Ever had a parrot?
Even if you haven’t, you know what they’re famous for: repeating what you say, for better or worse.
Depending on the conversations you have at home (or just to yourself) this could be enlightening, hilarious or embarrassing—but no matter what, a parrot’s natural ability to mimic human language is downright impressive.
But why are we talking about parrots?
Because it’s time to parrot the parrots.
With a technique called language shadowing, you’ll be acting like a parrot does—repeating what you hear in a foreign language, even if you don’t fully understand it right away.
Of course, as I’m sure you’ll be glad to hear, the difference is that over time you’ll actually start to learn your target language through this repetition and imitation.
Polly Want Fluency! Learn Like a Parrot with Language Shadowing
What Is Language Shadowing?
Linguist Alexander Arguelles is considered the inventor of language shadowing. He’s created a series of videos focused on teaching and demonstrating the technique.
Arguelles defines shadowing as a language learning technique where the student listens to a recording of target language audio, and simultaneously echoes what they hear. Shadowing is designed to force you to focus on the sounds of your target language and develop pronunciation that mimics a native speaker.
Ideally, you’ll eventually also start to absorb vocabulary, grammar rules and natural sentence structures.
According to Arguelles, you won’t get the best results from your desk. He recommends doing three things while shadowing to improve your focus and memory:
- Walking outside swiftly
- Maintaining a good posture
- Repeating aloud in a loud, articulate manner
Arguelles, himself a polyglot, has spent most of his academic career working with Korean, and has written several publications on the language and language in general.
While Arguelles may’ve developed the shadowing technique into a concrete learning method, there are people who’ve been using shadowing prior to it having this name.
Who Should Consider Language Shadowing?
This technique works best for a few types of people:
- Auditory learners
- Students who learn best with structured study plans
- Polyglots (if you’ve already learned a foreign language, speaking with unfamiliar sounds isn’t as scary)
Even if you don’t fall into one of those groups, this out-of-the-box learning method can help energize your same old, same old study plan. Plus, the focused pronunciation practice is inherently valuable, especially if you don’t have lots of other opportunities for target language speaking practice.
You’ll also develop your target language intonation, the natural “melody” or pattern of your speech. Depending on the emphasis you consciously or subconsciously place on certain syllables or words while speaking, a sentence can have a slightly different meaning. Intonation develops over time and is affected by how we hear others speak.
So with language shadowing, our intonation develops as we listen and repeat, the same way it does with our native language. Both accents and intonation are crucial to achieving language fluency, so you sound much more natural when you speak, instead of like you’re reading from a textbook.
Of course, there are many different ways to approach learning a new language, and shadowing doesn’t work for everyone. Like any other method, your individual success with shadowing is dependent on how much time, effort and dedication you put into it.
How to Shadow Successfully
The guide below is based on the structure laid out in Arguelles’ video “Shadowing Step by Step.”
1. Choose Your Audio Resource
What kind of audio should you be listening to?
Audiobooks read by a native speaker in your target language are one great option—LibriVox is a great place to find audiobooks in many different languages. For shorter, more digestible listening, try podcasts in your target language.
You’ll also want to make sure your audio resource has a text component with an English translation (for example, an e-book version of your audiobook in both languages). You’ll see why in the steps below.
Don’t feel like going on a hunt for those types of resources? You can find perfect shadowing material on FluentU. FluentU provides authentic foreign language videos, like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring talks and more, that’ve been supercharged with language learning tools.
Each video comes with interactive, bilingual captions in your target language and in English. You can click any word for an instant definition or toggle off the English version—both of these features will be very helpful for shadowing step number four, below. You’ll also get visual learning aids and native pronunciations for every word you click on.
The videos come with full transcripts you can refer to as you’re shadowing or afterwards. There are even flashcards and exercises to help you remember new words when you’re done listening. Don’t want to be distracted by the video? You can listen to audio-only clips.
2. Listen and Repeat While Walking Around
An unconventional but critical part of language shadowing is walking around while listening to and repeating your audio resource.
As a non-native speaker, early on it’s tricky to speak in a foreign language while doing something else, even the simple task of walking. This exercise is designed to get you out of your comfort zone and focusing actively on what you’re hearing. It also gives a regimented feel to your shadowing practice, making it harder for you to space out or get lazy with your pronunciation.
Walking or pacing while shadowing will seem uncomfortable at first, especially since many of us are inclined to sit down while studying. But as you keep going it’ll become easier and more natural.
Do this step several times until you feel comfortable repeating all of the sounds.
3. Listen and Repeat While Reading the English Translation
Now you can start learning what you’ve actually been saying this whole time!
Go back to the start of your audio passage and shadow while reading the English translation of your book or transcript. As Arguelles puts it, this will give you a “global” understanding of what you’re listening to and saying. You’ll start to associate meaning with the target language sounds in a natural way.
Again, repeat this stage several times. While you might want to stop pacing around for your own safety, Arguelles still recommends holding your text out in front of you rather than at your lap and keeping an upright posture.
4. Listen and Repeat While Reading the Target Language Transcript
At this stage, you’ll be reading the target language words as you speak them. If the audio is slow enough, you can actively move your eyes between the target language text and translation to compare the individual words and their meanings (Arguelles recommends you start this stage in this way).
Eventually, you should be shadowing your target language and reading your target language only, but understanding what it is you’re hearing and saying.
The essential idea here is that over time, as you shadow with more and more material, you’ll learn how to speak and understand words and phrases in your target language in a big picture, natural way. You won’t be translating one-to-one between English and your target language, which means you can achieve fluency faster.
5. Repeat Daily
Language shadowing requires daily effort and dedication from the learner. It might feel laborious at first, but proponents of language shadowing say that with this method, learning a language is a much quicker process overall.
Why? Along with the benefits noted above, Arguelles and his students say it’s because of the discipline required, as well as the immersive nature of this method.
For me, language shadowing is another learning method to add to my bag of techniques. Shadowing is something I incorporate into learning a new language, but I also use other methods, like journaling for writing practice or language apps to learn grammar and vocabulary. I think one of the best things you can do when learning a new language is to try a variety of methods before homing in on the ones that work best for your unique learning style and lifestyle. As someone who’s tried to learn languages using more conventional methods before, I would recommend that anyone interested in language shadowing give it a try.
After all, if it’s good enough for parrots, it’s good enough for me!
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