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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL

© 2011 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you what to learn, IDYLL shows you how to learn it

Klaus Bung:

How to improve your listening skills:
TRAM: The Transcription Method
For intermediate and advanced students

Test version: Alpha 03
Comments and suggestions for improvement welcome.


Introduction: Who are you?

What are listening skills?

The problem

Success by chance

Experts in the pub

The analytical approach

Unsuitable for beginners

Advice for beginners

Who can benefit from TRAM?

Environments and levels of difficulty

English intended for native speakers

The TRAM procedure in brief

More on Step 1: Get a recording

General educated English

Brick wall

Texts of lasting value

More on Step 2: Play your clip repeatedly and write down what you hear

Information for technically minded people

How to make an endless loop by improvising

Transcribing your clip

A real life example: "I am ending (with) the symphony"

Endless loop

Slow-down function

Programmer wanted

Obstacles to speech recognition

Making good use of your transcript

Practising other types of speech


Introduction: Who are you?

Listening comprehension: learn to understand fast speech. Imagine yourself as a learner of English (or any other language). You will have been studying it for several years. You are considered intermediate. You can somehow understand written texts (using a dictionary). You can understand what your teacher says to you in class (he speaks slowly and clearly). You can make yourself understood (even though haltingly) when meeting a stray Englishmen in the street, in Cairo, Delhi, Karachi, Madrid or Beijing or wherever you live. You can chat successfully on the Internet (typed messages going to and fro), but you once met a professional English teacher online and she told you that your English was riddled with grammatical mistakes. Well, you don't care since, in spite of your mistakes, you are being understood by your mates. That's all that matters, isn't it? (But it would not get you a job in England, or even in your own country, and isn't that what really matters?)

But when you came, from your native Gujarat, to visit your relatives in the northern English town of Blackburn made infamous by the Beatles because of its potholes (and even when passing through London), you could, even at the end of your three-month stay, not understand what the English natives were saying to you in the street. (Link: Beatles: "A day in the life", lyrics)

Neither could you understand the news on TV and radio. You understood the occasional word but not the meaning of the sentences and of the whole news story. It was all too fast, did not sound like what you were used to in class and from recorded lessons. You could not keep the words apart, it was just one never ending flow of language.

In brief, your listening skills were not good enough, and you did not know what to do about it. This essay tells you what you can do.

What are listening skills?

In this essay we focus on one concrete example. If you are studying English: How can you learn to understand the BBC Radio News. If you are learning another language, your aim will be to understand the radio news in that language.

Now you have a concrete idea of what we are trying to achieve. In what follows, we will also consider some variations on this example. I am concentrating my mind on English as target language merely to simplify my formulations. If you are learning a language other than English, simply adjust what I say to fit your circumstances.

The problem

Success by chance

When I was learning English (which is my third language), I faced the same problems, but I did not know the TRAM procedure. I reached my goal of understanding spoken English without concentrating on this particular skill, simply by random learning for DECADES, while living in England.

That is the very thing that most learners want to avoid. That's why they are asking for SPECIFIC TECHNIQUES for achieving their goal. They do not want to have to spend 10, 20 or 30 years living in England, without making any measurable progress, only to wake up one day, able to understand the BBC news broadcasts and lectures and party conversations, without knowing how they got there - which is what happened to me.

Experts in the pub

But that is the result (or non-result) of the kind of vague advice given by well-meaning and clueless people in the teaching profession and in the pub who think that the answer to "How do I improve my listening skills" is obvious, is just a matter of common sense, does not require any more detailed analysis.

That ill-considered pub advice, given with smiles and full of well-meaning confidence, is: "If you want to improve your listening skills, listen to spoken language as much as possible. Forget about written texts, about books and newspapers, watch English TV, films and videos, watch TV news, listen to radio news, listen to people speaking at parties or in the pub, go to churches and listen to sermons, listen to the sort of language you wish to understand in the environment in which you wish to understand it, and if you do that for long enough eventually you will understand. Learn by doing."

It is true that many people, perhaps even most people, will "eventually" understand (i.e. have acquired the wanted skill), but it is an uncontrolled process, a random process, very wasteful, very frustrating because it produces more failure than success along the way. Many people literally do not live long enough to succeed. It is naive and fallacious advice, based on prejudices handed down from person to person.

