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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?

Listening: What’s your problem?

Listening is the weakest skill for many learners. To improve your listening, you first need to know what your listening problems are.

As an English teacher, I usually survey my students to find out what kind of listening problems they’re having. Sometimes the root of the problem is not their listening ability.

This is usually my problem in a foreign language – my listening skills are ok, I understand coursebook audio and youtube videos that are at my level and I’m fine at understanding conversations in Saigon. What holds me back the most is unfamiliar vocabulary. So actually I need to improve my vocabulary, not my listening.

So first let’s check if your listening ability is your top problem.

The is the simplified checklist I’ve given to learners.

Problem 1 – There are too many new words

This is what I was referring to above. The real problem is not necessarily your listening ability. Either you need to increase your vocabulary or choose easier listening materials.

Problem 2 – People speak too fast

Here I’m getting at the changes that happen in fast, natural speech. In English we use a lot of connected speech and miss out a lot of sounds.

Problem 3 – I can’t hear what people say

This is one of two things – the extreme version is where it’s just a stream of sounds and you can barely pick anything out.

Another problem might be that you’re unable to hear familiar words. This could again be because of changes we make to words when we say them in fast, natural speech.

Problem 4 – I can hear but I don’t understand

This is where you can hear a lot of words but you’re not getting the overall message, or you’re missing key words and so not understanding.

It might also be because you’re focusing too much on trying to hear and understand every word, instead of using listening strategies to compensate when you don’t hear everything (just like we do in our native language!)

Listening Processes

If you’re experiencing Problem 2 or 3, you’re struggling with what we call Bottom-Up listening processes. This relates to the very sounds of speech and this is where we need to focus to improve your listening.

If you’re experiencing Problem 4, you might benefit from working on what are called Top-Down listening strategies. This is where you draw on your existing knowledge, background and experiences (including borrowing from how you listen in your native language).

When we listen, we use both processes together (called interactive processing) in order to understand.

Over to you: Which of these listening problems is your number one issue?

This is the first post in a series on Listening. In the next article we’ll be looking at listening Problems 2 & 3 – issues with the sounds. Specifically I’ll be showing you a way to discover what problems you are having.

Check back next week for the next article, or subscribe so you don’t miss the notification!

Where to watch Vietnamese videos with subtitles

Last week I wrote that watching Vietnamese films or dramas as a beginner can be a fun way to immerse yourself in Vietnamese and help to attune your ear to Vietnamese. To make this enjoyable as a beginner, it’s best to watch the video with subtitles in a language you are fluent in (eg. English subtitles).

For elementary or intermediate learners who want to improve your listening or pick up new vocabulary, watching with Vietnamese subtitles can make native language material (which may be too fast or full of slang) accessible to you.

Here are 3 places you can find Vietnamese movies, films, dramas or short videos with either Vietnamese or foreign subtitles:

1. More Vietnamese’s “Vietnamese With Subtitles” playlist on YouTube (vi)

More Vietnamese youtube playlistI’ve put together a YouTube playlist of Vietnamese short films and other videos with Vietnamese subtitles.

Currently the playlist has 15+ videos and I’ll continue adding more as and when I find them.

2. Vietnamese movies and dramas on Viki.com (en, fr, es)

viki Fan-made subtitles for dramas and movies worldwide. Most Vietnamese videos on the site have been subbed in English, with a sizeable number also available in French. Update 2017: Videos no longer seem to available on viki.

Unfortunately the fans who make the English subtitles usually translate straight to English without putting up Vietnamese subtitles. So far I’ve used a VA to transcribe Episodes 2-4 of The Curse of Sapphire. For one-offs this is cheap but it would be quite expensive to do this for everything. If a few people chip in I’d be happy to arrange some more transcriptions.

3. 10 Vietnamese Movies with English Subtitles (en)

A blog post recommending 10 Vietnamese movies with English subtitles and with links to some of them on YouTube.

