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Foreign Language Transcription for Learning Listening Skills

Paul has spent a lifetime traveling and learning many languages. He is now conversant in Mandarin Chinese, Taiwanese, and Thai.

Students Doing a Listening Exercise


Foreign Language Transcription: a Language Listening Art

What is transcription? What is a transcriptionist? You've probably heard and seen these words before. By chance, you've met someone who was doing legal or medical transcription. Transcription is truly a language listening art. It is the process of listening to live or recorded voice language and producing a graphic or written representation of the voice. For example, in the field of medical transcription, it involves listening to physicians' recordings of patients' diagnoses and treatments and then producing in writing exactly what the doctor said. My sister is a medical transcriptionist and claims the work is not that easy. In addition to being up on the medical jargon used, there are often problems with accents and rapid rates of speech. My sister does English language medical transcription. When engaged in foreign language transcription, you are opening a can of worms because there are so many problems in producing an excellent transcript.

Problems Faced in Foreign Language Transcription

Transcription of foreign languages is much more difficult than the transcription of English. I say this because most people don't have native or near-native listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills in a foreign language. In being a top-notch transcriptionist or transcriber it is necessary to possess the following traits: excellent language skills; well-rounded subject matter knowledge; and a great deal of patience.

First, you must have sound knowledge of the language you are transcribing. This includes having excellent listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills. Besides hearing and understanding the voice you are transcribing, you must know the writing to put it down on paper. In the case of transcribing a foreign language, I am aware of the many problems encountered during my years of experience. Some of the problems with hearing and understanding voice will include:

1. Knowing the phonetics of the target language:

If you can't hear and distinguish the different vowel and consonant sounds in English or a foreign language, you'll never be a transcriptionist. It is mandatory to be able to differentiate between minimal consonant pairs such as d/t, p/b, l/r, g/k, and s/sh. In some languages like Thai, you must be able to hear an ng sound which is at the beginning of words and vowel sounds which English doesn't have.

2. Hearing tones:

Unlike English, Chinese Mandarin and Thai are tonal languages. Thai, for example, has five tones and different tones are assigned to different words in the language. The word, phi, for instance, could mean ghost or elder depending on the tone you use. As you can see, if you hear the wrong tone, you could have entirely different meanings.

3. Stress and Intonation:

If you are transcribing a non-tonal language like English, it is necessary to be aware of the stress on syllables in words and the intonation of sentences. An example of hearing the wrong stress on a syllable would be hearing nitrate instead of the night rate.

4. Contractions:

As in English, Chinese Mandarin uses contractions in its speech that sometimes present a problem to the untrained ear. For example, shen ma (what) is often spoken as sha and bu yong (it's not necessary) is uttered as beng. In the Thai language, dichan is often spoken as chan which means I or me.

5. English Spoken by Non-Native Speakers:

One of the hardest voices to transcribe is English mixed in with the foreign language you are transcribing. If you are not familiar with the Thai spoken language, you will find it strange that most Thais pronounce "HP" as "SP". A final "s" is also not pronounced in Thai, so the word mouse is pronounced as mow. Another example is English spoken by Chinese Mandarin speakers. I have heard "Upper Darby" pronounced as "Abu Dhabi" and Shirley pronounced as "silly".

6. Accented Speech:

Accented speech or speech with differences from standard pronunciation was always a problem for me when I was doing transcription. My first experience with real accented speech came when I moved from the American Midwest to the Baltimore area on the East coast. A few days after I moved, I picked up the phone to listen to a weather forecast recording. The recording was in the local Baltimore accent and so help me, for the first 15-30 seconds, I couldn't understand anything that was being said. There were significant differences in pronunciation where Bernie was pronounced as Barney for example. In Chinese Mandarin, the accents of Beijing, Shanghai, and Canton speakers were always very different due to the influence of their first dialect on standard Mandarin pronunciation.

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Hearing the language correctly is just the first step in transcription. The next step is producing a graphic account of the voice in the language which is being spoken. In doing this one must know the following:

1. The Alphabet or Characters of The Transcribed language:

If you are a medical transcriptionist in America, you obviously must know the English alphabet and know how to write words and sentences. Many languages like Thai have alphabets that are very different from the English alphabet. If you are transcribing one of these languages, you must know how to use the letters in the language to write words and sentences. Some languages like Chinese Mandarin use characters instead of an alphabet. A person must know how to write many characters and also how to combine them into words and sentences. You might ask why Mandarin can't be transcribed into the Pinyin romanization system and why romanization can't be used for Thai. The answer is because both Mandarin and Thai are tonal languages, and romanization in most cases can't render correctly the tone of the word which is key to its understanding.

2. How Chinese Characters Are Written and Used in Names:

When Chinese people are explaining their names to people in Chinese, they will not spell their name but rather describe it using Chinese characters or radicals which are the building blocks of characters. In addition to knowing how to understand and write surnames, a good Chinese transcriber will know how to write all of the radicals which could appear in a character. This is a very challenging task.

Subject matter and cultural knowledge and a great deal of patience and perseverance are other important problems in transcription. They will be addressed in my next article about foreign language translation.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn


Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on August 09, 2012:

Thank you very much for reading and your great comments.

KDuBarry03 on August 09, 2012:

Ah yes, phonemes and syntax are definitely important factors in language transcription. It is always important to understand that different languages call for different varied groupings of vowels and consonants. With that in mind, and because English has some high-contextual letters, transcriptions to English may always be difficult for others. Alas, though, English is the modern Lingua Franca.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on July 17, 2012:

Just me,

You are absolutely correct. If you do it, you really love it or you are a glutton for punishment at times.

Just me on July 17, 2012:

Transcription work is an awful job. Anyone with intelligence will soon realise they are worth more than this.

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