Power Up Your Podcast Experience with a Transcript
As fun as it is to listen to podcasts for exposure to English and to get some useful business advice, combining the podcast and the transcript is a powerful way to improve your listening skills. Your English studies have perhaps led you to believe that using the transcript is somehow cheating. It’s true that most listening exercises in textbooks simply involve a few comprehension questions and the transcript doesn’t even get a mention even though it may be hidden somewhere in the back of the book. In this post, I’m going to show you that using the transcript before, during and after listening to podcasts can really power up your podcast experience and help you understand spoken English better.
Turn the transcript into a wordcloud
So, you’ve chosen a podcast that interests you and you’re ready to start listening. That probably means that you’ve read the description of the show. If you’ve chosen a particular episode, then you’ve probably also read the show notes. These notes will enable your brain to activate the world knowledge and linguistic knowledge you’ll need to help you understand the podcast.
What can you do with the transcript then? If there are no show notes for a particular episode, you can put the transcript into an online wordcloud maker. My personal favourite is wordclouds.com for its ease of use, range of shape and font options and download possibilities. Here’s an example wordcloud I made from an episode of The Chalene Show. NB I only used half the transcript as it was quite long, but the end result is pretty much the same.
Wordclouds are great for
- Checking out any proper nouns that will come up in the podcast that might hinder comprehension. There are words like people’s names, place names, brand names etc. In the example above we can see ‘Facebook’ and ‘Instagram’, but I think you probably know those ones!
- Previewing the vocabulary that will come up. The size of each word is based its frequency in the transcript. What’s interesting in the example above is that the most frequent words are ones that should be familiar to you such as ‘take’, ‘better’ and ‘start’. You could look up any unfamiliar words before you listen, but remember that learning how to deal with difficult or unknown vocabulary in a recording is a skill that you can develop. Also, it’s generally the words that you do know that can be the most difficult to catch in fast spoken English. More on that shortly.
- Making your own predictions about what the podcast presenter will discuss. You can try to identify any common themes in some of the frequent words that appear. Again, this will mean your brain is already activating the world and linguistic knowledge you’ll need to understand the podcast. Based on the wordcloud, what do you think this episode of The Chalene Show is about? I’ll give you the answer at the end of the post. *
This might sound a little old fashioned or even counter intuitive. How can writing out sections of the podcast help me? Well, by choosing a short section of the podcast (and when I say short, I mean short: ten seconds or so is enough initially!), listening to it several times, writing down exactly what you hear and then comparing your version with the transcript, you’ll become aware of:
- Words that are difficult to perceive when pronounced by natives in fast, natural English
- Gaps in your listening comprehension ability
No matter the podcast or the speaker, all natives speakers are trying to make their lives as easy as possible when speaking – they want to articulate quickly and effortlessly. Below are three features of “connected speech” (English spoken quickly and spontaneously) that can make understanding difficult:
- Weak forms of grammatical words
By grammatical words, I mean all those words that you know perfectly well such as auxiliary verbs (‘are’ ‘am’ ‘does’), prepositions (‘at’ ‘for’ ‘to’), articles (‘a’, ‘the’, ‘an’), pronouns (‘he’, ‘they’ ‘I’) and conjunctions (‘but’, ‘and’, ‘so’). What you may not know is that all of these words have two pronunciations. One is the careful, “dictionary” pronunciation that you discover when you first learn these words. The other is the “weak” pronunciation that we use when speaking fast. In the weak pronunciation, we generally replace the original vowel with the ‘schwa’ sound, which is a really reduced vowel. Listen to me pronouncing the weak and strong forms of different grammatical words:
- Disappearing sounds
Some sounds disappear completely when natives speak quickly. The worst offenders are probably the /t/ and /d/ sounds before other consonants, but this can also occur with /p/, /b/ and /k/. When combined with the weak schwa sound, really common words such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘can’t’ or ‘don’t’ sound completely different in fast, spontaneous English. The /h/ sound also disappears more often than not at the start of words, especially when pronouns such as ‘he’ or ‘him’ are weak.
- Joining sounds
While /t/ and /d/ generally disappear when followed by a consonant, when followed by a vowel sound, natives will probably join them together so they can speak quicker. This is true of other combinations of consonants and vowels like the expression ‘for a while’. Weak forms also tend to join to stressed words, which is what gives English its particular rhythm. This is why expressions such as ‘a bit of’ sound like a single word. The weak ‘a’ links to the stressed word ‘bit’ and the final /t/ in ‘bit’ is joined to the initial vowel in the weak ‘of’.
Connected speech prediction
Once you’re aware of some of the features of fast speech, you can have even more fun with the transcript! Before listening, you can choose a section and make some predictions about how the presenter or guest will pronounce certain words. You can highlight all the possible weak forms for instance. Or you could predict which sounds might disappear or get joined together.
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Getting into the rhythm of English
Once you’ve finished listening, don’t assume that you have to put the transcript to one side. There’s one more thing you can do that will not only develop your listening skills, but also improve your pronunciation. It’s a technique called ‘shadow reading’. Take the transcript, choose a section of the recording (just a few lines to begin with), play the podcast and read aloud, trying to keep up with the presenter. This will force you to adopt their rhythm and stress. Of course, you don’t have to speak like that if you don’t want to, but by being aware of the rhythm of spoken English you can learn to become a better listener.
Dealing with new words
You can also use the transcript to guess the meanings of new words after listening. This way, you don’t have to worry about not understanding the surrounding words in connected speech. You can just concentrate on using the context to help you deduce the meaning.
I hope these tips will make your podcasting experience not only an informative one from a business point of view, but also a productive one from a listening skills point of view. If you want more practice in listening to fast, natural English then you can follow me on Soundcloud or sign up to my blog for further tips and tricks on developing your listening skills. Happy listening!
* The wordcloud is based on the transcript of episode 207 of The Chalene Show entitled ‘How to Get You Motivation Back?’
About the Author
Cara Leopold is an online listening teacher, helping upper-intermediate to advanced learners finally understand spoken English, particularly the informal conversational kind, no matter the accents involved.
Check Cara’s website here: Leo-Listening
Get Cara’s free e-guide Understand Conversational English
Veronika here. How did you like Cara’s advice? Do you have more tips? Let us know in the comments.
If you’re looking for a great podcast for entrepreneurs, I have some tips for you – check out this post. Thanks for reading and sharing!