Transcribing, or writing down something exactly as it is said, doesn’t sound like the most exciting way to learn a language, but in my experience, it’s a very good technique to use to improve listening ability. As a beginner, it can be used to make sure you can hear the difference between tones and other sounds, as a more advanced learner, it’s great for focused listening.
Learning Chinese by transcribing it
I’ve mentioned transcribing audio as a learning method before, primarily in an article called The Grand Listening Cycle, but I think the method is powerful enough to merit its own article. There are three reasons I think transcribing audio is a good idea for learners on all levels:
- It forces you to focus on what’s being said in detail – I normally advocate listening as much as possible, all the time. Naturally, the more passive your listening, the simpler the audio needs to be for you to benefit. Transcribing audio is extremely active, requires close attention to detail and really encourages you to listen many times; not just until you get the gist, but until you understand everything. You should not do this all the time, but it’s very useful to practise like this now and then.
- You can get corrective feedback and analyse your errors – Provided that you’re transcribing something that already has subtitles or is based on a text version in the first place, you can quickly identify your errors after checking the key. By doing this a few times, you should become aware of what kind of problems you have. For example, do you have problems with some tones? Or is it simply a lack of vocabulary? Something else? Read more about analysing listening ability problems here. Note that some transcripts are not verbatim, so it can be the case that you’re right and the written version is wrong.
- It’s a nice, manageable chunk of active studying – Transcribing just a few minutes of audio can take quite some time if your listening ability is not already advanced. Select an amount that you can bite off and chew in forty minutes or less. This includes checking your version against the original, looking things up and so on. It’s better to err on the side of caution and select a shorter piece to start with. I like this because while it’s hard work, it’s well-defined and can be dealt with decisively. You also feel that you have done something at the end of the forty-minute period.
As mentioned above, this should not be your main method for listening, but it’s useful to do occasionally. If I studied full-time, I would do it perhaps once or twice per week, depending of course on what other things I was focusing on at the time.
A technique useful for all levels
While the audio you listen to will be different depending on how much Chinese you know already, the method remains largely the same. Here are a few examples of what you could focus on based on your current proficiency level:
- Beginner – If you just started learning Chinese, you need to focus on things that are already familiar to you (or should be familiar). Start by checking your textbook. See how much you can transcribe of the next chapter in your book. What about the previous one (you probably don’t remember it by heart)? Many textbooks have audio for the word lists, too. After learning the basic sounds and tones of Mandarin, you should be able to write the Pinyin for words, even unfamiliar ones. If you struggle with hearing the difference between basic tones, check my tone course. You can of course also move beyond your textbook and check out another beginner textbooks or perhaps a podcast targeted at beginners.
- Intermediate – There’s a fair amount of listening material available for intermediate learners, mostly in the form of textbooks, podcasts and so on. You can try authentic audio as well, but make sure you choose something which is not based on formal, written Chinese. Do not try news articles read aloud or something similar; go for interviews, chatting or the subtitles of films or TV series. Keep away from strange and unfamiliar dialects. You will mostly be focusing on sentence-level audio, which is the way it should be. Don’t be afraid to repeat a sentence many, many times, especially if you listen to authentic audio. It’s not easy, but the feeling when you suddenly get it is really nice!
- Advanced – There are really no restrictions to what to listen to since you should be able to deal with most audio without too much problem. There will still be words and phrases you don’t understand, of course, but anything where you can get the gist and that interests you is good. I personally prefer either discussions about topics I’m interested in (check 锵锵三人行 for example) or news broadcasts about topics I’m interested in (this tends to be hard since many of the mare based on written articles).
As usual, you should also vary your input, both in terms of what you transcribe and how difficult it is. It’s interesting as an intermediate learner to sometimes venture out into deeper waters and try understanding something really challenging, but it’s not something I recommend doing all the time. Similarly, it’s a good idea to sometimes go back and to a few audio clips where you understand most of what is said without trying too hard. This means its much more likely that you learn something new without actually trying too much. Note, however, that transcribing is very active and demanding, regardless of the audio!
Some practical suggestions for how to transcribe
Transcribing is a straight-forward activity; simply write down everything you hear in the audio clip. Here are a few practical suggestions:
- Make sure there is a transcript before you start
- Try the loop function in Audacity (shift + play)
- Try the change tempo in Audacity (slows down without changing pitch)
- Break down longer clips into smaller pieces
- Write characters if you can, but Pinyin with tones is fine
- Typing should be the default, but try writing by hand
- Don’t try too many times! If it’s too hard, skip or ask for help
The bigger picture
When you have transcribed a clip, don’t throw it away! Listen to it again after you have dealt with the parts you didn’t understand. You now have a clip where you understand everything, well done! Return to the clip occasionally to remind yourself of this fact and for some easy reviewing. I put these in a separate folder for easy listening later.
Transcribing audio is also a good way of benchmarking your listening ability. If you limit yourself to a certain amount of time per clip, as long as you write down your performance, you can compare it at a later time with a similar clip. You can also compare the kinds of mistakes you make (not knowing the word, hearing the wrong tone and so on).
If you haven’t tried it already, instead of just listening to your next audio clip, why don’t you transcribe it as well? If you don’t know what to listen to, I suggest you check this article for inspiration: