Active Listening: Transcribing

Today we continue looking at listening. Last week we checked that it’s listening we’re struggling with.

Here’s a technique to help you diagnose your listening problems. The basic idea is that you watch a video or listen to some audio and write down what you hear – ie. you transcribe it.

Why should you do this?

By transcribing what you hear, you are able to compare this with the transcript and find out where you’re having problems. Doing this regularly can help you to find out what your listening problems are.

Focused, active listening is useful. Passive listening alone won’t improve your listening skills. There are many ways to listen actively, but that’s a subject for another day. If you want to use a video or podcast to learn new expressions, we have an article for that.

What you need

  • Some audio or a video that you can mostly understand. You must also have subtitles or a transcript.
  • A pen and paper.

Because this technique is focusing on your listening ability, it’s key that the content should be familiar so that you won’t come across too many new words.

Learning to deal with new words is an important listening strategy, but is only one strategy of the many you need to become a competent listener. Today we’re looking for listening problems, not vocabulary problems. It would also be really discouraging to try this when you barely understand what’s being said!

There are some suggestions for materials at the end of this article.

How to do it

1. Choose a short video or audio

Transcribing is time-consuming, even in your native language. You have to replay the video many times to allow yourself time to write and to check if what you’ve written is correct.

Choose audio under 3 minutes for sure. I recently transcribed a 3 minute audio in English for a lesson and that took me ages. So I’d recommend something shorter – 30 seconds or 1 minute can also be worthwhile.

This doesn’t mean you have to find 1 minute audio clips. Even for a short video like Annie’s, you don’t have to transcribe the whole thing. Just choose a section. For example, if they’re having a conversation, you could transcribe until they change topic.

2. Listen to the audio or video the whole way through

Start off by listening to the material the whole way through. Don’t take any notes or worry about catching every word. The aim here is to just understand the general message or conversation.

If you’re watching a video, turn off any subtitles. If your video has vocabulary that pops up on screen, either don’t watch the video or cover up that part of the video so you can’t cheat by looking at it.

No cheating!

No cheating! I covered up the right hand part of the screen where new vocabulary appears

2. Transcribe the audio or video

Replay the audio or video (still without subtitles). This time pause frequently (for example, every half sentence) so you can write down what has just been said.

A lot of the time you’ll have to replay a segment because you’ve not heard or forgotten what was just said. This is a natural part of transcribing (it’s the same for your native language).

Sometimes there will be a problem word or phrase and even after replaying it a few times you’re still unsure. Don’t worry about it. Just take a guess, write any letters or sounds you have heard. You can also just leave a space and move on. It doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense – just write what you hear. This will come in useful when you compare with the transcript.

If you are watching a video with pop-up vocab, you can have a look at the screen after you’ve had a guess.

I didn't know the word for diary before so I had a look.

I had a look at the pop-up vocabulary. I didn’t know the word for diary before so of course I couldn’t understand it.

When you’re finished, quickly read through your transcript looking for any spelling mistakes.

2b. optional replay

You can play the whole audio again with your transcript and check for any mistakes. Or you can focus on the gaps you have and see if you can hear them now you have a fuller picture from your transcript. You may be sick of hearing it by now though, so this step is optional!

3. Compare your transcript with the subtitles

Play the audio or video a third and final time, with Vietnamese subtitles or while reading at the transcript. Compare it with what you’ve written.

I couldn’t find my Vietnamese notebook, so here’s one in Spanish.

Check both for mistakes and words you didn’t hear. Highlight or use a different colour to make a note of these mistakes.

Comments on my problems with the Spanish transcript

In the example above I didn’t have a pencil so I highlighted the two areas I thought were wrong. The first one was actually right (I didn’t know the speakers were boyfriend-girlfriend so I thought it was weird to start the conversation with “Love”).

With the second highlighted area, it turned out to be a verb I don’t know (avisar). Of course I couldn’t understand because I’ve never seen this verb before! This is not a listening problem, but a vocabulary one. In terms of listening, I actually did ok as I had correctly heard some of the sounds.

You can also see on Line 2 some signs of listening problems. The words are squashed up as I had to listen a few times to get the words before “izquierda”. That’s OK.

I was also unsure about “me voy a” before “probar”, but I used my knowledge of Spanish grammar to help me work it out when I replayed the line. I probably should have highlighted that in a different colour because this may be a potential problem.

4. Study

Any new words should be recorded somewhere such as your study notepad or in Anki so you can learn them. If you’ve made any grammar mistakes, this is a good time to go back to your course book and revise that topic.

As for listening, once you have transcribed a few listening extracts, try to look for patterns.

  1. Is there a particular sound you are struggling with? For me, I struggle with the northern Vietnamese r. Northern gi- and d- are usually okay but the r- throws me on a regular basis.
  2. Are there words that you couldn’t separate? For example, you heard a nay (it doesn’t matter if this doesn’t make sense, or you don’t know the tones – just write what you hear) when they said anh ấy. This is a feature of speaking called connected speech and it often causes listening problems (especially in English!). We’ll look at this another time.

Once you’ve done this a few times, this is where you can start to diagnose your listening problems. Then, once you know your listening problems, you can then look at how to tackle them.


A note on choosing materials:

You can apply this technique to any material that’s relatively easy for you. Ideally when you read the transcript you should be able to understand everything (though a couple of new words is okay). If your audio is harder, use it to learn new words, not to improve your listening.

I was low intermediate when I used Annie’s video above which is for elementary learners. I was able to transcribe it pretty accurately with just a few problem areas. Similarly with the Spanish podcast, the grammar was not challenge so I was able to focus on my ability to listen and hear the sounds.

Some ideas for choosing suitable, easy materials:

  • A dialogue from a textbook that’s either a similar level or even better: a slightly lower level.
  • One of Annie Vietnamese’s diaries.
  • Any videos with subtitles that you can easily understand (but don’t look at the subtitles until you’ve finished transcribing!).
  • A podcast that comes with a transcript. Be careful if it’s a “teaching” podcast as they may have deliberately introduced new words or grammar. Natural speech is better if possible.

If you have interesting audio but there’s no transcript, you can get custom transcripts via

Over to you: What do you do to work on your listening? What problems are you having? Have you noticed any patterns?

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. Alex

    It’s very useful exercise.Thank you.
    I have the question. Is it possible to download Vietnamese subtitles as a file for Vietnamese serials, movies on a website? I can’t find such a website. Thank you.
    Alex từ Nga

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge