Using Audacity to learn Chinese (speaking and listening)

I have briefly mentioned that I use Audacity quite a lot (Recording yourself to improve speaking ability), but the more I use the software, the more I realise how awesome it actually is. Audacity is your best friend when it comes to recording yourself, mimicking others, manipulating recordings, managing media and recording things you aren’t supposed to record. It’s also free of charge and can be  installed on most operating systems.

In this article, I will introduce several useful functions and show how they can be used to learn (or teach) Chinese. However, this isn’t meant to be a manual of how to use Audacity, so even though I will show you how to do certain things, please refer to the official website for help and support. I’m a language teacher and learner, I learn only what I need to learn about the technical details.

Audacity can be found, read about and downloaded here: Audacity (official page at SourceForge)

The basics

audacityBefore we get into any details, let’s look at what Audacity is. This is from the official about page:

  • Record live audio.
  • Convert tapes and records into digital recordings or CDs.
  • Edit Ogg Vorbis, MP3, WAV or AIFF sound files.
  • Cut, copy, splice or mix sounds together.
  • Change the speed or pitch of a recording.
  • And more! See the complete list of features.

This is what we will look at in this article:

  1. Recording from any source
  2. Enhancing the recording
  3. Repeating or slowing down the audio
  4. Mimicking and recording
  5. Saving, editing, and exporting

This is a video I recorded of these six steps. It contains only sparse commentary, so read the rest of the article for more details. Obviously, you can do much more than this with Audacity, this is just a small demonstration.

Record from any source, record what you hear

Audacity can be set up to record anything you hear from your computer. This might be different depending on your operating system, but the general idea is to set Audacity’s input to “stereo mixer” or similar. WHen you press “record”, Audacity will register anything on your computer’s line out. Thus, if you find it hard to extract audio from a YouTube clip or from a movie you’re watching, use Audacity!

I use Linux and for me it’s a simple matter of changing the input settings in Audacity. If you use other operating systems, you can start here or simply search for “Audacity record playback” + [your operating system].

Audio recording enhancement

Apart from this, Audacity is your best friend when it comes to editing and manipulating recordings of various kinds. I sometimes record lectures or similar. I typically need two things to handle this kind of recording:

  1. Noise removal and compression
  2. Cutting and editing
  3. Automation

The first part is very complicated and I guess there are people who are actually earning their living from enhancing sound files, but we can do some basic but yet very effective things with Audacity. Noise removel is mostly a matter of trial and error, just use the function in the program and try different levels (the default ones to start with, obviously). Audacity’s compression function allows you to change the intensity of the recorded audio, removing high spikes and distributing the rest of the sound in a neat way.

Cutting and editing is fairly straightforward. Since you can actually see the audio, it’s a lot easier than trying to record from recordings or whatever else people do if they don’t know about Audacity or similar programs.

Automation is fairly complicated and I don’t know even a single percent of what there is to know, but I still want to point out that there is something called “chains” in Audacity that allows you to apply the same functions to any number of files. For instance, if you record twenty lectures in the same environment, you can use the same noise removal and compression settings for all files and you can apply these functions to all the twenty recordings with just one click. You can even make Audacity save the results as new files in the file format of your choice.

Using Audacity to mimic native speakers

Mimicking native speakers is one of the most powerful ways of acquiring good pronunciation in any language. However, it’s not always practical to do so. If we listen to a YouTube clip, the interface simply doesn’t allow us to repeat exactly what we want to repeat and even if we have a sound file, it would take ages to use a normal media player to be able to mimic a few minutes of speech.

In audacity, this is fairly easy:

  1. Import or record audio
  2. Select the part you want to mimic
  3. Click play and only the section you want to play will be heard
  4. If you hold down shift while clicking play, the section will repeat

This is useful because it isn’t very easy to mimic native speakers at their normal rate of speech, not even for advanced learners. Just listening to the same sentence a dozen times before even trying is good start.

The next step would be to record your own voice over the voice of the native speaker. After having practised until you can read a sentence or passage, simply hit record and Audacity will play the audio while recording your voice. You can the mute the original audio and evaluate your own recording. More about this below.

If you’re interested in either mimicking or the 蔣勳 clip seen in the video, I suggest you read Jacob Gill’s article about how he used that very same clip to improve his pronunciation (we did this at the same time, although I didn’t finish the entire clip and didn’t publish anything about the results).

