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Many people, including some here, seem to recommend dictation on improving listening skills, but I wonder if the dictation is any more effective than just listening to the script and writing it in my brain. The reason I don't dictate is it is very difficult in my target language (Mandarin Chinese), as writing one word takes a few seconds (another hurdle is it requires environments such as a desk and pen). But my Chinese listening skills are quite stagnating...

Should I dictate it while listening? Or at least as long as I'm equally concentrating, is it no more effective? The content is usually 30 seconds or something like that. My Chinese is likely A1 or A2 (CEFR scale) on listening, though it would be B2 on reading.

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  • Could you please provide references that recommend dictation and writing? In my opinion, processing speed during listening should be at the speed of conversation which is much faster than writing. Watching movies, listening to radio would be a better exercise to develop listening skills.
    – Vitaly
    Apr 19, 2018 at 22:25
  • @Vitaly Example: languagelearning.stackexchange.com/a/2024/304 I also found a few answers that recommend to dictate, and any English teachers recommend it when I was teen (but just edited as it sounds an exaggeration, sorry)...
    – Blaszard
    Apr 20, 2018 at 4:59
  • What is your question about? To dictate something is to read it out loud so somebody else writes it down; that other person is said to be "taking a dictation". This is usually an exercise to see whether a learner masters the spelling of a language (at least in alphabetic languages). Dictation is not the same thing as taking written notes during a listening exercise. When you take a dictation, you write down everything that is dictated to you; however, during a listening exercise, you just take enough notes to help you remember the most important things you heard. Please clarify.
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 20, 2018 at 17:32
  • Could you please clarify your question? Do you actually want to know whether taking dictation is more effective than "writing in the brain"? If yes, more effective in what regard? As a listening exercise? As a writing exercise? Something else?
    – Tsundoku
    May 16, 2018 at 11:08
  • @ChristopheStrobbe Yes, and as a listening exercise.
    – Blaszard
    May 27, 2018 at 10:48

4 Answers 4

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In my opinion, dictation is a useful exercise to develop writing skills. It improves one's style and forces to use less familiar vocabulary and grammar structures.

However, listening comprehension is a skill that needs to be performed at conversational speed. One needs to practice listening to spoken language with its irregularities: dialects, broken sentences, omitted words, interruptions, mispronunciation of words in a rapid speech. Parsing of that constant stream of information should happen at the speed of the person producing the stream. Writing would immensely slow down the process in any language that I know.

To improve listening skills I would recommend, depending on how good one is with the language:

  • Movies with subtitles. Text in subtitles and actions of actors complement verbal information.

  • Movies without subtitles. For those who know the vocabulary and need to reduce their dependency on written text.

  • Radio. One no longer relies on any visual clues and is completely dependent on verbal information. News are the easiest types of broadcasts to start with.

  • Songs. Memorizing lyrics and singing along with a performer that one likes is more enjoyable than any formal class.

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I cannot point you to a conclusive research but many English teachers including my CELTA instructors consider dictations effective.

And for a good reason: According do cognitive theory, for learning to actually occur, the brain must actively process the information it is getting. With listening or reading that can be achieved by well designed questions or tasks around the text.

Writing what you hear is a simple task that fits these conditions.

Better yet may be creating concise notes based on the listening (or reading), but that largely depends on the student's ability to make concise notes. The best option still is having well-designed tasks prepared by a good teacher. Dictation (or making notes if you are good enough* in that) is the best option, if you don't have a good teacher who can do that for you.

*And if you are not, maybe it is the next skill to pick up.

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I have not attempted to learn Chinese, but in pursuit of progress in Romanian, I have focused about 90% of my effort on dictation exercises. It took me about a year to reach the "C1 level".

Initially, my approach was casual, about an hour a day, but after nine months, more intensive with two to four hours daily of pure dictation. With about four months of this intensive effort, "directly conditioning the brain", without much study of grammar or vocabulary, several instructors estimated my level to be C1.

Roughly speaking, at the time of this estimation, I had written more than 50,000 transcripts, repeating about 10,000 exercises, based on short, human audio clips. As of today, I've written over 70,000 and can converse with natives "on a variety of topics".

This month, my rate of success at (perfectly) transcribing audio I have never heard before is 72% (a mistake of even one letter or diacritic is considered an error). I would guess that a native would have a higher success rate, about 95%+ or 99% if diacritics (accents) don't count, but have not measured this. In the first month, my success rate, at transcribing audio samples I had never heard before, was only 38%.

For those curious what system I have in mind, I have a prototype available at https://sitedictation.com, if it's allowed to link to it from here. Happy to provide more information to anyone curious.

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Simple answer: Yes, dictation & actually writing down what you hear (or repeating it orally) is helpful for specific things. It's essentially a form-focused rather than a meaning-focused learning/practice activity & so should be implemented integrated with meaning-focused activities, e.g. It's good practice for developing awareness of the weak & elided pronunciations of words in connected (natural, spontaneous) speech.

In practical terms, students should be able to listen to dictation texts as many times as they need/like. If they can listen to the recordings slowed down, e.g. 0.75x or 0.5 playback speed, this helps students to listen "close up" to the individual sounds that make up the connected speech.

Here's a 6 minute presentation by a Dr of SLA & foreign language teacher & teacher trainer which describes & critiques dictations as language acquisition activities, outlining their pros & cons, according to research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rm_hHOUoe4w

I hope this helps! :)

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