It is also the result of wishful thinking, of the desire of people to learn (= acquire useful skills and knowledge) while "having fun", while doing something they would normally do for fun in their own language, such as watching a nice film. They want to be rich but they do not want to work for it. The IDYLL METHOD® is not intended for such people.

The analytical approach

By contrast, Cartesian Language Learning looks very much like work, we make no bones about it (= we are honest about it), and therefore it produces predictable results. Your choice is: Do you want to have fun, or do you want to have results? The fun activities produce, at best, random results or bad results.

Unsuitable for beginners

I have, of course, tried these enticing approaches, e.g. when learning French, Urdu and Arabic. Watching films is fantastic for advanced learners. They keep their existing skills alive, they add some vocabulary and idioms, and they learn about the culture of their chosen country. That is a worthwhile activity.

But I have also been given this ridiculous advice when I was still a beginner in learning Urdu, knew about 300 words, and a few fixed phrases. I watched Urdu films and tried to figure out the plot from what was shown on the screen. I had to ask my friends to explain who was the goodie and who was the baddie. All I could understand was: Yes, No, Thank you, and one or two other words during one hour's watching. Some of the isolated words which I triumphantly thought I did understand turned out to absolutely wrong when I asked my friends to confirm my guesses.

I would have progressed much more with my Urdu if I had spent that time learning ten or twenty new Urdu words, any words, in writing, or practised some other skills and returned to the films a few months or years later when I was ready for them. Especially, I would have benefitted much more if I had worked systematically on my listening skills, using the disciplined techniques described in this essay.

I have had similar experiences when, overhearing an Urdu conversation as a beginner or intermediate student, every so often I thought I had clearly recognised one word (a clean one, or a naughty one) which I was convinced I knew well. Then I asked my friends: "Did you say WORD XYZ just now? What does it mean?" My friends would reply: "We never said that word at all." Then I would sometimes shrug my shoulders and drop the question. Or I would persist with my questions. Eventually I would establish that I had heard the last syllable of one word and the first syllable of the next as if they were one word. My friends were right in claiming that they never said what I heard.

These are the sort of situtions with which you have to learn to cope. If you follow the stupid pub advice, you will cope very badly.

I get quietly annoyed when being given such infantile advice for the languages I want to learn. I do, of course, try to hide my annoyance: there is no point in arguing with self-confident donkeys on the best ways of becoming an opera singer. It often comes from amateurs who know nothing about the subject except what they have heard from other ignoramuses in the pub. Their only qualification for giving me any advice is that they are native speakers of the language I want to learn.

This is in fact the worst qualification they could possibly have (or indeed a dis-qualification) because it ensures that they cannot possibly know anything about the difficulties I am facing when learning their language.

All they know is that it IS difficult and they claim (apologetically and wrongly): "My language is very difficult", as if it were particularly difficult, more difficult than other languages.

But they do not know why and where it is difficult, which is what really matters, and how the difficulties can best be overcome.

One might almost say about advice on language learning received: If it is OBVIOUSLY true (stands to reason, doesn't it?), it is probably wrong. Nothing is quite obvious in language learning.

Sadly such naive advice is also sometimes given by teachers. They do not know what it is like to be a student of the language they are teaching. That's why the IDYLL METHOD® tries to shift the initiative in learning as far as possible from the teacher to the student.

I have had my experiences, failures and successes with different approaches, not while learning English, but when trying to learn Spanish, French, Hindi-Urdu and Arabic, and I may sometimes draw on examples from these languages. But my conclusions and proposals apply to any language under the sun.

Advice for beginners

The techniques described in this essay do not apply to beginners, or lower intermediate students. As long as you still go to classes, or are using a structured course, nowadays often accompanied by sound recordings, you should follow that course. Master everything in it, regardless of whether or not it involves listening skills as such. Do to perfection whatever your teacher tells you to do. Make it your main aim to complete that course, (and whatever follow-up courses are available) as rapidly as possible.

But do not sacrifice quality for speed. Work as slowly as necessary to remain at a standard of 90% (much higher than what is customary in many classes).

