Paul has spent many years teaching English as a foreign and second language. He has taught EFL in Taiwan and Thailand, and ESL in the U.S.
Why Is Transcription Important?
In a previous article, Foreign Language Listening Skills: A Look at Transcription, I explained in detail the importance of knowing well the language you are transcribing. I also listed potential language problems and stumbling blocks. This article will discuss the crucial importance of subject matter knowledge and the actual transcription process which can be applied in EFL and ESL teaching and learning.
Why is transcription necessary? Unlike written words, the voice is fleeting and quickly forgotten or misunderstood if not recorded. This is because many people don't pay attention to what they hear. If we have recorded speech, we can transcribe it and fully analyze its meaning just like written language.
Subject Matter Knowledge
The importance of subject matter knowledge cannot be overstated when doing transcription. A person with no or limited knowledge of a topic will find it very hard to make heads or tails of its meaning, even if he or she can hear all of the sounds of the language. For example, it would be extremely difficult for a person who does not know computers to comprehend the conversation of two people who are talking about debugging a computer program.
Patience and Perseverance
Finally, a lot of patience and perseverance are needed during the transcription process, especially in transcribing foreign language voices. In many ways, producing an excellent coherent transcript is like putting a puzzle together. Some words and ideas you will hear and understand immediately. Other words will have no meaning to you, and at worst, there will be missing words that you can't hear and understand due to extremely accented speech. Based on seeing the whole picture first and educated guesses, it is necessary to put everything together just like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This can be a very frustrating process, and it demands much patience and perseverance on the part of the transcriber.
The Voice Language Analysis Process
Voice language analysis entails listening to a recorded speech, transcribing it into its written form, and then translating the written form into English or some other language. In this article, I will go into the mechanics of transcription and leave the art of translation to another article. In voice language analysis, the following procedure is usually followed by a good transcriber:
Pre-listening activities are the first and most important step in transcription and voice language analysis. Look at it this way: Would you want to take a test without first having studied or done your homework? The pre-listening activities are very similar to pre-reading activities. They involve activating pre-knowledge of the subject you will be transcribing and gathering all of the background working aids you have on the subject.
Before you begin, you should know whether you will be transcribing a telephone call or a news broadcast. Must you produce a transcript of a debate or a public speech? You should also be well aware of what people usually say in each one of these situations. If you are transcribing a piece of news broadcast on the tsunami in Japan, what previous knowledge of it do you have?
Since most people don't have first-hand knowledge of a topic, they must gather all of the facts they can get on a topic. Let's say you will be transcribing a probable telephone call between Sam and Bob, and you have never heard their voices before. In gathering your background working aids, it would be wise to have sample recordings of Sam's and Bob's voices in the event they don't identify each other. Another working aid, listing all of Sam's and Bob's aliases as well as all of their relatives and friends, would come in very helpful. It would also be useful to have a chronological record of previous calls between Sam and Bob, a listing of their addresses, and also details about their hobbies and interests. If you have all of this background information, you can read between the lines when something is not said or if the voice is garbled and you can't completely understand it.
2. Listen For the Voice Recording Purpose
Every voice recording has a purpose whether it be a news broadcast, commentary, debate, political campaign speech, or telephone call to order a pizza. When you listen to a recording the first time, you should determine its purpose. This will help you predict the essential elements in the recording.
3. Get the Essential "Who, "What", "When", and "Where" Information:
During the second listening to the recording, you should start to zero in on important facts. Similar to going through a reading text, you should ask yourself "who" is doing "what" and "where" and "when" are they doing it. Perhaps you have already listed some of these essential elements during the first listening.
4. Group Noun Facts by Category and Establish Sequencing:
While doing the third pass through the recording, you ought to group the facts into categories and make a little flow chart of the sequence of events happening. For example, if you hear Joe and Sam on the phone and can only hear "football", "Packers", and "Lambeau Field", you would group all three words and infer there was or will be a game at Lambeau Field. In the same conversation, if you hear Saints in September and Bears on Christmas Day, you establish the sequence of events where the Packers are playing the Saints first and then the Bears.
5. Predict Missing or Unreadable Words in the Transcript:
By the time you have listened to a recording the fourth time, you will probably have 80 to 90 percent of the voice written down in a coherent transcript. What you don't have will be in the form of missing or unreadable (can't hear and understand) words. At this point, your working aids can help you fill in words in the transcript. Your knowledge of the phonetics of the target language can also help you degarble sounds so that they make sense as the missing words in the transcript. For example, maybe you hear someone say that the game will be on USTB Today. By seeing the association of "game will be on USTB Today", you know that the "B" in "USTB" is a garble and that the correct pronunciation was "USTV".
6. Proofread the Transcript and Try to Establish Tone of Voice:
The final step in the transcription process is proofreading the final script for errors. Whether the transcript makes sense should be your first concern. Many times you can determine the speaker's tone of voice throughout the recording. Is the speaker or are the speakers joking, angry, sarcastic, or neutral? A good transcriber notes this on his or her transcript.
Transcription is only one part of the voice analysis process. Another challenging part, translation, will be explained in a future article.
Foreign Language Listening Skills
- Foreign Language Transcription for Learning Listening Skills
Foreign language transcription is very useful in learning listening skills. With examples taken from Thai and Chinese Mandarin, this hub examines problems faced in foreign language transcription.
Use of Transcription in ESL Learning
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn