I am doing some transcribing work at the moment, transcribing some recordings in te reo Māori. I really wonder how much what I’m writing matches what’s really there… Some of it is fine – there are various types of phrases which are definitely what I think they are. They’re familiar enough, despite my relatively limited experience, to be easily, sub-consciously recognised by my brain for what they are – not necessarily the meaning, but the combination of sounds. There’s probably another type of stuff that my brain doesn’t know but that it is interpreting correctly by directly identifying the sounds that make up the words. And then there’s the last type.
This is best illustrated by when I was transcribing a song. I wrote down what I thought I heard, and then I tried looking it up to see if I could find the words. I found a different version of the song – fairly different in details of sentence construction, but all the major words and names were there. So I read that and listened to the song again and although some of it was fine, woah, some of it was SO different. But once I knew what the words were supposed to be, that’s what it sounded like, and it was so obvious. Even though 10 seconds before it had sounded radically different – suddenly I could correctly delineate the words, identify the previously unintelligible sounds and distinguish between similar consonants.
This to me makes two important points. One is that it is very important to be exposed to a lot of different speech – real people, recordings, TV, etc – when learning in order to load your brain up with those first type of sentences that it can easily recognise as set word combinations and phrases. Just having heard various words before, and particularly hearing them in context with other words (for example hearing “ka (verb)”, a correct verbal construction), enables you to process them when you hear them again.
Secondly, I think it would be really beneficial to practice listening to things a few times, then reading a transcript, and then listening again, in order to help develop your ear, and to train your brain by providing it with feedback (as opposed to never getting feedback, a more common occurrence). This kind of material is very difficult to find however. In Te Whanake, if you get hold of the teacher’s manuals, then you can get a few transcripts for some of the listening exercises, but that’s about it. On many language learning websites they recommend getting a book both as an audio book and text, and finding movies with captions or transcripts (which are supposedly easily available as they have to be produced by law in various countries), but I haven’t been able to find either in te reo Māori – let me know in the comments if you know of any!