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Using Audacity to Practice Chinese

Take your Chinese learning to the next step with Audacity


Using Audacity to Practice Chinese

Take your Chinese learning to the next step with Audacity


When it comes to learning a new language, practicing one’s listening skills and pronunciation is crucial. In addition to studying with the help of a native speaker, one can practice speaking and listening on their own time as well.

Ollie Linge from Hacking Chinese recommends Audacity, a free recording software for both Windows and Mac users. Audacity lets the user record live audio and import digital files into separate channels, which the user can use to cut, copy, splice or mix the recordings. With these features, the program can easily be used to do the following:

  1. Record from any source
  2. Enhance the recording
  3. Repeat or slow down the audio
  4. Mimick and record
  5. Save, edit, and export

Ollie also made a tutorial, which can be viewed below or here on YouTube.

Via Hacking Chinese.

Record from any source, record what you hear

Audacity can be set up to record anything you hear from your computer. This might be different depending on your operating system, but the general idea is to set Audacity’s input to “stereo mixer” or similar. When you press “record”, Audacity will register anything on your computer’s line out. Therefore, if you find it hard to extract the audio from a YouTube clip or from a movie you’re watching, use Audacity!

For Linux users, it’s a simple matter of changing the input settings in Audacity. Users of other operating systems can start here or simply search for “Audacity record playback” + [your operating system].

Audio recording enhancement

Apart from this, Audacity is your best friend when it comes to editing and manipulating recordings of various kinds. Students, for example, use it to record lectures. For this kind of recording with a lot of background noise, one typically needs three things to enhance your recording:

  1. Noise removal and compression
  2. Cutting and editing
  3. Automation

The first part is more complicated than the average record-and-playback function and there are people who are actually earning their living from enhancing sound files. However, one can still do some basic yet very effective things with the program.

For the Audacity novice, noise removal is mostly a matter of trial and error. Try manipulating different levels in the program functions (the default ones to start with, obviously). Audacity’s compression function allows you to change the intensity of the recorded audio, removing high spikes and distributing the rest of the sound in a neat way.

Cutting and editing is fairly straightforward. Since users can see the audio, it’s a lot easier than trying to record from recordings.

Automation is fairly complicated and we won’t pretend to know much about it, but it is worth pointing out that the “chains” function in Audacity that allows one to apply the same functions to any number of files. For instance, if the user records twenty lectures in the same environment, he/she can use the same noise removal and compression settings for all files and can apply these functions to all the twenty recordings with just one click. They can even make Audacity save the results as new files in the file format of your choice.

Using Audacity to mimic native speakers

Mimicking native speakers is one of the most powerful ways of acquiring good pronunciation in any language. However, it’s not always practical to do so. If someone listens to a YouTube clip, the interface simply won’t allow them to repeat exactly what they want to repeat. Even if we have a sound file, it would take ages to use a normal media player to be able to mimic a few minutes of speech.

In Audacity, this is fairly easy. Here’s how:

  1. Import or record audio
  2. Select the part you want to mimic
  3. Click play and only the section you want to play will be heard
  4. If you hold down shift while clicking play, the section will repeat

This is useful because it isn’t very easy to mimic native speakers at their normal rate of speech, not even for advanced learners. Just listening to the same sentence a dozen times before even trying is good start.

The next step would be to record your own voice over the voice of the native speaker. After having practised until you can read a sentence or passage, simply hit record and Audacity will play the audio while recording your voice. You can the mute the original audio and evaluate your own recording. More about this can be found below.

If you’re interested in mimicking the 蒋勋 (Jiǎng Xūn) clip seen in the video,  check out Jacob Gill’s article about how he used that very same clip to improve his pronunciation.

Slow down the rate of speech without changing the pitch

Some media players can slow down the speed of the audio, but while doing so, the pitch also drops. Because of this, we all sound like drunkards at half speed and smurfs on illegal substances on double the speed. Audacity has a function called “change tempo”, which allows one to change the speed without changing the pitch. This allows users to slow down the rate of speech to a level they’re more comfortable with. Obviously, slowing down things too much, will get weird results.

Recording yourself

One very good way of improving your pronunciation is to record yourself. This fulfils several purposes at once:

  • You can share the recording for comments and feedback
  • You can listen to the recording yourself (this is actually very useful)
  • You can use it as a benchmark and see your improvements later

These concepts have already been discussed in more detail in other articles, namely Recording yourself to improve speaking ability and Benchmarking progress to stay motivated.