Tutorial: Piece by Piece Dictation

Using Audacity to do Japanese listening dictation

In my opinion, to master a language you need two things, language knowledge and language skills. And the ways of acquiring these two things are completely different. Language knowledge relies a lot on memorization, so SRS is a great tool for language knowledge. While language skills need to be picked up in a different way.

The language skills that are tested on for the JLPT are listening and reading. If you are currently living outside of Japan, statistically speaking you are going to have a harder time with listening on the JLPT. This is probably because you just aren’t going to get the same amount of natural exposure that those of us living in the country get. So, you will inevitably need to focus on it a little more.

Listening skills are pretty important for the test in general and obviously for real life. After all, you have to know what people are asking before you can answer it correctly. But, how did you get the most out of your listening?

Intensive vs. Extensive

There are two kinds of listening practice you can do: intensive and extensive. Intensive listening is probably something that you are used to doing if you’ve been studying Japanese for awhile. This is where you listen to a usually short recording and try to catch 95% of everything that is said. You try to understand all the words, grammar, and phrases. You might listen to the recording a few times to understand everything as well.

Extensive listening is the opposite of intensive. This involves listening to longer pieces and the objective isn’t to understand every single word, but more like the overall ideas in the recording. You might listen to the piece only once like if it’s a TV show or a podcast for example. The idea is to gain more exposure and a better feel for vocabulary and grammar you already know, but haven’t quite mastered yet.

Both styles of practice are actually necessary in order to become a great listener. Extensive is better for comprehension, vocabulary usage, learning some new words and fluency. While intensive is good for checking grammar, learning new words, practicing your accent, and discovering structure mistakes. To become a great listener, it is a good idea to blend both of these together.

Choose the Appropriate Material

One of the best ways to learn a language is by listening or reading material that is just slightly more difficult than your current level. This is usually called “comprehensible input.” Generally speaking, you should try to aim for a piece that you understand most of the main points of and has about 2 or 3 new words every minute or so.

In reality though, it can be slightly difficult to find native recordings that match that criteria. Resources specifically designed for Japanese learners, like JapanesePod101 or graded readers (the ones with the frog have audio with them), do have these steps to them and are useful for gradually stepping up your learning. But, native materials can be useful, too. A good blend of both is best.

The key for this particular activity though is that it must have a script. This will help you double-check your handy work. JapanesePod101‘s basic and premium subscriptions include scripts, so do the graded readers of course, but you can also use jDramas or songs. Most of the podcasts I’ve listened to don’t have a word for word script unfortunately. So podcasts are usually not a good idea. If you do know of any that do have scripts please let me know in the comments.

When you first start practicing dictation, the recording you choose for this should be fairly short. But, you can take something longer (like a jDrama) and cut it down, or a song. The point is to make it short and sweet (at first) to keep yourself motivated. You should obviously challenge yourself with longer and longer pieces as you get better and better.

Piece by Piece Dictation

Dictation gets a bad rap for being a boring drilling exercise, but it does have its uses. On the surface, it just seems like an old school drilling process that should have been left in the dark ages of language learning with the days of rote memorization and hours of translation. But it will improve your listening skills, let’s take a quick look at what makes a good listener to understand how dictation fits in.

When receiving listening input, the stream of information is coming at you at a steady unstoppable pace. Compare this to reading where you can slow down or speed up as much as you like. This unstoppable flow for listening though, means that your brain has to anticipate what is coming next as well as fill in gaps that you weren’t focused on or didn’t hear properly.

In other words, you have to intuit or feel the grammar structures and phrases. You don’t have time to stop and think about each little piece. You need to know it automatically.

When you are doing dictation, you are checking how much of the grammar structures and vocabulary you know automatically without having to think about it in your head. That’s why I feel dictation is perfect for discovering the holes in your grammar, that you need to review.

Today, I’m going to go over how to use a program called Audacity to help you do dictation piece by piece. Audacity is a piece of multiplatform, free, fairly easy to get up and running, audio editing software. I actually use it to publish the podcast every month.

1. Start Audacity

2. Open up a piece of audio you want to practice with. Audacity currently doesn’t like .m4a, so you will have to convert it to MP3 if you want to use it for dictation.

3. You might want to run the compressor filter on it before practicing. This will make it easier for you to hear speech. Filter → Compressor.

4. Then select the section of the track you’d like to practice. Try to get a whole sentence if you can.

5. The first time you listen to the section of the recording try to write down everything you hear. Take some time to consciously think about the structure of the sentence. Is there something missing? Is this grammatically correct? Make guesses as to what could be missing if anything.

6. Listen again to double-check your dictation. Try to limit the amount of times you re-listen to the selection. The idea is to understand what your brain can’t automatically get.

7. Continue through the recording until you’ve transcribed everything.

8. Double check your dictation with the script.

9. Take the time to consciously think about the mistakes you made and that the correct answer is. Taking a little extra time to do some research or look up some example sentences can really make it click and ‘repair’ the bad wiring in your head.

Try it Out

Give this method a try and tell me what you think in the comments.

This post is an excerpt from the latest update to the JLPT Study Guide Kit. Inside the kit, you can find more tips about:

  • How to make more difficult listening pieces easier.
  • How to check if you have spot on rhythm and intonation without a native speaker
  • How to practice speaking way too fast so you can speak more smoothly at regular speed.
  • How to do dictation on your iPhone.
{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Jerry Walton-Pratcher July 20, 2013, 5:29 pm

    I have just finished reading this post and I do really find this program for those like me taking the N1 from outside Japan to be pretty essential. I have already made a couple of scripts from NHK podcast news. I’m considering uploading the scripts but I still wonder if I should? Is there a specific community where N1 people upload their scripts? or should I use my page for that?

    • Clayton MacKnight July 22, 2013, 2:06 am

      Good question, there isn’t a community that I know of that has scripts. I wouldn’t think there would be any big sites that would want to deal with that because of copyright issues that might arise. Your own blog might be a good idea though.

  • Jerry Walton-Pratcher July 20, 2013, 5:30 pm

    In any case, thanks for the post. It is very informing!

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