Shadowing: The Single Best Method for Learning ANY Language

Introduction

That’s some title, isn’t it?! But yes, this method is my personal favourite by a long shot. Not just because it was created by polyglot extraordinaire, professor of linguistics Alex Arguelles (who knows over 50 languages), but because it is the most efficient method out there in terms of utilising time while covering 3 of the 4 main language skills of speaking, listening, and reading (it doesn’t cover writing directly).

As usual, this post will explain what the method is, why it’s important, and how to use it before finally looking at some of the pros and cons of the method. It will also propose some possible solutions to make up for a potential shortcoming* of the method.

 

What?

Shadowing is many things, but primarily it is a form of echoing a piece of audio- a lot! For example, imagine you’re listening to a weather report and you hear the following:

 

. . . And today in the south-east we should be expecting heavy rain . . . 

 

The purpose of shadowing is to speak alongside the audio as accurately as possible. This is incredibly difficult at first, but with practice it becomes manageable. This is what shadowing would look like:

Notice there’s a time lag? In actual fact, when Shadowing a foreign language, the following usually happens at first (look at the bottom row):

Or something to that effect! But don’t worry so much about this verbal salad at this point! Much like the dreary south-east in England and it’s unfortunate meteorological future, this is to be expected. With many repetitions, we’ll be following along perfectly in no time.

In this respect and like many other methods, Shadowing is a journey; it’s about getting from A (confusion regarding a fairly long passage), to B (thorough comprehension of the gist). For me, it is the most important half of a duality of methods I use for a COMPLETE comprehension of a passage (the other half is my own method, Pacing, which should be available in a few weeks). In addition, Shadowing is also highly recommended in that it focuses on 3 skills simultaneously, and given the fact that the input language can be put on a loop, it is the most efficient method of language acquisition out there**. The creator of the method, Professor Arguelles, found the method to be game-changing, even after having learned many languages before developing it. 

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that this is a method that you really can’t afford to ignore in your language learning journey.

 

How?

The key to Shadowing lies in the materials. Professor Arguelles, for reasons that I thoroughly agree with, believes that Assimil seems to have composed with Shadowing in mind, followed by the Cortina method. To break it down, what we need to look out for when choosing appropriate material to shadow is the following: 

 

  1. Facing translations;

  2. No sound effects;

  3. No English***

  4. Length of text;

  5. Audio quality

 

This is how several of the best available methods compare in terms of Shadowing:

Assimil is clearly the most suited for Shadowing, but before discussing the table in detail, it is important to emphasise that the information doesn’t represent the quality of the material, rather just their suitability for Shadowing. These are all great methods and should be used if available, and some seem to be more suited than others for different methods (see my upcoming article on memorisation)

 

Here is a breakdown of the table:

 

1: Facing Translations: This is the most essential ingredient of Shadowing. Not only are facing translations great in themselves as they act as immediate dictionaries, eradicating the need to waste time looking things up, Shadowing actually requires a facing translation. It’s simple, no facing translation, no Shadowing. Linguaphone is an amazing textual resource for foreign language learners, but it doesn’t have a facing translation so cannot be used. Saying that, I developed my own method, Pacing, while using Linguaphone in order to play to its strengths. 

2: No Sound Effects: I know what a telephone sounds like! Listening to the clip clap of business shoes at an airport during a dialogue for 4 seconds might be ok once or twice, and indeed it does lend an air of authenticity to the scene, but Shadowing is an intensive method that requires the audio to be on a loop and listened to about 30 times (seriously, the number of structured repetitions is ridiculously high!). Imagine using your 1-hour time slot for French, and hearing 2 minutes of audio dedicated to the lively gait of a waitress. Then add 30 x 2 seconds of telephone ringing plus an assortment of barking, crying, whistling, and screeching. Not only will the sound effects be extremely grating, but also listening to them is an egregious waste of time. Shadowing is about squeezing every last drop of time out of a study session in an extremely efficient way, and definitely not about listening to authentic beeping. With Shadowing, we need a nice, crisp audio. We can use software (Audacity is free and essential for the autodidact- more in an upcoming article) to remove background noise, but this is obviously not ideal, and the results are often less than perfect. Assimil is perfect. 

3: No English: An important part of Shadowing is vast amounts of repetition. If I’m learning French, I want to listen to French as much as possible. If half the time is spent listening to English filler and prompts, such as “How do you say . . . ?”, “Now say . . . ”, then my learning time is cut drastically. Also, it becomes hernia inducing to listen to this hundreds of times. While native speaker language filler might be appropriate for other methods, it is a no-no for Shadowing a text.

4: Length of Text: This is also very important as too short would be rather tedious, whereas too long would run the risk of causing the listener (can I say, “Shadower”?) to lose focus of the target language. We’re looking for Baby Bear’s porridge hear, which comes about 10-15 lines. 

