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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.

Resources

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 Rhinospike.com.

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

Learn new words and phrases from videos

Passively listening to music or watching TV isn’t going to make you speak Vietnamese overnight but by actively engaging with the content, both music and movies can be a useful learning tool.

Today we’re going to look at one way of using films or TV shows to improve your vocabulary.

The basic premise of this technique is that you use the video to find authentic, interesting phrases or words that you want to learn. After watching the show you use Anki to learn (or ‘internalise’) those new expressions.

What’s needed?

You need a video or film with Vietnamese subtitles.

I tend to prefer TV series over full-length films because of the continued storyline and repetitive vocabulary. Also because they’re shorter than full length films. It’s much easier to find time to occasionally watch a 30-60 episode of something or a 5 minute short story like Qùa Tặng Cuộc Sống.

Step 1: Find new words

You watch the video on your computer, with subtitles. When a new word or interesting phrase you want to learn comes up, pause and take a screencap. I usually quickly look it up in a dictionary or online to get approximate understanding of the meaning, then hit play and continue watching.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Work on your question form by learning phrases from a film.

Top tip: Don’t spend too much time looking up words while you’re watching or you’ll spend 2h+ watching an 1 hour long show (or give up part way through). I usually have google translate open on my phone to get the gist of new vocab and take a screencap so I can look into it in detail later.

Step 2: Fully understand the new words

After the whole show, I go through my screencaps with a dictionary to accurately understand the meaning. Even if you think you know what it means, it’s really important to check so you’re certain.

For example, when using this method with French I assumed sans doute meant without a doubt but actually it’s more like maybe (sans aucun doute is without a doubt). That’s a big, fundamental difference!

Step 3: Make your flashcards

Put the sentences and screencaps into Anki or another customisable flashcard program.

An example recall flashcard

A recall flashcard for the video method

The flashcard contains the sentence translated loosely into English and this is what prompts me to recall the sentence.

Top tip: I usually do this in batches to break up Step 2. While working through the phrases with a dictionary I take a break every 5-10 minutes and put the cards into Anki.


How to Learn Spanish have a detailed video showing how this method works. It’s 90% what I do, though I differ from Andrew in that I keep the information displayed on my cards to a minimum and I use both Learn and Recall cards in Anki.

Advantages and disadvantages of this method

The advantages of this method are that it’s really enjoyable because you’re watching something you’re interested in and it’s authentic because you’re learning words and phrases in natural spoken contexts.

The context is very strong because you have visual and audio to go with the new vocabulary. You don’t just learn new vocab, you feel it. Often when prompted to recall a card, I imagine the scene where the line was said which helps me to remember it.

Disadvantages are that it can be hard to find enjoyable subtitled materials, the language can be very informal or even vulgar (a good dictionary should alert you of this) and you have to be careful when looking up and translating new words you learn this way. If you make a mistake and learn the wrong use of a word, it will be hard to relearn.

This last potential problem is one reason why I recommend this for intermediate learners or above, because at that stage you have a better feel for the language, you’re able to discern things about the language and better judge what is and isn’t useful to learn. Alternatively you could go through your sentences with a tutor or bilingual friend to ensure you’re correct.

However if there are also subtitles in your native language, you can use them to make your cards.

Over to you: Have you ever tried to ‘study’ a film or TV programme?

Top Vietnamese reading materials for learners (online)

Vietnamese reading materials

Read to improve your Vietnamese.

Vietnamese articles and stories provide natural models of the language in an interesting and engaging context that help you deepen your knowledge and increase your knowledge of Vietnamese.

In language learning it’s important to read articles that are at the right level. If it’s too hard you’ll want to give up. If the material is easy, that can be great for extensive reading (aka reading for pleasure) and deepening your knowledge of words and structures you already know.

But you should also try to balance that with some intensive reading of materials that are challenging but not so much that you get discouraged. With this kind of reading the focus is on understanding the text and it is this ‘studying’ while you read that will help increase your knowledge.

For a long time I didn’t know of any materials with graded language for Vietnamese language learners. Children’s books and comics can be helpful, but they are not the same thing as graded readers.

After digging around, I’ve uncovered some real gems online!

1. Learning Vietnamese Network

Level: elementary, low intermediate.

The site provides bilingual articles, with both northern and southern audio of the Vietnamese text. Some articles are about common textbook topics such as family or education and some are more topical, news-style.

Get started:

2. Study Vietnamese

Level: high elementary, low intermediate.

A language school provides bilingual articles – mostly short stories that are cultural, have morals or are funny.

Get started:

3. VinaVille

Level: elementary, intermediate.

Articles on VinaVille highlight new or difficult vocabulary and provide translations of these words in English, French and Japanese. There’s also an English translation of the article.

Get started:

4. Vietnamese for expats (Tuoi Tre)

Level: high elementary to intermediate.

At the lower level there’s a ‘My Story’ section of articles by learners about their time in Vietnam. Another feature of this site is the ‘Bilingual Library’ – Tuoi Tre newspaper articles with both a Vietnamese and English version (not a literal translation).

Both types of articles highlight new or difficult vocabulary and provide a key with English translations.

Get started:

5. VietFun Truyện

Level: intermediate, high intermediate.

Moving on to more natural material, I like this huge collection of short stories and legends.

Get started:

Read more

These are my favourite places to find interesting Vietnamese reading materials that I can actually read. You can find more, especially for higher levels, on our resources page.

Over to you: Do you have any favourite Vietnamese reading materials?

Photo credit: lusi