Dictation Inspiration : Back to basics with listening comprehension

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

Sometimes a really helpful technique is staring you in the face, and you fail to see it. Or you see it, and you fail to use it, for whatever reason. So it was for me with dictation, the wonderfully straightforward listening activity that other language learners employ with great success.

Dictation – or Diktando, as many know it – needs no introduction. It is one of the simplest language exercises around. Simply listen, and transcribe. It is the ultimate in cheap, accessible techniques, too – you just need a source (a podcast will do), and pen and paper.

But, for some reason, I had completely ignored it up to now.

Ignorance is no excuse, to my shame. For a start, Linguascope has featured a dictation exercise in each of its Beginner units for years – and I even developed it. Legions of kids had benefitted from my use of it in a resource, but somehow, it was not for me. Perhaps it was that association with the beginner level that put me off. I want to maintain and improve a set of languages beyond A1 for the most part, and dictation always seemed like a kind of pre-learning, preparatory, elementary game, something that put sounds before meaning.

But that was exactly what I needed.

Listening denial

I struggle with listening. I am certainly not alone in that, and I gain a lot from listening to teachers speak about improving students’ listening skills in the classroom. But at the same time as acknowledging that it is my toughest challenge, I still chug along in a bit of denial. It will just click of its own accord, I think. It will all fall into place. Maybe I just need to listen to a few more podcasts. I just need a bit more passive exposure.

It is partly the tendency to run before we can walk that leads us to these places. But what I really needed was a back-to-basics, purposeful, sounds first approach to listening. And dictation was sitting there, beckoning.

Dictation inspiration

Luckily enough, the activity popped up on my feed recently via one of the community’s most popular voices, Lindie Botes. I spotted a tweet in which she shared a podcast dictation she was working on, and was impressed and intrigued:

Here was dictation in use at a higher level, by someone with the same ambitious language goals as I have. Lindie’s approaches always command a lot of respect in the community. So, I thought, perhaps this did merit a revisit.

Spurred on, I chose two languages I speak reasonably well (B1-ish), but struggle to get past the listening barrier with: Icelandic and Polish. I set aside some time in the week for dictation tasks and selected my materials. It was easy to find sources to unleash myself on. For a start, I could pick from any of the woefully neglected podcasts that I subscribe to and never get round to listening to.

Warts and all

One thing quickly became clear: dictation really exposes your listening weaknesses. Now I understand what I was afraid of. All your difficulties, your neglect and your lack of practice are laid bare, warts and all. But finally, you see them – and only then can you work on them.

The thing about close listening is that you pay intense attention to the ebb and flow of words in the target language. You get to know how they run into each other, how they affect each other in terms of coarticulation. I realised I could know every word and every syntactical turn in a sentence, yet still not catch it until the fourth or fifth listen. For a grammar geek, in the habit of examining the nuts and bolts in isolation, this task was clearly well overdue.

But on the upside, another thing came as a complete surprise: the mindful nature of longer dictation exercises. That intense focus draws you into something of a flow state after a few minutes. Before you know it, a look at the clock confirms half an hour has passed without you noticing. Rather than the boring, mindless activity I assumed it to be, it was positively absorbing.

In fact, it took me back to my teenage years as a fanatical Eurovision nerd, pausing and rewinding cassette-taped songs to scribble down barely understood lyrics. I would take hours to get them right, no doubt ending up with some half-accurate, half-phonetic mush I could at least try to sing at the piano. I still warble some of those misheard lyrics in the shower, even today.

Letting go of perfectionism

But that, of course, is one of the biggest lessons dictation has to offer us. Aiming for perfection is more likely to scupper than to assist. Because, despite all of the technological crutches like playback looping and variable speed, you will struggle with some phrases.

In fact,  I found that slowing down to 50% often hindered comprehension. This is because sounds that are articulated quickly together change their quality. We are used to hearing that occur at normal speed, but at a snail’s pace, sounds can just sound weird.

For instance, I was certain that one Icelandic phrase was undir röklunum, searching desperately for the meaning of the non-existent second word. Finally, I played the phrase at normal speed, and realised that it was actually undir jöklunum (under the glaciers), with the -r affecting the quality of the following j-. This is a nice illustration of how over-focus on word-level language can hamper progress.

Dictation exercise in Icelandic by Richard West-Soley

One of my far-from-perfect dictation exercises in Icelandic

For a perfectionist like me, dictation can also be helpful in diminishing the pathological need for 100%. If you get stuck down a phonological rabbit hole, you must simply move on, else the whole activity grinds to a halt. Your heart will sink the first few times you leave a gap, but more and more you find that the following material fills in enough context to go back and complete the rogue snippets.

Likewise, dictation involves letting go of ‘neat work’ compulsions. I am a stickler for a nice neat page of writing (no doubt the former teacher coming out in me). As you can see from my scrawl, dictation necessitates rather a lot of amendments and crossings out. You have to accept the rough with the smooth. Perhaps the boldest claim yet: dictation, not only great language practice, but also a cure for OCD! 

Dictation exercise in Polish by Richard West-Soley

Dictation exercise in Polish

In short, I am a convert. I am becoming a better listener for giving this language learning staple a fair chance. I will continue with these exercises, perhaps even as a daily tactic. Just a regular ten minutes or so in weaker languages could make all the difference.

Is dictation one of your language learning strategies? Do you have particular techniques or a novel take on the exercise you find useful? Let us know in the comments!

Richard West-Soley

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