Table of contents
In a nutshell, transcription means listening and writing down what you hear. What could be simpler?
But if you want to get the most benefits from this simple activity, let us show you why it’s important and different methods that you can use.
You will find that transcription is hard, but fun. It’s a fully active way of learning that you can use to engage ALL your language skills - if you do it effectively.
The challenges of listening in English
Let’s say that you listen to two native speakers talking to each other. You’ll probably find that they speak really fast.
Most English learners would find it too hard to understand the entire conversation. Yet, that’s an important goal - to understand fast, native spoken English.
Listening is difficult in any language, but English has its own particular difficulties.
For example, English contains many reduced forms. These are words like gonna, wanna, hafta and so on. Take a look at the following sentence in written English and fast, informal, spoken English:
Written English: I am going to leave now.
Spoken English: I’mma leave now.
The reduced form is so different from the formal sentence! And it gets worse…have a look at another example:
Written English: I would have told him.
Spoken English: I’d’a told him.
In addition, English is not spoken at a uniform speed - important parts of a sentence are spoken slowly and unimportant parts are spoken quickly.
For example, in the following sentence, the underlined part is spoken more quickly:
It cost me $3000, you know what I mean?
In English, we stress important words (content words) and we don’t stress less important words. This includes grammar words, such as a have and had. You may find yourself wondering if a speaker said, “I’ve been there” or “I’d been there”. This affects your ability to improve your grammar.
In English, we speak in chunks of language at a time, which can be confusing to learners. How do you know where to pause between words?
Is it [the • cat sat on • the mat]?
Or [the cat • sat • on the mat]?*
*Answer: it’s [the cat • sat • on the mat]
The solution: transcription
We’ve looked at the challenges that you face when listening to English speech. Now, here comes the good news: transcription can help you with all of these issues.
Usually, when you practise listening - by, say, watching an English TV show, you’re listening for the main ideas. You need to understand the main ideas so that you get the gist of the show. You’re not thinking of grammar or sentence stress or understanding every word; you’re engaging with the language on a superficial level
Transcription is the polar opposite.
When you transcribe audio, you’re ignoring the main ideas and fully focused on the details. It gives you a chance to think about the grammar (e.g. which preposition follows which verb) and where the pauses come in each sentence.
You’ll hear all of the reduced forms. You’ll force yourself to consider whether George said, “I’ve” or “I’d”. This connects your listening skills to your grammar knowledge. It also helps you to say it correctly when you speak. So, you are actually practising listening, grammar and speaking!
Transcription of podcasts, TV shows or talks is a great stepping stone activity to get you closer to your goal of understanding fast, native speech.
Language learners who have tried this technique have reported great results, and this is backed up by research. In one study, listening test results improved by around 15% when students had studied using transcription.
Furthermore, working with transcripts is a rare and excellent opportunity to see spoken English in written form.
Who should be doing transcription?
Transcription activities are for anyone who wants to improve their listening. Transcription activities in general are very useful for all levels from elementary to advanced. The activities described below are great for intermediate and upper-intermediate level.
These activities are especially good for learners who need to listen to native English speech - and this includes TV shows, YouTube videos or anywhere that native English is spoken.
In short, it’s great for any English learner, and I feel it is an activity you should try regularly, as part of your English study routine.
How to choose materials to transcribe
We don’t want to transcribe actual conversations between two or more speakers. This is a “stepping stone” activity, so let’s keep it simple.
Here are three suggestions for source materials:
- A podcast with a transcript - of course, we recommend our own podcast, English Learning for Curious Minds. It is perfect for transcription practice, as it comes with all of the materials you need (transcript, subtitles, and even a vocabulary list).
- TED talks - TED.com is a great tool for listening activities, featuring long or short talks on many fascinating topics. Each talk comes with a transcript.
- A TV show of your choice. Make sure that you are able to find a transcript using a site such as Simply Scripts.
When choosing one of these sources, consider the following:
- How fast does the speaker talk? Some people talk faster or have unusual accents and others and will therefore be harder to transcribe. Choose a speaker where you can understand most of what is said.
- Are you familiar with the topic? The transcription will be easier if it is a topic familiar to you.
- How formal is the language? If it is more formal, you can expect to encounter more new vocabulary.
- If you choose a TV show, something with a single speaker (such as a documentary) is recommended.
- If you’d like something simple and fun, episodes of Peppa Pig are freely available on YouTube and you can also easily find the transcripts. The characters use simple English and speak slowly and clearly. It’s aimed at children, after all.