Slow down the rate of speech without changing the pitch

Some media players can slow down the speed of the audio, but while doing so, the pitch also drops. Thus, we all sound like drunkards at half speed and like smurfs on illegal substances on double the speed. Audacity has a function called “change tempo”, which allows you to change the speed without changing the pitch. This allows you to slow down the rate of speech to a level you’re more comfortable with. Obviously, if you slow things down too much, you will get weird results.

Recording yourself

One very good way of improving your pronunciation is to record yourself. This fulfils several purposes at once:

  • You can share the recording for comments and feedback
  • You can listen to the recording yourself (this is actually very useful)
  • You can use it as a benchmark and see your improvements later

These concepts have already been discussed in more detail in other articles, namely Recording yourself to improve speaking ability and Benchmarking progress to stay motivated. However, there is one more aspect of recording yourself I think is worth mentioning:

How do you use audacity?

Do you have any favourite functions? Do you use audacity to learn or teach Chinese in a way that I haven’t mentioned here? Leave a comment!

Recording yourself to improve speaking ability

When we speak Chinese, we need to keep track of many different things, and even if we can hear what we’re saying, most of our energy is still spent on producing correct language rather than monitoring that language. This doesn’t mean its impossible for us to hear our own mistakes, just that we can never hope to hear all the mistakes we make while speaking at the same time. This is good. When speaking, some self-correction is helpful, but an overly critical approach to our own speech is counterproductive and tends to leave us tongue-tied.

Use Audacity to record and compare.

Recording yourself alleviates this problem

If you record yourself, you can listen to what you’ve said afterwards, fully concentrating on your language production, trying to find things to improve. You’ve already said what you wanted to say, now you can focus solely on correcting yourself. This is useful for several reasons:

  • It’s free (you need fewer hours with a tutor)
  • It’s convenient (you can do it at home at any time)
  • It increases understanding (knowing yourself what’s wrong is much more powerful than having someone else point it out to you)
  • It enables comparison (if you have a model to follow, you can compare it with what you have recorded)
  • It’s a benchmark for future reference

It’s only natural that you feel that your voice sounds weird when recorded, because the sound you hear when you speak normally is not only heard from the “outside” and is thus different from what everybody else hears (and that’s what’s recorded, of course). Still, this is something you will get used to very quickly if you just listen to yourself a few times.

Tutors

If you have free access to tutors, of course that will take you farther than you will ever get on your own. However, even if you have a tutor, record what you’re saying! The benefits of recording yourself doesn’t disappear  just because you have a teacher. Hearing yourself is still important.

What should you record?

You can record anything you like, but here are some suggestions that I find useful myself. Try recording yourself when you…

  • …read a text in Chinese
  • …talk with a friend
  • …talk in class 
  • …hold a speech
  • …talk on the phone

If you’re going to keep this for future reference, I strongly suggest naming the files properly and organising them in such a way that you can later clearly see what you’ve recorded, how and when it was done.

What program should I use?

I recommend Audacity. It’s cross-platform, open source and generally awesome. Audacity has a number of useful functions, including visual representation of the sound recording, smooth editing of sound channels and different sound tracks. If you want to combine, edit or cut sound, this is the program for you. You can also export to mp3 and record information about date, type of recording and so on.

Mimicking native speakers

One of the most powerful ways of learning pronunciation is mimicking native speakers. Find a recording of a suitable piece of text and simply try to mimic it as closely as you can. Then listen to both versions and see what you can improve. Repeat until you think that the recordings are identical (save for differences in voice quality). Then ask your teacher or a native speaker to check the recordings for you and see if there is anything more you can do. Repeat with a different sound file. If you’re a beginner, I suggest using your textbook, but more advanced users can of course use anything you like, but make sure you check the file with a native speaker who’s judgement you trust (a teacher, preferably).

Conclusion

Recording one’s own voice is useful for more reasons than I have room for in this article and I think it should be a natural part of both learning and teaching. As a teacher, I often record students to see if they can hear their own errors. Most often they do when recorded, even if they can’t hear them when they speak at the same time. This has lead me to use recording extensively to learn/teach both Chinese and English. To give you an example, I can hear lots of mistakes in this video I recorded on YouTube (in English), even though I thought it sounded pretty good when I recorded it. If I wanted to improve my English pronunciation, I would record myself much more.

I don’t need a tutor to improve, I can do it on my own if I record and listen, because I can hear the mistakes. So can you. You might not be able to hear all mistakes, but why not try and see? I’m sure you will learn more about yourself and your pronunciation.