Dictation is the process of speaking to another individual while that individual writes down the words spoken. In some cases, the writer, or individual taking dictation, is supposed to write down the precise words that the speaker says while in others he is meant to transfer the spoken words to a structure more appropriate for written work. This is particularly true in languages that have drastically different written and spoken grammar. In some cases, this process is used as an exercise to practice one's grammar and listening skills, particularly when learning a new language. In other cases, individuals who cannot write themselves may dictate their thoughts to other individuals who are able to write down their words.
Many language learning exercises involve an instructor speaking a text to students who attempt to take down the dictation. This tests the students' abilities to hear and understand the words, and to keep up with the speaker well enough to write it all down. This can be particularly difficult if the student is expected to alter the grammatical structure of the spoken text, as is often necessary when converting speech to writing. Many languages actually have formally different grammatical structures in speech and in writing, so for complete correctness, it is often necessary for the writer to make substantial changes.
Some people are either unable or unwilling to do their own writing, so they find people willing to take dictation for them. John Milton, the author of the epic poem Paradise Lost, for instance, went blind and needed to dictate some of his later works because of his inability to write them himself. While it is possible to hire someone to take down dictation, many people choose to find people who they know they can trust, particularly if the content they wish to have written down is sensitive in nature.
There are some technological alternatives that provide somewhat functional substitutes to humans taking down dictation. Many word processing programs, for instance, are able to transcribe spoken words to written text through the use of a microphone connected to a computer. Such programs often have programs that allow them to "learn" the particulars of an individual's speech pattern, allowing for a clearer replication of the dictation. Such programs often have problems with accents and are unable to adjust to drastically different speech patterns, however. They are also unable to transfer spoken grammar to a form more suitable for writing.