Transcription – Helps with the Little Words

So on Monday this week we had our first class for the year, for our course Te Aupikitanga. As is usual for these kinds of things, we all had to go round and introduce ourselves. And I noticed an interesting thing, which is that some people were missing out particles, the little grammar words like i, and ki. 

Now, the interesting thing is not so much that they were doing this – speaking on the spot in a second langauge can definitely make you miss out a few, if not many, words – but rather that I noticed it, and I think this might be due to the practice I was getting with my transcription work.

What often happens, when I’m listening to te reo Māori can be shown in this English example:

  • I (am) go(ing) (to) the shop (to) buy some chip(s)

So what I frequently hear is just the key words like “I go the shop buy some chip” and I don’t register all the grammatical points in brackets. (As you can see, in a relatively uncomplicated example, you can still get plenty of information to understand the sentence.) What happened on Monday is that I was listening and thinking, why do they keep missing out words?! Which is great – because previously I would never have known they were missing out words because I usually didn’t fully register all the words anyway!

I think that by working on transcription, where I had to write down every single word and couldn’t get away with just “I go the shop buy some chip”, where I kept rewinding to check if that was i or ki, has helped train my brain to pay attention to and listen to those “little words” (at least a bit – we still have some way to go yet).

So, I think that if you notice that in your own listening you are missing certain things, try to really focus on practising hearing those things. I think that actually writing it down is better than thinking “oh, I’ll just listen harder” because there’s not much motivation there for your brain to do the work (brains are naturally lazy, this is an actual science fact). If you write it down, it knows it actually has to make an effort and can’t fake it. For this kind of exercise, you don’t need to be able to check if you’re correct – and you don’t even need to understand what’s being said! – because you are only focusing on training your brain to hear and pay attention.

Let me know if you have had any similar experiences (in any language)!


What You Hear vs What’s Really There

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!

I have maybe noticed my listening has improved?

My listening ability in te reo is probably my worst thing – it seems I generally hear just an occasional verb or noun, and I definitely miss almost all of the actual grammar parts, and generally get distracted for whole chunks. So unless I can put together a general idea using context – which is fine in most real situations but not in assessments – then I have no idea what’s going on.

I was intending to work on listening skills properly this year… but I haven’t.

Despite this, I noticed this weekend (at the noho) that I was processing the speech of our teacher as sentences. So, what I mean is that instead of it kind of coming in to my mind as words that had to be put together, it was coming in as whole sentences. They were fairly short, simple sentences, but the point is that my brain seemed to be processing them as a whole concept.

One of the things that is tricky when learning a language is that words might be coming in in a different order than you’re used to – so you can’t just do a literal translation word-for-word in your head because it doesn’t always make sense. And particularly with long sentences or multiple clauses, you wonder how you are supposed to remember what happened at the start, so that you can match it up with what’s happening at the end. There’s too much going on if you have to remember all the different bits, and translate them, and then maybe alter the translations based on the context of what comes in later, and then put it all together at the end. Magically, when you understand a language properly (for example, your own first language), it seems that you understand each word of a sentence as it comes, despite not knowing what’s coming up. But really I think you must be processing the sentence (or rather, each phrase) as a whole at the end, while seeming to experience it in real time.

And so because of this, I think that this is a big, although perhaps subtle, breakthrough! I don’t think I just suddenly started processing whole (short) sentences on Saturday, but rather that because there were a lot of short, simply structured sentences in a row, I started to notice my ability to understand them. What’s more, I was able to notice that I could understand them, and still understand them! I sat there and I could understand what she was saying at the same time that I was thinking, “well, this is interesting, I’m translating whole sentences. Look, I’m still doing it. This seems new.” What I think this means is that listening wasn’t taking all of my brain power and attention, and was instead happening automatically in some kind of special “language processing” layer, rather than “conscious thought” layer.

This stuff is tough to write about because I don’t know if it makes sense to anyone else and I don’t know if we’re all operating from the same frame of reference – because who really knows how anyone else thinks?! But let me know in the comments if you remember any of your own language listening breakthroughs 🙂



When do I get a listening epiphany?

Often when you hear people talking about learning a language, they describe a moment when they “just suddenly understood what people were saying”. Realistically this is not usually a permanent switch from not understanding to understanding, but rather something that happens multiple times in multiple occasions, as the ability comes and goes.

I have not had this experience.

I have not had really anything like this experience, and I regularly seem to understand very little of what people are saying in my target language, te reo Māori. Even when I understand a whole paragraph or conversation, it’s actually just that I picked up a bunch of verbs and nouns and extrapolated really well from the context of the discussion. Sometimes I can translate whole sentences. Sometimes I can “understand” an isolated word or word-phrase without translation.

I wonder what it will be like to understand another language. What will it sound like, when I understand it? Will it just “sound” like English does, in that it doesn’t exactly sound like words but “sounds” like meaning? If I simply “understand”, how do I know which language it is I’m listening to? I would really like to have this experience, and sometimes when I’m not sure why I’m even doing this anymore, that’s my driving motivation – I just want to know what it’s like to understand this language!