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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.


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?

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?

Improve your pronunciation in 10 steps

Record yourself

Record yourself. Credit.

Every language learner wants to, or should want to, improve your pronunciation.

Here’s a technique I picked up while teaching English in Vietnam: how to noticeably improve your pronunciation in just 15 minutes.

Read this in: en – vieo

What you need

  • A short recording of a native speaker either talking or reading a short text. (I’d recommend 200 words maximum.)
  • A transcription of this recording. I like to have it printed out with double spacing so I have room to make notes, mark pauses etc.
  • A recording device (your computer, phone etc).

10 steps to improve your pronunciation using recordings

  1. Listen to the native recording.

    Listen to how the native is speaking and the rhythm they use.

  2. Record yourself reading the transcript.

    You can read it through a couple of times but there’s no need to practice at this stage.

  3. Listen to and compare the native recording and your recording.

    Listen out for pronunciation differences and make a note of them.

  4. Practice these problem sounds and words.

    Imitate the pronunciation of the native speaker. Practice repeating individual problem sounds. Try techniques such as backchaining for problem words.

  5. Listen to the native recording and mark where the speaker pauses.

    There will be short pauses (eg. to breathe) and long pauses (such as the end of a sentence). Noting this will help you say each sentence with a correct rhythm.

  6. Mark the stress.

    If your language has stressed words within a sentence (like English, Spanish, etc), listen to the native speaker again and mark these stresses. There isn’t an exact science to this, just mark it where you hear it. You probably need to play the native recording twice.

    Annotate your transcript

    Make notes on your transcript to help improve your rhythm and stress.

  7. Practice reading the transcript with these corrections and modifications.

    You may wish to play the recording and mumble along (like when you’re listening to a song and singing under the breath, or when you don’t know all the words) to practice the timing and build up to recording yourself.

  8. Record yourself again.

  9. Listen to the difference in your first and second recordings.

    Congratulate yourself on how much you’ve improved already!

  10. Share your recording

    Share this second recording with a native speaker to get more feedback on what else you need to correct.

To increase the impact, do this again tomorrow with another recording! After all, it only takes 15 minutes.

Want to challenge yourself? Get your materials ready and make a 30 day challenge of it!

Over to you: How do you improve your pronunciation? Are you going to try this method?

4 ways to make the most of class time

Making the most of class timeI like attending classes. Some people prefer the structure it provides while others like self-study or learning by listening. For me a combination of these methods, using a mixture of focus and chaos, works best.

So, what can you do to ensure you’re making the best use of your time with a teacher?

1. Only speak Vietnamese

It’s scary at first, but it pushes you to learn because you have to think how to explain a word you’re missing rather than flipping back to English all the time. Sometimes you’re going to speak to someone who can’t speak English so you might as well get used to thinking around the problem.

While sticking to only speaking your target language, by all means use gestures and actions to help describe something. I certainly do.

Moreover, don’t be afraid of making mistakes when you speak in classes but rather welcome them as they’re a chance to learn. Once you’ve slipped up once you’ll remember never to make that particular mistake again. I like practicing new vocab and structures in the classroom because I get this feedback. My friends often don’t tell me when I’m wrong which means I’ll keep repeating the mistake until I am corrected.

2. Prepare for class

At first I didn’t do much with the course material before or after class. Then I had a classmate who spoke a little Vietnamese and even less English and so couldn’t easily understand the teacher’s explanations in class. He had to look up all the words he didn’t know before coming to class. I tried this myself and found the benefits worth the effort. Here’s my reasoning:


  • You feel more confident. There’s nothing worse than going to class and feeling bombarded by too much new material. You’ve already got a head start on the new vocabulary.
  • Fewer words are totally new to you, so you can focus more on how to say and use them correctly.
  • By looking words up in the dictionary, you’re involved in learning so you’re more likely to remember them than if you just listen to your teacher’s explanation.


  • It’s boring and takes a lot of time (read below for a way to streamline your approach).
  • The meanings of words aren’t always clear, especially when word has more than one meaning or there are compound words (when you need two words together for it to actually have meaning, eg. đại học). It can be difficult to know what to look up in the dictionary when you have 3-4 words you don’t know in a row. However, even if you don’t find all of the new words, you’ve still found more than you knew before and you’ve got the rest marked out to ask your teacher about.

As it’s not particularly interesting, I timebox my approach. First I take 5 minutes to read through the next part of the book and simply underline all the words I don’t know. Later in the day, or even the next, I take 10-15 minutes go back and look up the words I’ve underlined. Following this method, I’d say I have the general idea of 60-70% of new vocabulary before I go to class, for just 15-20 minutes work two or three times a week.

3. Learn vocab after class

Once you’re clear on your vocabulary’s meaning and how to use it, make flashcards and learn it. Practice using it in conversations and your writing. It’s important to do this after class, not before, as to ensure you don’t a word incorrectly and then have to undo that and relearn it later. (You really want to avoid this!)

How does learning new vocabulary after class help you to make the most of class time? Simple, it reduces the need for repetition of material you’ve already covered. Next time the word comes up you will know it, the teacher won’t need to explain it again and everyone can move on.

The final, and most important thing, you can do to ensure you’re getting your money’s worth from your classes is to ask the teacher questions.

4. Ask questions

If you’re like me, it might sometimes feel awkward or embarrassing to raise your hand in class and ask a question. You might prefer to wait until the teacher pauses or invites questions, or ask privately in the break time. All of these are fine – just make sure if you want to know something, that you do ask your teacher!

By preparing for class as above, you should have already have some things you want the teacher to clarify. If they don’t cover your question in their explanation or examples, ask while the topic is still relevant. Your question, and the teacher’s answer, can help other students too.

You don’t have to limit it just to what you’re studying, keep a list and ask your teacher any question about the language or even questions about the culture of Vietnam.

A teacher’s secret: I like it when my students ask questions. It shows they’re smart and serious about learning, and that I’m doing my job well because they feel comfortable asking me lots of questions.

Access to a teacher, an expert in what you’re learning, is the whole point of taking classes. Any native speaker can (usually) correct you, help make your speech more natural and many other things, but they don’t know the ins and outs of their own language. A good teacher does.

In summary: Ways of making the most of class time

My four top tips are: only speak Vietnamese (or whatever language you’re learning) in the classroom, prepare for class, learn vocab after class and ask your teacher questions.

2 ways of translating words that aren’t in the dictionary

Sometimes you come across a word that you can’t find in the dictionary. Perhaps you’ve tried explaining to a native speaker but you’re not able to describe the exact word you’re aiming for.

What to do?

1. Use Wikipedia

For example, I wanted to know what the skin condition ‘eczema’ was in Vietnamese. I brought up the English Wikipedia page for eczema, then scrolled down to the Languages section of the side bar and selected Vietnamese. This brought up the equivalent page and there it is: viêm da (though actually this seems to be skin conditions in general).

2. Find a picture, then ask a native

Sadly, the Vietnamese Wikipedia is lacking a few articles. Another method I’ve used is pulling up a google image of what I want to describe or drawing a sketch, then showing it to a native speaker and asking what it was.

crochet is đan móc

Crochet is đan móc

Over to you: What do you do when you can’t find a word in the dictionary?