJ

    The core study sequences are definitely my favorite among all language learning videos from various polyglots on YouTube! They are the best! Thanks, Olly!

    • Hi SJ – awesome to hear! It’s strange, because they don’t get many comments or shares, but I’ve noticed that people like them!

      • SJ

        Oh.. I feel a little bit sad to hear that.. for people who are serious about learning languages but miss GOOD stuff like this 🙁 So I just went to YouTube and shared all five of them to Facebook, and also this article. Hope more people will benefit from them! 🙂 And please keep the good stuff coming!

  • Marie

    Hi Olly, I’v just discovered your blog thanks to Luke english podcast. How useful ! and funny to see how you complete each other ! I have to say I don’t have any studybook : I hate them ! It remembers me school and boring lessons. So I work only with podcasts, books (ebooks and audiobooks) and films or TV shows. Do you think you method can work with film or novels dialogues ? Do you think it’s essential to work with a studybook ? Thank you for your advice. I precise that I work english for my own pleasure : I don’t pass any exam and I don’t work in english. I just love the language. Bye!

    • Hi Marie, the MOST important thing is that you learn in a way that works for you, and that you enjoy. Unless you need to learn for a job etc, language learning a pleasure, pure and simple, so please keep dong what you’re doing!

      • Marie

        So I will continue to learn by heart quotations of Charlotte Brontë !!! Thank you, Olly !

  • SMO404

    Olly – forgive me I put this question on the wrong article. Will move it to the Listening Comprehension article. I couldn’t figure out how to delete this comment.

    Olly – I’m really enjoying this series and it’s helping me get a plan together for my studies. I’m studying Italian and am at the intermediate level. Would there be any reason why a learner at this level wouldn’t do the transcribing themselves? I’m very fortunate to have a native speaker at home who can check my work for me after I’ve transcribed it. What do you think about this approach? I’m thinking I would do the first stage of listening over and over. Then stage two would be me transcribing it, having it corrected and then memorizing it. Interested to hear your thoughts. Thanks!!

    • iAnonGuy

      I agree with you, and that’s the process I’d follow.

    • Hi, apologies for the delay in replying to this. I think it’s an awesome idea to transcribe stuff yourself. It’s just a question of time. That, and I suspect you might have trouble finding suitable things to transcribe at intermediate level. But assuming to can, and you’ve got time, it’s an awesome approach!

  • John

    Hi Olly, I recently acquired some great Arabic dialogues (levantine), and they came with transcripts. Each dialogue is about 10 minutes long. I’m super excited about the quality and quantity, but I can’t handle that much new content at once. Is there a recommended “length of time” that you would suggest I break each dialogue into? Maybe 1 minute segments, 30 second segments…What do you recommend for an A1 beginner? Thanks!

    • Hmm… for beginner I’d probably be working through a textbook, to be honest, because you get carefully controlled input that is all useful. It depends how difficult these dialogues are for you, John. If you find that you don’t understand 50% or more of the vocab, you’re probably out of your depth. However, if you understand a fair bit already, then go for it. I’d stick to a minute or so at any one time.

  • Colin Daly

    What is a good Spanish dialogue book with audio that I can download on my computer?