That means you should proceed as slowly as necessary to maintain the learning standard of 90% but work so hard that you reach the end of your course AT THAT STANDARD as soon as possible.

That does not guarantee that you will have your listening skills at the end of that course (e.g. it will not guarantee that you will understand the BBC Radio News), but

  • it will be progress (better than when you started their course)
  • it will be the best that can be achieved at that level
  • it will be useful at your next stage of learning.

In brief, my advice to beginners and lower intermediate students is not to use the TRAM procedure, but to work as efficiently as you can with the course materials and the teacher you have.

Who can benefit from TRAM?

The students I have in mind, and who have consulted me, are of two types.

  1. They have reached an intermediate level of competence, enough, for instance, to communicate with me by email or chat in English. They no longer go to classes because they cannot afford it, or there are no classes at that level on offer, or they are too busy to attend a regular class, etc.
  2. Or they do go to classes for advanced learners of English, they are really keen, spend a lot of money on these classes, attend regularly, often for years, and yet find that they do not make sufficient progress in their listening skills. They can understand carefully articulated speech, speech created for students, but they cannot cope with "real English".

But they must be able to understand real English if they ever are to get that much desired promotion or new job in their own country or to be able to get a job in, and a visa for, an English-speaking country.

These are the students who can benefit from the IDYLL METHOD® and from TRAM.

Environments and levels of difficulty

There are many different types of listening skills, depending on the environment and the kind of language that is used.

I do not intend to analyse all relevant aspects here, but mention only a few informally. I then want to concentrate on one of these types and give practical advice on how to work systematically and controllably towards that goal.

Here are some examples:

English for non-natives

You have studied the grammar and the vocabulary of a textbook dialogue. You now hear a recording of that dialogue.

You have to demonstrate your understanding of the dialogue by one of the following means:

  • Describe in your native language what is being said.
  • Translate every sentence into your native language
  • Answer questions on the dialogue in the target language or in your native language
  • Use the dialogue as a dictation exercise and write down what you hear. Then translate it into your native language.

This is one of the easiest kinds of listening comprehension practice, and you will be doing something like this throughout your course. All these activities will teach you something useful and your success in any of them will indicate something about your comprehension skill.

Your level of success in the dictation exercise does not only display your knowledge of vocabulary and spelling but also your degree of understanding the spoken text. If you write garbage, this means not only that you cannot spell but is also a pretty clear indication that you do not understand what you heard.

The converse is also true: If you are well able to write down a spoken text, especially in a language with a highly irregular spelling system (e.g. English and French), this is some indication of your understanding of the text.

To that extent, practising to write down an unknown text (any text) (i.e. write down from dictation) is a useful exercise for improving and testing your listening comprehension.

At this level (beginners and intermediate students who still go to classes), I would advise that they turn all recordings that come with the course into dictation exercises, even if the teacher does not demand this. Do it voluntarily. No teacher is necessary for this exercise. You can check your work by comparing it with the printed texts which you have.

If you never make any mistakes, you will presumably not need this kind of exercise.

But if you make a reasonable number of mistakes, it shows a weakness in your knowledge of English. Therefore repeat the exercise until you stop making mistakes. You will certainly have learnt something useful, even though not necessarily listening skills.

However, this particular kind of exercise is still below the level that my Internet students are battling with.

The texts we just discussed are all part of a carefully planned course, presenting simplified English, specially prepared for foreign students.

English intended for native speakers

What my Internet students are struggling with is the sort of English intended for native speakers of English.


Type 1: Lecture type speech available on BBC Radio 4:

"Book at Bedtime" (reading out a novel)
"Classics serial" (a novel that has been dramatised)
"From our own correspondent"
"History of the world in 100 objects"
"The Reith lectures"
"Thought for the day"
"Woman's Hour"
reports from political, financial etc correspondents

Type 2: Interviews during news broadcasts, e.g. with politicians, trade unionists, etc.

Type 3: Radio plays and soap operas, e.g. "The Archers". They provide a chance to learn to understand some informal speech, some dialect, some regional accents.

