Hacking Language Learning: Audiobooks With Transcripts

This post is the first in a new series of language learning hacks that will massively accelerate your acquisition.

What’s it about?

Foreign language audiobooks are great learning tools. Combined with a matching transcript they become incredible resources. Today I’m going to show you how to use audiobooks to hugely boost your language level.

Why Audiobooks are great for learning languages

– Gain exposure to authentic native material.
– Learn tons of new vocabulary.
– Develop a native-like sense of individual words and phrases from their proper context.
– Improve your listening skills.
– Enjoy foreign literature in the original.

Who is it for?

I highly recommend this method for upper-intermediate learners and above. You should see a noticeable improvement in your foreign language ability in a matter of weeks.

For those who are only just starting out, tackling a whole audiobook is too much for now. Indeed, your time will be better invested in developing your vocabulary base and understanding for the critical structures of the language. Come back to audiobooks once you are ready.

Yep. Sounds good. So what do I need to do?

My suggested procedure for the audiobook with transcript method is simple:

1. Find interesting material to listen to with a matching text (discussed later)
2. Listen to the first chapter. Just listen for now, without reading the text. Try to just get the gist of what is going on in the story and focus on what you can understand.
3. Next, listen and read at the same time. You are likely to understand a lot more  of the content during this second round. Take time to notice unknown words and make a mental note of them., perhaps guessing at what they might mean. There is no need to look them up with a dictionary at this stage.
4. Listen to the chapter one more time.

OK I did the first chapter. What next?

If you can roughly follow the plot and understand around 50% of the words, then move on to the next chapter and repeat the above process. The reason I recommend skipping the dictionary where possible is twofold:

1. New words will tend to make their meanings known to you if you give them enough time. The context of the story you are listening to will often give them away. Your brain is great at making  its theories all on its own. After all, that is how you learned your native language.

2. This language stuff is supposed to be fun. I want you to enjoy the content and let it flow. Over time, this will positively reinforce your learning and you will begin to look forward to it.

If it is proving difficult to follow the general story and your comprehension is below 50% then a different strategy is required. In this case, we will break our rule. Look up some of the unknown words with a dictionary. Don’t go too crazy though! Try to find out the meaning for the vocabulary items that seem to repeat themselves. These will usually be the most useful ones to know. You can write down the definitions or make flashcards for them in a program such as Anki. When you have looked up a decent number of words, try starting again through steps 2-4 of our procedure. Your comprehension should be much better this time. Now you can move onto the next chapter.

Which audiobooks do you recommend for language learning?

Konosuke San knew a thing or two about business. Why not learn Japanese from him?

To study with optimal effectiveness, you should aim to find content that is both interesting and understandable.

Many of you will find that a familiar story or topic will make for a better audiobook to start out with. This way, you will already know the context and be able to decipher the meaning of new words with greater ease. Of course this will depend on your level in the language. If you are comfortable with your listening skills, then by all means move onto completely new content.

I have listened to and read the Little Prince in several languages. It is just right for me – a short and enjoyable story with fairly straightforward vocabulary. Others prefer using religious texts such as the Bible. No subject matter or genre is objectively inferior to another. What matters is what is interesting to you.

We can make some generalizations though. Fiction light on dialogue and heavy on abstract descriptions (e.g. Kafka) will be much tougher than a trashy romance novel. It may be surprising to some that low brow content tends to make better language learning material, especially when you are starting out.


Audiobooks with transcripts are incredibly helpful, but the challenge up until now has been to find them. To help out, we have assembled lists of audiobooks for all the East Asian languages. We hope you find them useful. Enjoy!

Japanese audiobook list
Chinese audiobook list

We would love to hear your feedback on this method. Have you tried something similar in the past? Did it help you? Let us know in the comments section below!

6 thoughts on “Hacking Language Learning: Audiobooks With Transcripts”

  1. Thank you for the audiobook list. As someone who has studied by drilling tons of Anki reviews and completed numerous Japanese textbooks for the last 2 years, I find this method quite refreshing.

  2. Thank you very much for this article. It gives me some good ideas how and where to begin with this method. I thought it could be useful to mention this software tool that I just started to experiment with. It is called WorkAudioBook and aims to be the “best audio book player for language learners”. It’s running for free on Windows, and costs something as an Android app. A good feature is in my opinion the ability to skip forward and backward sentence by sentence. But there are some more interesting functions in this tool, such as an Anki integration that I still did not try out so far… Here’s the link.

    For now I just use it with the audio that came with my beginner’s Chinese text books (Intensive Spoken Chinese, by Zhang Pengpeng). 🙂

    Also, many thanks for the audio book lists!

    Best regards, Martin

  3. Francis Campbell

    Hi Martin,

    That program looks cool, especially the Anki integration. Thanks for letting us know about it! Nice to see some good software cropping up around the net. At the end of the day, as long as we are consistent with our studies we will get there in the end!

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