Language Shadowing: Learn a Language by Looking Like a Crazy Person

Creative Independence by Nattu

Shadowing is one of the most effective methods for increasing fluency and improving accent in a target language.

I’m certain my neighbors think I’m insane.

After all, on a fairly regular basis I can be seen strolling around the neighborhood talking to myself. However it’s not actually because I’m insane (though some people might contend that’s up for debate) – it’s because I’m practicing a second language using a tactic designed specifically to improve my fluency in production and speaking.


What’s Language Shadowing?

Specifically, Shadowing is a technique credited to Dr. Alexander Arguelles which he teaches and has employed himself in the past to learn something in the neighborhood of 38 language.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing has a specific methodology to it, there are also more general or modified forms of shadowing like what I’d been doing for long before I learned of Dr. Arguelles’ work. In more general forms I’ve always called it parroting or mimicry rather than shadowing, but the terminology isn’t terribly important in my opinion.

Shadowing in general is the practice of taking recorded input in a target language and repeating it as you listen to it trying to match the speaker exactly as you hear it. Now this doesn’t mean repeating what they say after they say it, although that can certainly be helpful to. For shadowing or mimicry you really want to try to repeat simultaneously with the recording. Doing it this way will make it easier for you to check your pronunciation and timing more accurately as your memory of how the audio sounded is likely not going to be perfect.

Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing takes it a step further by adding a physical distraction, walking, and by making the process a little more structured through the transition from blind shadowing (mimicking audio without text to accompany it) to shadowing while reading transcriptions.

What’s Language Shadowing Good For?

Shadowing on its own is not, in my opinion, a complete method for learning a target language.

That being said, it’s an extremely useful tool for increasing fluency and understanding as well as improving your accent and ability to be understood.

Shadowing makes you practice sounding as much like a native speaker as you possibly can as quickly as you possibly can. This has two primary effects on you, the first is it helps create all the neural connections in your brain to produce those phonemes, words and sentences quickly and accurately without having to think about it. This is extremely important when it comes to developing high levels of fluency since fluency itself requires the ability to respond without having to think too hard about it.

Shadowing helps overcome the tendency of people to translate back and forth between their primary and target language before responding – a tendency that slows everything down.

Additionally shadowing also helps develop the muscle memory in all the physical parts responsible for the production of those sounds. Depending on what your primary and target languages are there’s a decent chance there are a lot of sounds your mouth just isn’t used to producing.

The best way to correct this and get your mouth used to producing those sounds is through proper mimicry, that is to say repetition of the sound produced properly. Shadowing provides this practice and is one of the best tools to reduce your accent and get closer to native pronunciation.

Shadowing is best then as a single tactic in part of a larger language learning strategy. You don’t necessarily have to be at an intermediate level though to begin using it. Some recommend only shadowing with audio you can understand but personally I see a lot of benefit in using shadowing right from the beginning even with audio you can’t understand at all – you still get the benefit of the neuromuscular facilitation and you’ll sound a lot better when you get to the point where you can understand what you’re saying.

How to Shadow

I’m not going to go through the specific method of Dr. Arguelles’ Shadowing – for that just skip down to the bottom of the page and watch the video of him explaining it in detail (it’s an hour long, but worth watching, so if you don’t have time right now save it for later).

Personally I like to start shadowing from day one. I also like to shadow from more colloquial sources of speech rather than more academic sources. That means going to things like TV shows and movies in the target language, or just recorded conversations between native speakers if you have some friends who speak the language you’re learning, rather than audio lessons from a more structured textbook.

I prefer it that way because in my experience the audio samples from academic textbooks have a tendency to overcompensate in order to be more instructive and as a result come across more sanitized than how a native speaker would naturally speak. Instead, clip a little chunk out of a movie you like and practice with that – it tends to sound a lot more natural.

A slight word of caution though, particularly when just starting out and yet unfamiliar with the connotations of particular dialects choose an audio model as similar as possible to how you wish to appear to people. In other words, no matter how much you love the show, if you’re a guy and you learn Japanese mimicking Sailor Moon you run the risk of picking up all the feminine speech patterns. Likewise if you only shadow a language watching gangster movies, you might wind up with a gangster-esque accent eventually.

So try to stick to characters and people you want to sound like or at the very least mix it up as much as you can. Newscasters tend to be a good option as well. It’s standard for news anchors to train in the most neutral dialect of their country and, while they speak very clearly, they also speak quickly – both good qualities in selecting audio to shadow.

Once you’ve got your target language audio clip it down into a manageable chunk and listen to it on repeat for ten to fifteen minutes repeating it as close to simultaneously with the native speaker as possible. I like to follow Dr. Arguelles’ model a bit and go for a walk while I do it, since it seems to help my brain get used to producing the target language while I’m doing other things.

That may seem minor, but it makes a big difference when you’re trying to have a conversation in the target language someday while driving or doing something else. There’s a big mental difference between using a language while you focus on it completely and using one while multi-tasking that you tend to not notice until you’re in that kind of situation.

That’s it! Keep that up ten to fifteen minutes a day and play around with it to see what works best for you. I’ll leave you with Dr. Arguelles himself explaining his own particular method of shadowing.

Have you used shadowing or something similar to help improve a target language? What did you think? Were there any ways you found to make it more effective? Share them with everyone in the comments!

Photo Credit: Nattu

2 thoughts on “Language Shadowing: Learn a Language by Looking Like a Crazy Person

  1. How long would you suggest the audio clip to be? (you only mentioned that we might do it for 10-15 minutes, but have not specified a reasonable clip time)
    Thank you!

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