Type 4: Formal university lecture (only lecturer speaks)

Type 5: Informal university class (lecturer and students interact)

Type 6: Committee meeting

Type 7: Family conversation in sitting room; quite informal, sometimes several people speak simultaneously, interruptions, sometimes noise

Type 8: Conversation between two people in noisy environment (pub, restaurant, party)

Type 9: Conversation between group of people in noisy environment

Type 10: Conversation between two people in very noisy environment (e.g. cockpit of plane, ship's engine room)

Ascending from easier to more difficult

To some extent these examples represent increasing levels of difficulty, (1) being easiest and (10) being most difficult.

Even if it were to be your objective to master the Type 10 situation, we need not concern ourselves with that as long as you have not mastered the easier types, e.g. Type 1, on which I shall now concentrate.

We assume that a student who has not mastered Type 1 cannot possibly cope with the more difficult types, e.g. Type 4 to 8. Conversely we assume that a student who has mastered Type 1 will succeed in Type 4 to 8 more quickly than a student who hasn't.

Now imagine that a transcript of a Type 1 (or any other Type) situation were available. We assume that a person who can understand that transcript without the aid of a dictionary will be better able to understand the spoken version of such text than a student who cannot understand the written version without a dictionary.

It follows that mastering Type 1 is an essential step to mastery of Type 10, and that mastering written utterances is a useful step to mastery of the equivalent spoken utterances. (This goes against the stupid pub advise discussed above.)

It is a characteristic of Cartesian Language Learning that it does not go straight away to the complex and difficult Type which the student really wants to master. Cartesian Language Learning separates out the constituent skills required. It practises these in isolation, in the easiest environments possible and with the easiest media possible (e.g. written text combined with spoken text). It then allows the student to carefully control every step on his road to mastery and to consciously observe his progress.

The TRAM procedure in brief

  1. Get a recording of a stretch of speech on which you want to practise, and concentrate on 3 or 5 minutes of it. It is not your objective to understand the whole piece but to understand a clip of 5 minutes. We will call this "your clip" from now on.
  2. Play your clip (only your clip) repeatedly and write down what you hear as best you can.
  3. Note and learn any new words and expressions that you come across using the appropriate procedures of the IDYLL METHOD® , e.g. VOCPROC and SENTAL.
  4. Seek the help of an informant (teacher, friend) to help you decipher (understand) the bits you do not understand (which are only strange noises to your ear).
  5. Once you have created a perfect transcript of your clip (neatly typed and printed out), listen to the clip again and again while following it in your transcript.
  6. Once the speech makes sense to you while looking at the transcript, listen to it repeatedly and try to have the experience of understanding which you had while looking at the script and which a native speaker has when hearing that clip.

More on Step 1: Get a recording

For many languages this is very easy in the age of the Internet and of satellite broadcasting. I will choose my examples from British English (BBC). You can adjust what I say to your own circumstances and to the language YOU want to learn.

Try BBC Radio 4 and BBC Worldservice for British English. Try American, Australian (etc) stations for other types of English.

Try the Internet for speech in other widespread languages.

If you are learning an "obscure" language (and not only then), try to find chat friends in that language via the Internet (Facebook, etc). Establish a good relationship and ask your friend to make recordings of local speech and send them to you.

We now return to English. Adjust what I say to other languages if required.

General educated English

Ignore your specific requirements (type of language, e.g. subject of your speciality (say medicine), register (e.g. street slang), but concentrate on general educated English.

Master general educated English first. Once you have done that, you can home in on your speciality. Try to match the skills of a generally educated native English speaker.

Understanding the BBC Radio 4 news and magazine programmes (or the BBC World Service) is such a general skill (Type 1, above).

However, do not start with the news. You will find that you have to work very hard before you can understand the news. Much of them will be boring to you because you do not know the background of British politics or because you do not care about it.

Brick wall

Deciphering a speech recording will probably take you a very long time, much longer than you expect. That's one of the reasons why you find your inadequate listening skills so frustrating: you seem to be running against a brick wall. The IDYLL METHOD® shows you a guaranteed way of slowly scratching your way through that brick wall.

If you were in prison on a lifelong sentence and if you knew that getting through that brick wall would be a guarantee of liberty and that nobody would even try to catch you again, if that were the case, you WOULD scratch through that wall with your finger nails even if it took you ten years, wouldn't you.

