Listening and speaking are two of the hardest skills to cultivate when learning a language.
After a while, memorizing vocabulary, taking grammar notes and writing out sentences becomes easier.
But nothing compares to the frustration that comes when you can’t understand your target language, or just can’t get a sentence to come out of your mouth.
This little-known technique is developing a reputations as an effective way to achieve fluency in a new language.
Shadowing Chinese requires you to listen actively, react quickly and speak without thinking too hard. In short, it trains your brain to talk like a native speaker.
It’s the perfect solution to the problem, but not many people talk about it.
Chances are, you haven’t even heard of it.
So, what is it?
In this post, allow me to enlighten you about the mysterious method of shadowing, how to use it and why shadowing Chinese is a surefire way to improve your language skills.
Learn Chinese Through Shadowing: The Simple but Effective Shortcut to Fluency
Why Practice Shadowing Chinese?
There are many methods of shadowing out there. It’s a technique that a lot of linguists know about and have developed their own ideas around.
However, the most popular method was invented by Dr. Alexander Arguelles.
Dr. Arguelles defines shadowing as repeating a native speaker word-for-word, almost simultaneously, while also referring to texts or transcripts of the audio in both the target language and the learner’s native language. Another common name for shadowing is “parroting,” because that’s what you’re doing: being a parrot of the native speaker.
So, what makes shadowing such a superior method for improving listening and speaking skills? And why should you adopt it as part of your language-learning routine?
- Shadowing improves your listening skills. If you’re going to repeat a native speaker verbatim, you’ll need to listen carefully and quickly. Often times when listening to a podcast or TV show, it’s easy for a learner to stop and ponder on a specific word or phrase instead of moving on to the next. Shadowing doesn’t give you that opportunity. You simply must keep going, and if you need to know the meaning of a word, you can always go back and look it up later.
- Shadowing improves your speaking skills. Almost every language learner stumbles upon this problem: translating in their head. It’s hard to speak with confidence, speed and fluency when you’re thinking too hard about the meaning of your own words. Shadowing forces you to forget your native language and speak as soon as the word processes in your ears. You’re speaking quickly, without translating in your head.
- Shadowing improves your accent. When shadowing, you’re repeating after a native speaker, which means you’re working on your accent. Parroting a native speaker allows you to improve pronunciation subconsciously. Without thinking too hard about a specific word, you’re simply saying it the same way the speaker did.
How to Use Shadowing to Your Advantage
While the simple act of simultaneously repeating a native speaker is bound to improve your skills, if you want an extra kick out of the exercise, make sure you’re doing a few more simple things.
- Embrace your inner parrot. The entire point of shadowing is to repeat what you hear word-for-word. You have to leave behind your native language and simply say what you hear. Parrots don’t know English, but when they hear an English word, they repeat it anyway. Do the same while shadowing Chinese.
- Walk while you talk. Dr. Arguelles considers walking while shadowing an essential step of the method. In his opinion, completing this exercise shouldn’t be done sitting at a desk or standing still. This has to do with automatic and controlled processing.
- Add in the transcript after a few sessions. Part of Dr. Arguelles’s method is using a text to accompany the audio and reading it while repeating. He also recommends the text be in the target language and the native language. Blindly repeating a native speaker can be intimidating and challenging the first few rounds, but adding in a text can make it seem less daunting of a task, as you already know what’s coming.
- Listen to the audio before starting to shadow. Another way to approach shadowing for the first time is to listen to the audio before shadowing it. In his video guide on how to learn languages with YouTube, polyglot Luca Lampariello says he watches the entire video with subtitles in the target language before diving deep and studying it. Not only will it ease a few nerves before shadowing, but you’ll also get an extra round of listening practice.
Shadowing Chinese can be intimidating at first try, but being prepared is the best way to combat nerves. The goal of shadowing is not only to improve listening and speaking abilities but to also improve confidence.
5 Easy Steps to Shadowing Chinese
We can talk about shadowing and its benefits all day long.
But how exactly do you do it?
Now that you know the importance of shadowing, what it improves and how to make the most of your sessions, it’s time to dive deep into how to shadow step-by-step.
Step 1: Find a Good Audio Source
Although you can practically shadow anything that comes out of a native speaker’s mouth, you want to make sure it’s worth your time. Not all audio sources are suitable for shadowing, and some are far more beneficial than others.
Take a look at a few criteria a good audio source needs:
- Slow to moderate pace
- Short (two to three minutes preferably)
- Spoken by native speakers
- Optional: designed for learners
If it’s your first time shadowing, the rate of speech in the audio is important. Especially if you’re a beginner or intermediate learner, trying to mimic a native speaker who’s speaking really fast can be frustrating, demotivating and stressful.
If you’re listening to a video or podcast, you can always adjust the playback speed.
