How To Use Audacity For Language Learning [+ Subtitles]

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
  • Read time4 mins
  • Comments2

Six years ago (I can’t believe it’s been that long!) I made a video where I first introduced the idea of chunking in language learning.

In that video, I shared a very basic strategy for looping audio chunks using the free/Open Source audio editor, Audacity.

People seemed pretty eager to find out more about how I use the audio tool in my learning (and I STILL get questions about it today) but like a lot of things, I moved on and never talked about it again!

Well… I still use Audacity regularly in my learning.

It’s one of these timeless, never-gets-old tools (like LWT) that after almost a decade of new technology, apps and so on, still retains its usefulness. Often the simplest, freest tools are the best.

So today I’m sharing another of my favorite Audacity tips to help you learn languages more efficiently.

Step 1: Download and install Audacity (obviously)

I didn’t mention this in my video but I’ll state the obvious here.

Audacity is free and Open Source, and is available on pretty much every operating system (Windows, Mac, Linux, BSD). I’m using a BSD version in the video which may be a few versions behind the one you get but they all do the same thing.
Download your version here.
For Linux and BSD users, it’ll depend on what package manager your OS or distribution uses (Audacity may even be included). I’m sure I don’t need to explain it but just in case you need it:Ubuntu/Mint: sudo apt-get install audacity

Arch/Manjaro: sudo pacman -S audacity

FreeBSD: sudo pkg install audacity

OpenBSD: doas pkg_add audacity

Step 2: Import your language audio track (taken from a course, podcast, TV show, etc.)

I’m going to assume that whatever you use, you have the rights to (I shared other tips of downloading video material here).

The sample I used in this video is an Egyptian Arabic – Beginner lesson on ordering food from (ideal because it’s spoken slower with pauses to make selecting sections easier).

If you have a video and want to extract the audio, use FFmpeg (available on all operating systems as well and it’s also Open Source).

Use this command to create an .MP3 file from any video:ffmpeg -i video.avi -q:a 0 -map a audio.mp3

This will take a video (change ‘video.avi’ to whatever your video file is called) and create an .MP3 file called ‘audio.mp3’.

Open it with Audacity or use File > Import > Audio.

Step 3: Select the sections of the track you want to focus on and create labels

If it’s a large audio file, I recommend trimming it down and focusing on a very short part.
I always emphasize high repetition of a very small amount of language material as the most effective way to learn. If you try to learn too much, you’ll learn nothing.

When you’ve selected a section of the audio track, hit CTRL+B.This will create a label track and insert a label at the selection point.

Do this as many or few times as you want to (I recommend not doing it to the point where you have a page full of labels — it gets too untidy).

Step 4 (optional): Export the labels to a text file in order to create subtitles (or just to save them)

Once you’ve finished making your Label track, go up to File > Export > Export Labels… and save it as a text file.

Now you can exit Audacity and edit the text file using a text editor of choice.

The syntax for a subtitle file (.SRT) looks like this:

1 (sequential numbers starting with 1 – so the next one will be 2 and so on)

00:00:00,000 --> 00:00:00,000 (hour:minute:second,millisecond)

<em>label goes here </em>(the label you created)

The exported text file won’t look like this, however.It will need to be edited accordingly (use the template I’ve provided for guidance).

Did you find this language learning screencast useful or interesting?

I’m still trying to gauge people’s interest in this kind of content.

It’s a little on the technical side of things I know and far from what I’ve typically shared in the past but I’m testing it out.

Can you leave a comment below or on my YouTube video and let me know?

It’ll help me decide if I continue making more or not.

Also, if you like this style of learning (high-repetition, natural audio) but prefer something automated, then read my Glossika review. I talked about it extensively and interviewed its founder.

Thanks! 🙂

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Cardinal MezzofantiCardinal Guiseppe Mezzofanti was a 19th century polyglot who is believed to have spoken at least 39 languages!Learn more
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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Donovan, came across your site. Im curious about your thoughts as to understanding a language you are studying when it pertains to reading articles or something which is not in the form of a conversation. I find reading and understanding much more difficult. Ive been learning italisn for almost 12 years and when i get into reading its frustrating. I would appreciate your thoughts



Hello Donovan, thanks for sharing this technique! I have been reading your blog on and off for a couple of years now and love your passion for language learning!

I am an English native speaker and I am (kinda) fluent in Japanese. Worked insanely hard for 5 years to get to where I am, but my ultimate goal is MASTERY. I have been looking for ways to improve, and I think that your audio-chunking method might be a great technique. My question is, do you actually put that chunk of audio and text into Anki for future practice? Or do you just keep listening to that same chunk over and over for say 2 days then move on to the next?


P.S. I used Anki every single day for 3 years and suffered from Anki burn-out. It is a super awesome tool but my burn-out is so bad that I can never return to it.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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