That is the attitude with which you have to approach these listening exercises: you WILL succeed, and it will not take you ten years. But you must be prepared to proceed slowly and carefully, not to rush, not to take shortcuts, and to do everything with perfection, however long it takes. (Think of the Great Escape films about prisoners of war escaping from their camps: careful planning, no short-cuts, diligent and patient work. If they could do it, so can you.)

OK, we have established that this is slow work. I cannot tell you how long it takes to decipher a clip of 5 minutes. That is different for every student, but it takes a long time. By the time you have sorted out 20 minutes of news, the news are no longer new, and no longer interesting.

Texts of lasting value

Therefore it is better to practise listening skills with the IDYLL METHOD® with some text of permanent value.

At present there are two programmes which are particularly suitable for this purpose:


"A history of the world in 100 objects", 100 15-minute broadcasts on objects in the British Museum. Good English is spoken, and guest speakers provide a variety of accents. Download all of them from the Worldservice while they are still available, which will not be for ever.

Pick a topic that is of interest to you, e.g. an object that comes from your culture or your country. Find out from these broadcasts why English historians admire it.


A weekly series called "From our own correspondent". Each programme contains three reports of 10 minutes each. They come every week. You can download the spoken version but no longer the written text.

They come from all parts of the world. The English is excellent, cultivated, well spoken (lecture style) and easy, at least for English people. So that is the first hurdle you have to overcome.

If you cannot understand that kind of English fairly easily, there is no point in trying anything more difficult, even if this more difficult thing is what you really want to understand.

You must start with what is simplest and practise it until is really easy for you. Then you try the Type whose difficulty is one level higher. And so on, Type by Type, level by level, until you have reached your goal. Your goal is at the END of your efforts, not at the beginning.

I will not discuss the other sources of spoken English in this essay. But the techniqes you apply to them are the same.

When you move from one Type to the next (one degree higher in difficulty), you may experience great transition problems. But this does not mean that your time spent practising the earlier Types has been wasted.

Without practising the previous Types you would find it even more difficult to find your way into the new Type. That is a general principle which you can observe when working with the IDYLL METHOD® : You do lots of preliminary exercises to acquire partial skills. When you move from one partial skill to another, difficulties will inevitably occur, but the new difficulties will be fewer and will be more easily overcome if you have done the preliminary exercises.

For example, if you have learnt vocabulary to a 90% standard in the standard VOCPROC exercises where you learn to translate them from mother tongue into target language in writing and largely in the same sequence, this does not mean that you know these words instantly the moment they occur in a different kind of exercise, in a different sequence or in the spoken form. However, you will learn them much faster in the new environment than you would if you had not practised them in the preliminary exercises (and various other excercises) first.

The IDYLL METHOD® does not rely on any one trick or principle or technique to the exclusion of all others, but on the harmonious working together of many different techniques (designed for specific purposes) resulting from the careful analysis (careful engineering) and testing of all its component parts.
More on Step 2: Play your clip repeatedly and write down what you hear

Information for technically minded people

Ideally you will have your clip in the form of an mp3 file. You need some device for playing it back repeatedly, e.g. your computer or an mp3-player, or whatever you have or can get hold of, e.g. an audio-cassette player (if you still remember what that is).

I have not yet found software which is ideal for language learning, i.e. has all and only the functions desirable for that purpose. So you must make do and improvise with whatever you have or can find.

Powerful audio editing software exists. It can in principle help you but I do not recommend it. Normally such software has dozens of functions which you do not need. Such unwanted functions make it difficult for you to come to grips with the program. You have to figure out (or get a friend who is a nerd to show you) which useful functions are available and how to use them.

If you just use a normal cassette recorder (as long as these are still available) or an mp3 player or your mobile phone, you have to make do with these. Everybody has different hardware and software. I therefore cannot give advice on what to use and how to use it. But I can tell you which functions are most useful if you can get them. Otherwise you have to make do with fewer functions.

Some of the following programmes can be useful, but tend to have ten times as many functions as you need:

mp3DirectCut (enables you to cut a short clip from a longer recording and save it as a separate file which you can then play repeatedly on your mp3player.