Over to you: Do you watch Vietnamese films or dramas? Do you find using subtitles useful? Would you like to see more Vietnamese videos with Vietnamese subtitles?

Is it worth watching Vietnamese films and TV shows when you’re a beginner?

If you watch a Vietnamese film or TV show when you’re a beginner, you’re obviously not going to understand it all. But is it still worth watching?

To be honest, I wasn’t convinced there was any value until recently. But then that all changed…

A short case study

I started learning Vietnamese as I arrived in Vietnam, so I’d never really thought about listening practice as a beginner because Vietnamese has been all around me from Day 1.

However, since the spring I’ve taken up Korean (again). I’m not surrounded by Korean, I don’t have any Korean friends and the only real listening practice I get is the one or two lessons I listen to each week at Talk To Me In Korean (TTMIK).

I do from time to time watch Korean dramas though. I’d watched them before I started learning Korean (simply because I enjoy them). As a total newbie I didn’t learn any vocabulary from watching them or understand anything at all. I was completely dependent on the translated subtitles and honestly, the dialogue was just background noise.

But last month something changed. It was the first time I watched a drama since finished TTMIK Level 1 and found myself able to pick out some words.

wait

기드리… wait? waiting? waited? He definitely said something about waiting.

Now, this doesn’t sound revolutionary but bear in mind that young children spend years listening to their native language before they start speaking. Gradually all that ‘noise’ they hear turns into words… Sound familiar?

Anyway, back to learning Vietnamese.

Will watching films teach me Vietnamese?

No, watching Vietnamese programmes (with foreign subtitles) as a beginner isn’t going to teach you to speak Vietnamese. But if you pay attention to the dialogue, you can start to pick out familiar words.

Singling out key or familiar words in a sentence is a skill you’ll use all the time when having conversations in Vietnamese. People will say things to you and you’ll miss or not understand half of what they say. Being able to use the words you heard to guess the meaning of the sentence is an vital skill that you’ll use over and over again as you have conversations in Vietnamese.

So…?

I watch Korean dramas because I like them. It’s an added benefit that I’m training my ear in a language I’m a beginner in.

However, watching dramas is not an efficient way to learn. If you only have an hour of free time, you’d be better off using that time to watch a Vietnamese lesson on Youtube and then practise what you just learnt.

But… if you’re going to watch a movie anyway, make it a Vietnamese one (occasionally at least). 😉

Over to you: Do you watch any Vietnamese TV shows or films? Do you find it useful listening practice?

Review: Language Master Key

Listening is absolutely crucial for language learners. Being able to understand the person you’re talking to means you can nod in agreement, respond, ask questions… ie. have a conversation and connect with people.

If you want to improve your conversation skills, this is where you should start.

But what’s the best way to practice listening? Is simply watching a YouTube video enough?

The e-book Language Master Key by Ron Gullekson presents a listening-based approach to learning.

Language Master Key

Ron draws on over 10 years of experience when he explains why sound is an essential part of language learning. Not only that, but the book is full of actual techniques you can use to practice the two forms of listening he identifies: free and active listening.

I had a lot of ‘a-ha’ moments when reading the book, but my favourite section is on active listening. While free listening can be great for beginners and high intermediate learners, I think people at the middle levels in particular can really benefit from a more hands-on approach. The chapter sets out, step-by-step, methods that you can start using today.

In truth the guide not only covers why and how you should listen to improve your language skills but also includes tips on vocabulary, speaking and general learning activities. The last chapter encourages you to follow a plan for 21 days.

Normally I don’t have a lot of patience reading on my computer but I zoomed through the first 30 pages without even realising it. The book is that easy to read!

While it used to be free, it’s now available on Amazon at a reasonable price.

Practice listening to authentic Vietnamese

For active listening you need to be able to understand a lot of what you hear. Here are our top suggestions for graded or easy to understand material.

For radio stations and/or materials for free listening practice, head to the Resource List.

Over to you: What role does listening play in language learning? Are you going to download Ron’s e-book?