What Is Dictation & How Can You Use It To Understand Native Speakers?
by Olly Richards
In this post, you'll learn some great ways to improve your listening skills and understand native speakers in a foreign language using one of the oldest teaching methods of all – dictation!
So, what is dictation…seriously?
You're probably picturing a Victorian grammar school, with an old headmaster-type reading aloud lines from a Latin textbook, lines of students in caps writing down every word he says onto chalk slates, desperately trying to keep up.
Dictation is seriously old-school. It has no place in language learning in the 21st Century, right?
I think we have a tendency to dismiss old things rather too easily, for no other reason than that they're old, especially in the age of the internet. And dictation can certainly be one of those things. Ask a teacher if they use dictation and see what response you get 🙂
….active after the dictation as they reflect on what they heard and try to make sense of it, possibly correcting some bits where what they've written doesn't make sense.
So while it may seem like an outdated exercise, there's a lot going on in the head.
And those kids probably had to do this day-in, day-out for years.
What if you did that?
What kind of listening skills would you develop if, on a regular basis, you sat and copied out what you heard in French, Spanish or Chinese?
Dictation For Improving Listening Skills
Mad listening skills! 🙂
Have another look at the list of bullet points above. Do those sound like skills you'd like to develop in your target language?
I like dictation because it really makes you work. If you have a tendency to be a bit lazy in your language learning (hello inconsistency villain!), maybe spending a bit too much time watching foreign language movies, dictation will give you a much-needed kick up the backside and get the cogs working.
What you get is an intense focus on spoken language, and a great answer to the question: “How can I understand native speakers?”.
How To Understand Native Speakers
The mistake that a lot of people make about understanding native speakers is to think that it's just a question of knowing the words (i.e. if you know enough words, you'll understand what they say).
But if you've tried to understand native speakers in another language, you'll know that's not the case!
It's really common to feel like you know the words they're using, but you just can't quite get it.
You need a lot more than the words alone to be able to understand a native speaker. You need to be able to hear how words change when they're said in full sentences, and at full speed.
For example, try saying the following sentence aloud:
“I wish I was inside again.”
To someone who's studying English, how many separate words would they hear?
Chances are all they would hear is one big mess! 🙂 It's really tough because many of those words, when you say them at natural speed, are joined together: “I wish_I was_inside_again”.
Connected speech is the real key to understanding native speakers, and dictation is the mother of activities to get better at this because you're forced to listen to every little word. When you're face-to-face with a native speaker, you don't have the time to drill down into every word.
But with dictation you do.
And that's why you should be using it if you want to improve your ability to understand native speakers.
How To Do It On Your Own
This isn't rocket science! You don't need a teacher to read lines to you.
Pick some audio or video that you've been watching recently – something you enjoy and would really like to be able to understand
Choose a short segment of that – maybe one scene from a TV drama or even a short, 30-second monologue. (Obviously without subtitles!)
Your mission: write down on paper every single word that is said.
You might have to listen 10 times. You might have to listen 100 times. I transcribed a whole episode of a Japanese drama once – it took about 3 weeks and half-killed me, but it was worth it!
How can you check it once you've finished (or when you get stuck)?
If it's short, post it to Rhinospike.com and some nice person will transcribe it for you. If it's a bit longer, post a job on upwork.com and pay someone to transcribe it. It can be surprisingly affordable. I recently got a virtual assistant to transcribe an entire 45-minute episode of a Cantonese drama transcribed for less than US$20.
Alternatively, if you have a language partner or a teacher you can ask them to write it out for you.
Start Using Dictation In Your Language Learning
Now you know the answer to your initial “what is dictation?” question, try it for yourself! A word of warning though – this can be quite tough, intense work. You will probably feel like giving up 10 minutes after starting! For that reason, I recommend you start with only a short 1-2 minute piece of audio.
But, of course…
The toughest things in life bring us the biggest rewards.
Regular dictation like this will quickly improve your ability to understand native speakers.