Additionally, the audio doesn’t need to be too long. Think about it: if you choose a 10-minute video, you’re going to be speaking (and possibly reading) for more than 10 minutes. Even longer if you need to pause and watch the video all the way through first.
Unless you have an hour to spare, choose a source that’s between two and three minutes long.
Step 2: Listen to the Audio Once in Full
Why settle for listening once when you can listen twice? Or three times? Or four times?
Before shadowing the audio, listen to it all the way through. Not only will it allow you to prepare, but it’s also a great way to put your audio source to the test.
The last thing you want is to begin shadowing something you thought would be great audio only to find that it’s above or below your level.
If you’re watching a video that has subtitles in Chinese, read them while listening. Reading along with the audio encourages active listening, which is much more beneficial than passive listening.
Finally, enjoy the content while listening. Shadowing can be a stressful task, especially for first-time users, so it’s important that you enjoy the content you’re listening to.
Step 3: Rewind the Audio and Slow It Down
After watching or listening to the audio once, at its original speed, rewind and adjust it to a lower speed. Adjusting the playback speed is easy with resources such as podcasts and YouTube videos.
If you’re using an audio course, make sure you’re using a lesson easy enough for you to shadow. That could mean going back to an old lesson at a lower level.
Sometimes, trying to shadow a native speaker at their original speed is a bit too challenging, and that’s okay.
For this reason, it’s important to start at a lower speed and then readjust it to the original.
Step 4: Repeat After the Native Speaker Sentence-by-sentence
Before jumping into simultaneously repeating, try repeating each sentence.
Parroting sentences is a much easier version of shadowing, and the perfect preparation for the “real deal.” Another great thing about this approach is that you’re able to focus more on mimicking the accent and pronunciation of the native speaker.
The only challenge to shadowing sentence-by-sentence is that you have to remember each word that was said. Unlike simultaneous shadowing, you aren’t repeating as soon as you hear. If the sentence uses a word (or string of words) you don’t understand, it can be difficult to remember and parrot them accurately.
If you’re having trouble parroting each sentence, try making it every few words. The point of this step isn’t to test how long you can remember words you don’t know. The goal is to modify shadowing to an easier level before doing it simultaneously.
Step 5: Repeat After the Native Speaker Immediately at the Original Speed
Finally, you’re going to rewind the audio yet again and start simultaneously shadowing. Only this time, you’re going to do it without any modifications to the speed or the way you shadow (such as sentence-by-sentence).
As soon as you hear a word, say it.
If necessary, pause or rewind the audio. Even if you’re using a relatively easy audio source, repeating each word while listening for the next can be an overwhelming task.
In your moment of deepest desperation, when you feel in over your head or have missed a few words in order to hear the next, pause the audio. Take a breather. Rewind if necessary.
Best Resources to Find Audio for Shadowing Chinese
Now you know the best methods for shadowing audio sources in Chinese. But where can you find them?
We’ve already established a few criteria that make an audio or video good shadowing material. Let’s review them:
- Slow to moderate speed
- Spoken by native speakers
- Between two and three minutes
If you want, you can even choose a resource designed for Chinese learners.
To make the process even easier, I’ve selected a few of my personal favorite resources for shadowing Chinese, from YouTube channels to movie websites.
Remember what else we said makes a great shadowing resource? Transcripts.
FluentU is one of the best places to find fun, short and easy Chinese content to shadow.
You'll find a wide range of contemporary videos that cover all different interests and levels, as you can see here:
FluentU brings these native Chinese videos within reach via interactive captions. You can tap on any word to instantly look it up.
All words have carefully written definitions and examples that will help you understand how a word is used. Tap to add words you'd like to review to a vocab list.
From the description page, you can access interactive transcripts under the Dialogue tab, or review words and phrases under Vocab.
The best part is that FluentU always keeps track of your learning. It customizes quizzes to focus on areas that need attention and reminds you when it’s time to review what you’ve learned. In other words, you get a 100% personalized experience.
Try FluentU in your browser or, better yet, download the FluentU iOS or Android app today!
The Easy Languages YouTube channel is one of my personal favorite resources for shadowing almost any language.
They have playlists for all kinds of languages, from Vietnamese to Hungarian. It’s especially useful if you’re planning to learn the Taiwanese dialect because they teach Taiwanese Mandarin in their videos.
Each video focuses on an interesting, everyday topic, such as “What are you doing today?” or “What do you like about Taiwan?”
Similar to FluentU, each Easy Languages video has subtitles in English, Chinese characters and pinyin at the bottom.
Most of the Easy Languages videos are five to six minutes long, so if you plan on pausing the video when needed while shadowing, it might take you a while (especially if you want to watch the video several times before or after).
Although Easy Languages is geared towards learners, the native speaker interviewees on the street don’t know that. They speak at their natural pace. If it’s a bit too fast, you can always adjust the playback speed.
FluentU Conversation Videos
Did you know FluentU has a YouTube channel?
