We’ve heard that if you talk to a man in his language, it goes to his heart.
And it can seem pretty daunting the more you look at it, what with all the little rules of sounds and spelling there are.
But did you know there’s a way to improve pronunciation without traditional study at all? And better yet, to improve every aspect of your language abilities at the same time?
Enter shadowing. By simply repeating after long stretches of audio as you hear it, you become better at the language.
Perhaps it sounds too good to be true.
But once you hear from the people that popularized this method, your thoughts might change…
Shadowing Magic: An Amazing Language Learning Technique
Feel the Flow: Understanding the Importance of Pronunciation
To understand how shadowing works, let’s first think for a moment about what pronunciation is and what it involves. Looking at it in a new way might be helpful for your learning perspective.
Consider this: Every single language has words and sounds that blend together when spoken naturally.
If you’re a native English speaker and you read that last sentence aloud in a normal voice, you’ll probably join “single language,” “blend together” and “spoken naturally” into single words, with no pause between them.
Not to mention, you’ll probably say “words ‘n sounds” instead of “words and sounds.”
When we speak a language, we create little shortcuts or blends like this constantly.
And it’s one of the hallmarks of non-native speech to avoid doing this, in the effort to speak clearly or “correctly.”
You’d go crazy trying to learn rules like “When [d] follows [n] word-finally it manifests as a lengthening of the [n] sound, except when the next word…”
You could read this stuff for days on end and it wouldn’t do half as much for your language skills as shadowing.
Finding Your Shadow: Your First Steps to a New Voice
Put simply, shadowing is repeating aloud what you hear, word for word, with as little delay as possible.
This method might have been around for decades, but it was given its name in the early 2000s by Prof. Alexander Arguelles, a distinguished and extremely dedicated linguist and polyglot. He has his own description of the method on his website.
How to Start Shadowing: Practice in Your Native Language First
To ease yourself into the method, try it with a recording of yourself in English or your native language.
Read a text aloud, slightly slower than normal, for two or three minutes. Then play back the recording and try to repeat after it. You don’t want to wait for a sentence or even a word to end before repeating it—your repetitions should be as close to simultaneous with the recording as possible.
This will get you accustomed to the slightly unusual feeling of speaking and listening at the same time. Now you’re ready to try it with a foreign language.
How to Find the Right Materials for Your Target Language
Start out with simple dialogues meant for learners. You want to find something a little bit slower than normal, but not too slow or it’ll start getting unnatural.
Prof. Arguelles really liked using Assimil courses for this, though many of their products are only available for French speakers. Really, any textbook or learning dialogue will do as long as it’s at least a couple of sentences of connected text.
Single sentences or groups of phrases are too short. By the same principle, dialogues broken up by English audio translations are also no good.
You’ll also want audio with a transcript so that you can check what you’re hearing. When you’re more advanced, you won’t necessarily need a transcript, but it’s invaluable at the early stages.
FluentU videos work well for shadowing because they’re short, they come with downloadable transcripts and you can load them up right on your phone. FluentU takes real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
How to Use the Right Materials in the Right Way
- Listening. Listen to the dialogue with headphones or earbuds a couple of times without reading any transcript or speaking aloud. Feel the sounds and the words in your mind, even if you don’t have a clue what they actually mean.
- Speaking. Start speaking along with or just after the recording. Mumble along if you can’t keep up. Don’t stress about accuracy at all. Even people who have done this for years constantly flub words when they start out with a new recording. The important thing is to get your voice going.
- Using the transcript. Now have a look at the transcript or translation to clear up points about what you’re hearing and what you’re saying. And then keep going. Eventually, you’ll get used to the idiosyncrasies of your target language as it’s spoken, and your speech will become more and more natural over time.
Prof. Arguelles recommends doing your shadowing exercises outside, walking with good posture and repeating in a loud voice. (He also suggests doing variations of shadowing that involve reading the transcription and translation of the recording as you shadow.)
The main idea here is that you want to do what it takes to keep your mind fully focused on the material, so you can’t drift off or get distracted. However, many people simply shadow at their desks and get many of the same benefits.
How to Know When to Stop
Different people use this exercise for different amounts of time, but a good stopping point is when you can follow the recording at about the same speed and you fully understand what you’re saying.
Some people take this significantly further and end up repeating the same audio courses so many times that they can write the whole thing from memory.
“Stopping point” of course here means a point when it makes sense to move on to a new recording. If you can, stick to recordings by a speaker whose voice sounds really nice to you. Hearing and repeating it so much, especially at the beginner and intermediate stages of learning, will slowly shape your own voice toward that ideal.
Integrating Shadowing into Your Learning Routine
Shadowing has benefits beyond just pronunciation. You eventually assimilate the vocabulary and structures used in your text in a very natural way, and when you speak later you can call on those to really boost your fluency.
You also develop muscle memory and are able to have common phrases or collocations roll off your tongue automatically. When you remember vocabulary later on, it’s very likely that the words will appear in your mind in their natural context.
These are both good reasons to make shadowing part of your regular language learning routine. One easy way to do this is to use it as a warm-up. It’s a fantastic warm-up exercise for thinking in the target language. If you happen to be taking regular language classes, shadow for a couple of minutes outside before the class starts. You’ll be significantly more alert and ready to speak.
Becoming better at pronunciation and speaking fluency is also directly tied to listening—and wouldn’t you know it, listening impacts reading as well.
The better your mental model of the language, the easier it’s going to be for you to decode a stream of native speech into chunks of meaning. Shadowing improves that mental model simply through the sheer amount of listening that you work through, so stick with it!
Join the Chorus: An Alternate Take on Shadowing
Another extremely smart person, Dr. Olle Kjellin, developed a variant on shadowing that deserves a mention here.
Chorusing is his word for shadowing a tiny amount of text—just a few seconds at most—over and over.
Dr. Kjellin, a speech therapist and accent coach, says that students who use his method are able to lose their foreign accents entirely, even in a language like Swedish with very difficult pronunciation.
The idea is that you have this tiny fragment of native speech looping continuously in your headphones and as you concentrate on it over and over you can’t help but repeat.
It’s an intense activity, particularly because he recommends repeating the same sentence aloud for whole minutes at a time, but it really does work.
There’s a connection that gets formed between your ears and mouth, and as you repeat more and more you can actually hear your voice shaping toward the native model, much like with tuning an instrument.
Language learning is such a multi-faceted process that there are as many ways to learn as there are languages themselves.
Some of the most effective techniques are the simplest in terms of execution.
There’s nothing earth-shattering about the shadowing technique, but it stimulates so much of a language learner’s brain that it becomes a very effective use of time.
Like any technique—or studying at all, really—it may not seem to have an effect the first time you do it.
Language learning is about regular practice. The consistency is often more important than the specific exercise you do.
Give shadowing a try for a couple of days, and it just might be the key to a new study routine.
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