Audacity (enables you to slow down speech without lowering the pitch).

But Audacity does not handle mp3 files. mp3 files have to be converted to wav files before Audacity can process them.

Moreover Audacity will not slow down just the 4 seconds you want to listen to in an endless loop. I will process the whole 5 minute (or longer file), which takes time and during which you would sit around and wait. No fun, unless you are a techie or a nerd.

So none of this work can be done "on the fly" (instantly). It involves some thinking and some technical skills.

If you are a technically minded person, you can do it.

How to make an endless loop by improvising

Until we have software made specifically for our purposes and for use by non-technical people, here is a way in which a techie could make an endless loop for you.

1 In mp3Cut select the 3 seconds which give you a problem. Do "Save selection as" and give them a file name, e.g. clip_01.mp3 . This will be done instantly.

You now have a recording of just those 3 seconds duration, corresponding to your Text-Gap. Play that clip with Windows Media Player or some similar software, setting it to "Repeat endlessly". You can now hear your 3 seconds incessantly without a break for the next 24 hours. You have your loop.

2 If you want to slow it down, use Audacity, or some other program, to convert the clip from mp3 format to wav format. Then slow it down. Then play it endlessly on Windows Media Player, etc.

Transcribing your clip

Whatever devices you are using, play your clip again and again and write down what you hear as best you can.

Use scrap paper because your first attempts at transcribing will probably be awful. LOL. Have a pencil eraser ready.

Use a sharp pencil and write legibly.

It may well be that you have figured out at first hearing what the persons on the clip are talking about, e.g. about something medical because you have picked up the words 'hospital', 'medicine', and 'doctor', i.e. you have a clue about the subject matter but you do not know ***what*** they are saying. It is your job now to figure that out - systematically.

So each time you play the clip, you write down, in pencil, as many words as you can recognise. Leave generous blanks where there are missing words (words which you do not understand at all). With luck, each time you pass through the clip you will recognise a few more words, or make corrections in the words you have already written. Gradually the sentences will become more or more complete and more meaningful.

Is is also likely that there are a few words which do not make sense, however often you listen.

I tried this when learning French. At the time I could converse fairly well with one person in a quiet room on cultural and philosophical topics. But I was hopeless when trying to understand French radio. There were some words which I clearly recognised but they did not make any sense in the context I had already established. Either I had to change the context (the surrounding words), or I had to change the words which I thought I recognised. And whatever I put down on paper after making such changes had to match the sound in a plausible way. E.g. if I clearly hear /i:/, I must not write down a word which contains /u:/ in that position, even if it makes perfect sense.

This is like solving a crossword puzzle. What I write must fit the sound (within certain limits of tolerance) and it must make sense - unless there is an obvious explanation (confirmed by a native speaker), e.g. that the presenter had a speech defect, was a foreigner, or made a slip of the tongue, spoke ungrammatical English/French.

This can be hard work but it is less frustrating than not understanding anything you listen to, day after day, week after week and not knowing what to do about it.

By pinning your growing understanding of the text down in writing (growing like crystals), you have something to focus on, 4 seconds of sound perhaps, 2 words, you know where you are in the passage, you are supported by what you have already figured out. And you can go over this tiny stretch of sound, e.g. 4 seconds, again and again, concentrating on the exact sounds and trying out in your mind what would fit the gap. That is not frustrating because you are not at the mercy of the text, and you are focused.

If you make no headway with one Text-Gap, leave it and try your luck with another. Sometimes the word which you could not figure out in Text-Gap 1 occurs again in Text-Gap 5, and in that context you clearly recognise it, it makes sense, and you also recognise some particular way in which this speaker handles that word and that sound. Also the message (meaning) of the message may make more sense when you have reached Text-Gap 5 (e.g. has someone been murdered or been contemplating a murder). Once you have decided on that, the other Text-Gaps may be easier to fill.

When you have done you damndest to come to terms with your clip, perhaps having worked on it for about 30 minutes or an hour, and you cannot make any headway with just a few gaps, you turn to your informant (teacher, friend) and ask him to listen to the passage, and tell you what he hears.