Did you know that on the YouTube channel, FluentU has several entertaining conversations that feature native Chinese speakers?
These videos make excellent shadowing material. Unlike Easy Languages, the FluentU conversation videos are scripted and the native speakers talk with more enunciated pronunciation and at a slightly slower pace than usual, making it easier for a learner to comprehend. However, the videos don’t include subtitles.
Although there aren’t any subtitles, these videos can be relatively easy to shadow for intermediate or advanced learners as the pronunciation is clear and the speech isn’t too fast.
Similar to the Easy Languages videos, each video is around five to six minutes long. But there are a few that clock in at only four minutes, such as “A Trip to the Supermarket.”
Slow Chinese Podcast
If you’re a podcast junkie, this is the best option for you.
“Slow Chinese Podcast” is one of the most highly recommended podcasts for Chinese learners, and it’s easy to see why. The show is hosted by native speakers but is designed for learners. The hosts speak a bit slower and pronounce words clearly, making it easier to comprehend than most authentic Chinese podcasts.
With over 200 episodes, you can easily find Slow Chinese Podcast on iTunes or on PodBean.
Most episodes are anywhere between three and six minutes, so it’s easy to find a short one perfect for shadowing.
As it’s a podcast, however, Slow Chinese Podcast doesn’t come with subtitles or a transcript.
Melnyks Chinese Podcast
Another great (and popular) podcast designed for learners is the Melnyks Chinese Podcast.
With over 100 free lessons, Melynks Chinese Podcast teaches the language solely through audio and transcripts. Each lesson starts with a dialogue relevant to the lesson topic, followed by vocabulary explained in English.
Practically all lessons are in the 16- to 20-minute range. But this is a bit self-explanatory, as the goal of the podcast is to teach Mandarin using English, not to provide an entertaining, easy listening resource.
The good news is the dialogues in each lesson are only about one to two minutes long, making them the perfect length for shadowing.
Another major pro is the fact that all lessons are accompanied by transcripts, and you can listen to the first 100 lessons without signing up. If you want to create an account, you can get access to over 200.
Popup Chinese Podcast
If you’re looking for an interesting podcast that covers nearly every topic on the planet, Popup Chinese is your best bet.
Regardless of your level, you’re guaranteed to find something entertaining to listen to. Popup Chinese allows you to filter episodes for absolute beginner, elementary, intermediate and advanced levels.
Even the absolute beginner lessons cover a variety of topics, from “Adventures on WeChat” to “Relationship with a Supermodel.”
Each lesson is accompanied by a transcript, a vocabulary list and writing exercises.
Similar to Melnyks Chinese Podcast, the episodes of Popup Chinese are designed as lessons, making them about 10 minutes long each. However, the actual length of the dialogue is only about one minute.
Another outstanding pro is that even in absolute beginner lessons, the native speakers talk at their natural speed.
Not that into podcasts? Perhaps you’re more into romance dramas, game shows or historical action movies that take place in the Tang dynasty.
If that sounds like you, using a website like Viki to stream hundreds of Chinese movies and shows might suit your fancy.
Even though movies and TV shows are quite long, you don’t have to shadow the entire thing.
Choose one of your favorite scenes, or watch about three minutes into the movie or show, and then rewind to begin shadowing just that section.
Viki doesn’t allow watchers to adjust the playback speed, which can be a bit challenging since the actors speak at their natural rate. However, you can put subtitles on in either Chinese or English, or turn on Learn Mode to see both languages simultaneously (this option is only available for select titles).
Another great resource for finding Chinese movies and dramas is Hotpot TV.
Like Viki, you can watch Chinese media with English subtitles. However, they don’t have a Learn Mode and no way to view subtitles in both English and Chinese simultaneously.
The benefit of using two or more resources for finding Chinese media is you get more options. Sometimes, shows that play on Viki don’t play on Hotpot TV, and vice versa.
Since there’s no way to adjust the playback speed, this resource would be better for intermediate to advanced learners. And if you don’t want to be interrupted by ads in the midst of your shadowing session, it’d be best to sign up for an account and upgrade.
Audiobooks are among the best—and most underrated—resources for shadowing any language. They work especially well if you’re following along with a written book, whether it be a digital or physical copy.
Many people recommend listening to audiobooks in your target language for listening practice, but not many think about using them to shadow.
When reading along with the audiobook, shadowing becomes much easier and more beneficial. But if you don’t have a book to read along with, try to find a Chinese audiobook of a story you’ve already read in English.
If you aren’t sure where to find a good audiobook, Audible is the most popular platform.
Shadowing Chinese isn’t as hard as it looks, and with the right resources, it can be pretty fun.
So, why not give it a try?
It’s time to take those listening and speaking skills to new heights. Shadowing is one of the best methods for active listening and will improve your comprehension much faster than watching hours and hours of random Chinese media. And with one of these resources, we’re sure you’ll have a great time while practicing it.
Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving, and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.