What you’ll be practising when you do a transcription activity
One of the best things about transcription is that it gives you a chance to practise multiple skills at the same time.
You’ll be practising listening. In particular, you’ll be listening for details.
You’ll be practising grammar and vocabulary, because you will be taking note of new words, phrases or language structures that you can then explore.
Finally, you’ll be practising speaking, because you can also record yourself rereading the transcript. This will help you pay attention to speed, enunciation, word stress and sentence stress. I’ll explain these in detail in the next section.
Three techniques for practising transcription
Here, I’m going to outline three different techniques for transcribing. The second one requires a little more effort than the first and the last one requires the most effort.
You can choose which one works best for you.
Method 1: Basic transcription
Our most basic method follows these steps:
- Choose an audio clip of about 3 minutes. It can be a three-minute section of a longer audio clip.
- Listen once all the way through. This will help you get the main ideas of the clip.
- Rewind and play short sections of the audio at a time (5-10 seconds). Write down exactly what you hear.
- Feel free to go back and listen again if you didn’t understand something. However, if you can’t catch what is said after a few listens, skip it and go on to the next part.
- Compare your version of the transcript to the original transcript of the audio clip. How many sentences did you get 100% correct? You can use this as a benchmark for the next time you practise.
If you used a short section of a longer audio clip, continue with the next part during your next study session.
Method 2: Add a speaking activity
Let’s add some speaking. When you take the time to record the transcript yourself, you will be paying close attention to the speed, tone and pronunciation of the text - especially if you are trying to match the original speaker. Seeing how a word is written, after hearing it spoken, will help you understand how pronunciation works, without learning tedious rules.
Steps 1-5 are the same as for our basic method, but we will add a speaking activity in steps 6-8:
- Take the original transcript and record yourself reading it aloud. Try to match the speed and tone of the original speaker.
- Listen to the recording and give yourself a rating out of 10, based on how close it is to the original audio.
- [BONUS] If you would like, you can upload your recording to speech recognition software such as Speechnotes. This tool will attempt to transcribe your speech, and give an independent evaluation of your speaking skills. It will even check your grammar for you!
Method 3: The Perfectionist
Repetition is a powerful technique in language learning. We learn better when we repeat words, phrases and activities. For our third method, our aim is to use repetition to improve our accuracy by learning from previous mistakes.
Our goal is toWith our third method, our goal is to learn from previous mistakes and to keep going until we can get our transcription 100% correct, or as close as possible.
Steps 1-5 are the same as for our basic method, but we will add a “second round”:
- Study the mistakes you made in your first transcription.
- Start the activity again (either on the same day or during your next study session). This time, try to get the transcript 100% correct. Try a third time if you like.
Some further tips
Some transcripts reflect exactly what the speaker said, including filler words like “um…”, “er…” and so on. If the speaker says, “gonna”, the transcript says “gonna” and not “going to”.
This is unimportant for what we want to practise - you don’t need to transcribe filler words and shortened forms.
With a prepared talk, like a documentary, you can expect most or all of the sentences to be grammatically and structurally correct, and this makes for good practice.
However, with an unprepared talk, such as a podcast where two hosts discuss something, don’t expect sentences to be structurally correct.
Furthermore, you might find that the hosts get over-excited and talk on top of each other, or talk very quickly. This is why I recommend sticking to a podcast or show with a single speaker.
When selecting a podcast or talk for difficulty, try to choose one where you can understand 80% or more on your first listen. If you find a speaker or podcast that you like, stick with it and practise with further episodes.
Is there a way to slow down a podcast just a little bit, to make it easier to understand?
Yes! If you use Google Podcasts to play a podcast, you can slow it down using the feature shown below. Just look for the button next to the volume icon. Most podcast players will have similar functionality. You can also find this functionality when listening to English Learning for Curious Minds.
Don’t think of this as “cheating”. You should always make use of any tool or technique to help you learn. As you get more familiar, you can continue to increase the speed to a “normal” speed.
If you want to give yourself a real challenge, you can even increase it to faster than “normal”...
Hard… is good
Here is one final point.
I mentioned that you should choose an audio clip where you can understand 80% or more on the first listen-through. You may still find that the transcription is very hard and you may especially find that you make lots of “small” mistakes, such as writing “have” instead of “had”.
Here’s the thing: the harder it is, the more you need this kind of activity. If you make a lot of mistakes, that shows that you need to strengthen your ability to listen for details. You need to persevere.
The good news is that the more you work on this skill, the easier it gets. Soon, you will find that you are a master transcriber. And you will surely see the benefits in your English comprehension and speech.