You will find that sometimes the 4 seconds you do not understand will not be clear to a native speaker either. Perhaps the speech was slurred, there was a technical defect in the broadcast or your recording (half a second has been skipped), or the speaker had a cough or made a grammatical mistake, changed his mind in the middle of a word and put another word on top of it, etc. You need a native speaker to confirm that the trouble is with the speaker and not with you.

Once you have established that, you somehow have to fill the Text-Gap by inserting the ideal word, even though it was not spoken. Native speakers will also do that (without writing it down).

You will learn an enormous amount about pronunciation during such a session and you will become very conscious of certain aspects of natural speech.

A real life example: "I am ending (with) the symphony"

Here is an example of a native speaker, a good clear radio speaker, pronouncing one word so fast that it is impossible for you to hear the word, however much you slow it down and however often you try with an endless loop. No speech recognition computer could pick up that word on purely phonetic grounds, and no native speaker could pick it up on phonetic grounds. But every native speaker will actually know what that word is, not because it is spoken, but because grammar (= context) demands it.

Listen to this clip which I recorded from BBC Radio 3. The presenter talks about Mozart. Here is what she thinks she says: "Well, I am ending (with) the Symphony in g-minor Mozart completed five years earlier in ..."

The word "with" is practically inaudible. I hear something like an [m] which is akin to the beginning of a [w] . If you do not know that a "with" is missing here, or if you wrongly think that the announcer "ends the symphony" in a certain way, which is entirely different from her ending her programme ***with*** the symphony, then your failure is not due to inadequate listening skills at this point, but to the fact that you have not understood the rest of the sentence, or the rest of the whole speech, or that you do not know why "with" is grammatically required at this point.

Endless loop

When working on a certain Text-Gap, you may want to hear those 4 seconds (or so) again and again, in immediate succesion, without being distracted by stopping your player and "winding back", without being distracted by surrounding words. As you hear the unknown word(s) in the difficult Text-Gap, try to articulate them (or move your lips) in order to get a clue as to what you are hearing. Sometimes your lips can guide your ears. When you have hit on a suitable word, write it down immediately, then consider whether it makes sense in the context. If there are several suitable or unsuitable words, write them all down in that Text-Gap as candidates. They may not fit now, but they might fit if for some reason you are forced to change the context (the words preceding or following the Text-Gap).

In your attempts at figuring out what is said during a particular Text-Gap, a program which can produce an endless loop (as we used have on loop cassettes, 5 sec, 10 sec and 20 sec loops) can be very useful. Then you can listen to the mysterious word 100 times in succession, trying with your lips a different hypothesis during each loop, without having to push any buttons and without having to listen to any irrelevant words in the context.

Slow-down function

In addition, your software may have a setting which allows you to slow down playback without lowering the pitch.

This will be of great help.

Programmer wanted

I am looking for a programmer who could create some software which meets the requirements of the IDYLL METHOD® and nothing else. It should be extremely simple (have no unneeded functions), be based on mp3directcut with a few extras, e.g. slowing down and endless loop, and a few functions required in other parts of the IDYLL METHOD® . Please contact me if you can help.

Once you have done as much as you can, give it a rest, go to sleep and return to the task with fresh ears the next day. After a rest, you will sometimes hear and recognise something which you could not, for the life of you, hear the first time round.

Obstacles to speech recognition

There are several reasons why you may have difficulty with understanding a certain passage. Not all are due to your inadequate ***listening*** skills.


You may not recognise a word because you do not know it, you have never heard it before or you had an entirely wrong idea about its pronunciation. E.g. you thought "Leicester" had three syllables when it has only two. That would not be a listening mistake but a vocabulary mistake.

While deciphering a spoken passage, also use your dictionary. It may give you a clue about a word that fits.

Listening mistakes are mistakes occurring because you do not recognise a word which on its own you know perfectly well, but in your clip it is spoken too fast for you, or the sounds have changed in unexpected ways (the speaker said "hambag" when you expect "handbag"), etc.

Do as much as you can without calling for help. It may be slow but you learn a lot by your persistent attempts at figuring out what is being said. You learn from defeats. Your time spent in repeated attempts is not wasted. You are learning something even when you are not producing results. The noticeable gains come in the course of time, when your ear and your brain builds up a mechanism for coping with the stream of speech sounds.

