How to Transcribe: An Essential Skill in Foreign Language Learning

Transcription is simply the act of writing down what you hear. You’re not providing any analysis or interpretation, and you’re definitely not translating anything. All you’re doing is putting spoken words down on paper.

It’s pretty straightforward, sure. But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.

If you’re trying to learn a foreign language, transcription must be a part of your study routine. The act of transcribing forces you to pay very close attention to the spoken language. You can’t gloss over or ignore words, the way you can if you’re simply listening. This attention forces you to interact with a language at its root level.

Your initial transcriptions might be rough, but as you get better at transcribing, you’ll gain a more visceral sense of how the language is put together.

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Before you can get started, there are a couple things you need to have in place:

  • Knowledge of your language’s alphabet or writing system. Do NOT transcribe a foreign language using English letters.
  • A base level of knowledge about your language. I wouldn’t recommend transcribing anything significant until you have at least a month of studying under your belt.

Step 1: Find a spoken text with an answer key

Unfortunately, you can’t just transcribe stuff off the radio, because you won’t have any way to check your work. You have to find a text that someone has already transcribed (or a script that someone has read aloud) so that you can check your answers at the end.

Consider one of these sources:

  • A self-study foreign language course with a spoken component. Many language courses have a dialogue or narrative read out loud, with accompanying text in the book. If you’re looking for a free course, consider the Foreign Service Institute’s public domain courses here.
  • Songs and rap songs with lyrics available online. Popular songs, regardless of language, usually have their lyrics posed somewhere on the Internet. The risk is that the lyrics haven’t been transcribed correctly, since they’re often provided by users. But I wouldn’t throw away this treasure trove of transcribe-able audio just because the answer keysmaybe imperfect. Use these songs as study material and take the transcribed lyrics with a grain of salt.
  • RhinoSpike. RhinoSpike is a fairly new website where you can sign up for free and listen to recordings from native speakers. Most languages already have several transcriptions available. Also, you can upload (that is, copy/paste) text and request that native speakers read it out loud.
  • Children’s read-along books. These are books that help young children learn to read. A narrator reads the story aloud, while the child reads the accompanying text. If you want to see what I’m talking about, go to They provide several free videos in several languages. (Or you can try them out for free by going to YouTube and searching for “BookBox.”)

Whatever text you choose, make sure the text you transcribe is appropriate for your level. If you’re a beginner, for example, stay away from news reports and stick with language courses and read-along books.

You’ll want to transcribe about 30 seconds to a minute worth of audio in one session. That might take you anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour.

Step 2 – Listen to the entire text once.

Before you get started writing anything down, listen to the entire text (or more precisely, all of the text that you will be transcribing) once. Try to get an idea of what is going on. If you chose a text that was appropriate to your level, you should be able to get a gist of what is happening, or at least be able to pick out some key words.

Step 3 – Transcribe, line by line.

After you’ve listened through once, go back to the beginning of the audio and begin transcribing. Go word by word, sentence by sentence.

This is tedious work, but absolutely necessary. Some tips:

  • Use some kind of computer-based media player. Back in the Stone Age when I first began transcribing, I used a cassette player. I had to stop, pause, and rewind over and over again. That’s a nightmare. Use a media player on your computer to listen to files, such as Windows Media Player, iTunes, the YouTube player, or SoundCloud. The onscreen interface allows you to control the playback better than an MP3 player does.
  • Hand-write your transcription. Even if you get your keyboard set up for your target language, there’s a learning curve to learn how to type. Just save yourself some headache and hand-write your transcription instead of trying to memorize, say, a Japanese keyboard.
  • Use a dictionary. Even though the purpose of transcription is not translation, you still have to be clued in on what is going on. If you can sound out a word but don’t know what it means and don’t know how it’s spelled, try to look it up in a dictionary.
  • Be liberal with rewinding and replaying. There is no shame in replaying a section of text over and over again. Wrestle with the text a little bit, and then when you feel like enough is enough, make a guess and move on.
  • Try to form coherent sentences. Definitely write down what you hear, but also use your knowledge of the language to help you put the puzzle together. If someone transcribes, “The dog is mans best frend,” I know that they’re on the right track and just need a tune-up with spelling. But if they transcribe, “The doggis mans besfrend,” I know they’re totally lost. (And if you’re totally lost throughout the whole transcription, go back and choose an easier text.)

Step 4 – Check your answers

Check what you wrote against the answer key (explained in step 1). See what you got right, what you got wrong.

Then review your mistakes. Were they spelling errors, errors from a lack of grammar understanding, or something else? Take note of your mistakes and then make a note – mental or physical – to work on your weaknesses.

Wrapping Up

Transcription can definitely be a little tedious, but the rewards are worth it. If you work up to the point where you’re transcribing passages with a 95% character accuracy and 85% word accuracy, you are definitely on the right track.

At that rate, you’re probably also translating the texts pretty well. But even if you’re not, you have an innate sense of what’s going on, and you are well on your way to understanding the language.