A Journey into Transcription, Part 3: Clarity

As audio transcribers we listen to sound.  Of primary importance is the clarity of the sound.

clarity:

ABSTRACT NOUN:

The quality of being clear (‘easy to perceive, understand, or interpret’), in particular:

  • The quality of being coherent and intelligible
  • The quality of being easy to hear; sharpness of sound
  • The quality of purity

Let’s consider these qualities and their relevance to the audio transcriber.

The quality of being coherent and intelligible

All of us, when engaged in discussion and conversation, want our language to be coherent and intelligible.  However, for the transcriber listening to a recording, its clarity in the sense of being coherent and intelligible is something of a paradox; it is simultaneously useful and yet also to be ignored.

Naturally, we know that our brains are programmed to attempt to organise and make sense of language.  In this sense, context can often present the transcriber with an invaluable clue to making out words which may be difficult to hear in a recording.

At the initial drafting stage of transcription what we hear at first can turn out to be quite different when we re-listen, edit and proofread the transcript with the glorious benefit of wider context to assist us.  Here are a few of the more entertaining examples:

you wear glasses becomes yoga classes

it’s among the becomes it’s a manga [comic]

yes she was becomes H G Wells

whisking gently becomes whiskey J&B [discussing a recipe!]

However, since the raison d’être of  this corpus is as a basis for research into the language of learners, part of the skill here is in not being distracted by our knowledge of grammatical rules and the surrounding context.

The audio transcriber’s task is to hear what the learner actually says; this may not always be what they (or we) think or expect might be logical or appropriate (or desirable!).  Indeed, the transcription conventions are designed specifically to minimise the possibility of this happening during the transcription process.  In the context of a Graded Examination in Spoken English (GESE) the students (and, on rare occasion, the examiners) can, and sometimes do, say anything!

Below are a few examples of wrong words and non-words which are to be transcribed, alongside words which may have been intended by the speaker:

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Trinity oral test corpus: The first hurdle

At Trinity we are wildly excited – yes, wildly – to finally have our corpus project set up with CASS. It’s a unique opportunity to create a learner corpus of English based on some fairly free flowing L2 language which is not too constrained by the testing context.  All Trinity oral tests are recorded and most of the tests include one or two tasks where the candidate has free rein to talk about their own interests in their own way – very much their own contributions, expressed as themselves. We have been hoping to use what is referred to as our ‘gold dust’ for research that will be meaningful – not just to the corpus community but also in terms of the impact on our tests and our feedback to learners and teachers. Working with CASS has now given us this golden opportunity.

The project is now up and running and in the corpus building stage and we have moved from the heady excitement of imaging what we could do with all the data to the grindstone of pulling together all the strands of meta data needed to make the corpus robust and useful. The challenges are real – for example, we need to log first languages but how do we ensure reliability? Meta data is now an  opt-in in most countries so how do we capture everyone? Even when the data boxes are completed how do we know it’s true? No, the only way is the very non-technological method of contacting the students again and following up in person.

A related concern is has the meta data we need shifted? We would normally be interested in what kind of input students had had to their learning so e.g. how many years study etc. In the past, part of this  data gathering was to ask about time learners had spent in an English-speaking country. Should this now be shifted to time spent watching videos online in English, in social media, in reading online sources? What is relevant –and also collectable?

The challenges in what might be considered this no-core information is forcing us to re-examine how sure we are about influences on learning – not just our perception but form the learner’s perception as well.