Once you have done as much as you possibly can, bring in your informant, ask him to check your complete passage while listening to your clip.

This can be done even if your informant is in one country and you are in another. You can email your mp3 clip and your text file with you partial transcription or send it by Instant Messenger (MSN).

Ask for the solution of the completely unmanageable bits (the remaining Text-Gaps). Listen repeatedly to these difficult bits while looking at the words that have been written down, and convince yourself that, what is written down does in fact match the spoken words. Become aware of what it is you missed in those sounds, what wrong preconceptions you had and what prevented you from hearing the correct word.

It will often happen that you gain fundamental insights into the sound of the language and the way people speak when you do that, and that, after a while, these insights enable you to understand at first hearing when the same words are spoken again.

It is important that you do these exercises regularly, week after week, until you have brought your listening skills up to the desired level. This IDYLL procedure is not a ski-lift which gets you to the top of the mountain instantly, but a reliable route, with built-in serpentines, and a large number of steps, rails and handles which gets you there surely and safely, provided you persist for as long as necessary and do not try to take any smart short-cuts (on which you might break your neck).

Resist the temptation of cheating. Do NOT ask your informant to give you the solution (a perfect transcript) BEFORE you have done all the things recommended in this essay. You might think that is a smart way of doing the exercise, but it isn't.

It is not enough to listen to a passage while reading its transcript. You learn much more by having to struggle with the text. While and after struggling, you will experience haha moments (heureka moments) which will stay with you for ever.

Making good use of your transcript

Once you have your clip in written form in front of you, maximise its yield. First make sure it is typed and contains no mistakes.

Look for any words, idioms etc which you did not know and which you think are worth knowing and using.

Copy the words and idioms into your IDYLL workbook and apply VOCPROC, the IDYLL procedure for learning vocabulary.

Then apply SENTAL so that you learn to use the new words and phrases in context and introduce them into your real or fictitious diary. This gives you a chance to practise anything you want to remember, and to personalise it, even if you are learning on your own and do not always have a conversation partner. (See the Chapter on "The Diary Method")(in development; will be uploaded as soon as ready). Find an informant (e.g. on the Internet) who will check your diary from time to time.

Then go and cut the next 3 minute clip from the same 15-minute (or so) file and continue this work until you can understand the whole 15-minute passage when you hear it.

Then find your next sound file.

Teach the method to your friends and informants so that they can help you effectively with your studies.

Practising other types of speech

When you have mastered the lecture style, which, even as an advanced student and working hard and patiently, may take you a year or longer, turn to one of the other Types. Get the recordings in whatever way you can.

Recordings made with your mobile phone do not have high quality. But a high-quality recording is important, especially with speech which is difficult enough to understand as it is. Digical mp3 recorders are available now. Choose something good that you can afford, and record the style of speech you want to learn to understand.

If you have an English speaking friend whom you have difficulty in understanding, capture 10 minutes of a conversation with him, then transcribe it, and then figure out the parts which you find impossible to understand.

You could also ask a friend to make a recording for you. If you have two friends who are native English speakers, ask them to make a recording of a dinner conversation, at home, or in a noisy restaurant, or in any other environment.

These recordings should be long, say 30 or 60 minutes. Initially the conversation may be inhibited and unnatural because the speakers know they are being recorded and they do not know what to say. So they may be making silly remarks out of embarrassment, or discuss the fact that they are being recorded, which is of no interest to you.

But if the recorder runs for an hour, they will forget about it, and their speech will become more natural. Once you have the recording, listen to the whole thing once and note down the timings of certain sections which are of interest to you, e.g. after 13.18 minutes (or whatever position indicator your machine offers). Then analyse that section in 3 minute slices as described above.


Keep your recordings and your transcriptions, and devise a suitable filing and naming system so that you know which recording belongs to which transcription.

Firstly this will give you some visible record of the work you are doing and the progress you are making. Such visible record will encourage you to continue with this difficult task.

Secondly, you will be able to return to these transcripts and recordings from time to time and realise with pleasure how your listening skills have improved as a result of your systematic and well-controlled efforts.

Good luck with your studies.

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How to improve your English (or any other language) beyond advanced level