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Transcribing Text: A Great Way To Get A Headstart Learning A Language

Daunted at the prospects of learning a new language? If you find following a formal lesson structure just a bit too daunting, the following technique offers a great way to familiarize yourself with a big chunk of the language. Stick to it and this could prove a great way to prepare yourself for formal lessons with your language software.

Who This Works For

Different people prefer different methods of learning. If you liked recording lectures in school and playing them back during review, this is probably an ideal way to get your first taste of the target language. If you listened to them while taking notes, this will probably suit you even better. Basically, if you learn well listening to audio lectures, this is a great way to get a quick grasp of the basic concepts surrounding a language.

Both beginners and intermediate learners looking for something fresh should find this a useful exercise. For novice speakers, this is a great way to get a more general view and feel for the language. For intermediate and advanced students, this offers a proactive way of practicing your listening skills and putting your active vocabulary to use. Additionally, it makes for a nice practice alternative, especially if you’re in a country where the target language is widely spoken.


Find a long piece of recorded audio in the target language, preferably one with a matching transcription. Speeches and monologues will be great, although you’ll probably have a hard time finding transcriptions for them. A better option will probably be an audio book (both a novel and a nonfiction volume will do), as you should be able to find a text version rather easily. Heck, you can probably buy both from Amazon at the same time. You don’t really need to purchase a book that you will like though (unless you want to), so just find something that’s available for cheap if you don’t want to spend too much money.

A music playback software with functions to slow down the audio will also be helpful. Titles with that feature are available on most any platform, whether you want to listen to your audio from a PC or a smartphone. Chances are, you’ll find slowing down the audio very useful, especially during the beginning when you might find a normal speaking pace just a bit too difficult to follow. It will also help if you can put markers on the audio, so you can return to right where you left off quickly, instead of having to forward and reverse every time to find the last part you listened to last time.

The Process

Listen to the audio and write down everything you hear. Yep, you’ll have no idea what you’re actually putting down, but that doesn’t matter — fake it till you make it. Don’t mind that you’re more than likely spelling everything wrong. The goal, at this point, is to get comfortable listening to the target language spoken, processing it in your head and figuring out what’s being said. Putting it down on paper completes the circle.

After finishing the entire audio, compare your transcripts to the text version. Note your mistakes for next time. Then, repeat the process over, trying to get it right the second time. Chances are, you’ll do better. Rinse and repeat.

Put It Down On Paper

You have two options in transcribing the text: you can type it on a computer or handwrite it with pen and paper. The first is fine, but the second is better. Writing stuff down old-school style forces you to slow down. Chances are, your mind is more focused when you work this way, compared to blitzing through the transcription when typing on a keyboard.

Remember: the goal is not to finish the audio you chose quickly. Instead, it’s to be able to transcribe the words you’re listening to as accurately as possible. As such, don’t be afraid to embrace the slow pace the pen and paper method promotes — it actually works in your favor.

Mental Stimulation

This process simulates the mental stimulation you can get from an actual conversation in the target language. While you won’t have to respond back like in a real exchange, you’ll have to engage your mind in what’s being said, focusing all your attention on it.

In-Depth Focus

When listening to audio in the target language, most people simply listen to context clues and keywords in order to understand what’s being said. You can’t quite do that here since you’ll have to write everything down with a pen and paper. Doing so forces you to understand what’s being said as accurately as possible, sentence per sentence and word per word. In fact, this is a great way to familiarize yourself with general grammar structures in the target language, especially with regards to where punctuations and certain articles normally go.

Details, Details

This form of exercise makes you pay attention to details — this word goes after that, that preposition substitutes for this noun and this synonym is actually used for this context. The details become impossible to ignore since you’re literally paying attention to every sound uttered and transcribing them to paper.

If you’re one of those averse to learning grammar, this works out great, too, since the process should expose you to the most common structures and forms the language uses. Simply put, you’ll get to focus on various details of the language that you otherwise probably won’t pay that much attention to.

Should You Do This?

We don’t recommend this technique for everyone. If you’re satisfied with your current classes or language software lessons, it will make good sense to stick with those. Jumping to a new technique like this can work to both spike your interest and improve your learning, but it could also end up breaking your erstwhile positive rhythm.

Those who are struggling with their current learning methods, though, will probably be served well by this, giving students a way to learn the language in a manner that’s personal and focused. Same with those who are bored with their current lessons and plateauing in their results — this could be just the boost needed to inject some new life into your training.

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