5: Audio Quality: I’ve included this as a separate entry to Sound Effects (see no. 2 above) as it merits its own entry. Is the audio scratchy? Are the participants in the dialogue real actors or random foreign guys dragged in from the street? Are there too many pauses, or do they speak too quickly / slowly? These are all very real issues that need to be considered when choosing appropriate material. Granted, many of the issues can be fixed (but not all), but the audio might take up a lot of time with editing. I’ve done it, but I know I’d rather be Shadowing instead.

 

So, in order of most to the least appropriate of my favourite 5 foreign language textbook series in terms of Shadowing:

 

  1. Assimil,

  2. Cortina,

  3. Teach Yourself / Colloquial

  4. Linguaphone (cannot be used)

 

Again, please don’t feel discouraged from using the other methods on the list. They are all good methods and should be used subject to availability****. 

 

Now we’ve looked at the materials, let’s focus on the procedure, which can be summed up in the table below

Before starting to shadow, we need to set up the audio. You can do it with any player, but I recommend Audacity. If you have editing software, do the following (I'm using Assimil for this brief walkthrough):

 

1: Remove Exercise*****: First, highlight the area you want to remove, and then press delete on your keyboard

2: Remove Silence: First, completely highlight the audio. Now, go to effect -- truncate silence. Truncate to 0.75-1.00. The lower the number, the more silence you delete. Be careful not to truncate too much otherwise it will be hard to keep up.

3: Loop: This allows us to have a constant stream of input running during our session. As you can see, this is an extremely efficient way of using 30 minutes. Intense, but well worth it.

The table covers all the essential information and may be kept to one side as a handy reference. However, this, like any other method I’ve written about (and am planning to write), soon becomes second nature after a short while. Here is a slightly more detailed explanation of each stage:

 

1: Blind Shadow: This is almost like going into an exam naked. You’re not meant to understand much at this stage, and it’s highly unlikely that anyone can mouth the words perfectly along with the audio. If you can get the gist, that’s amazing! If not, don’t be discouraged (I can hardly ever get the meaning during the first stage). Nevertheless, it’s a good listening challenge and a wonderful way to get acquainted with the text.

 

2: Global Shadow: Here, we must begin to do three things: Read the English (1) while listening to the audio (2), as well as speaking along with it (3). It’s at this stage where we really start to assign meaning to the abstract phonological stream of sound by associating foreign ideas with the corresponding ideas in our native language. 

 

3: L1-L2: L1 refers to our native language (I’m assuming that this is English for most of our readers), while L2 means the foreign language we are studying. This shorthand means we should be reading the English as before, with occasional glances at the foreign language. L1 is our house, but we may venture a peak in the prohibited garden of the foreign language from time to time (just don’t steal anything . . .).

 

4: L2-L1: To continue the terrible metaphor, we’ve now moved house and live in the text of the foreign language, but continue to peek at the old garden of our mother tongue. In sum, stage three has you read the English while glancing at the foreign language, while stage four requires that we read the foreign language almost exclusively while allowing ourselves to occasionally look back at our mother tongue for clarification of a confusing point of the text. Remember to repeat each stage five times.

 

5: Target: Now we should be focussing exclusively on the target language without any recourse to L1. If you really do need to look at the English, then go back and start again. Only kidding, just try not to peek.

 

6: Blind Shadow: This is a repeat of the first stage, although we have made considerable improvement since our first exposure. You should now have a very clear idea of the text. I find that this isn’t the end of working with the dialogue as further analysis is very helpful. A forthcoming article about another method, Pacing, will show you how to further clarify the text.

 

So, there we are. We have listened to the recording 30 times and it has taken about 35 minutes (assuming you are using Assimil and have removed all the superfluous content). That’s 35 minutes of PURE INPUT. This is the stuff that rapid fluency is made of. There are still hazy areas in the text/audio that need to still be clarified. This is where Pacing comes in, so once you have gone through and feel comfortable with applying the material in this lesson, I hope you can invest another 30 minutes in learning another important skill. Good luck!

 

Conclusion

Shadowing is a highly efficient way of learning a language that manages to focus on three of the four language skills simultaneously. Unfortunately, I had already learned several languages, including doing my BA in Chinese, before I discovered this method, but it’s never too late to adopt it.

Shadowing has earned pride of place in my own repertoire of methods concerning second language acquisition. It may prove to be too intensive for some, but I find it highly stimulating and challenging, even after 30 repetitions!

Challenge: ​Shadow a text using the procedure in the tutorial. If you don't have access to the recommended texts, use some others, but remember to use editing software to remove unwanted audio. 

What do you think of Shadowing? Leave comments below and please share if you find the content useful!

About Me

My name is Neil and I have been teaching English professionally for almost 20 years, the last ten of which at my language school. 

Apart from a diploma in teaching English as a foreign language (Cert Tesol), I have a BA in modern and Classical Chinese. I also speak Spanish, Italian, and French, and read Latin. 

Besides continuing my daily studies of these languages, I have also set myself a language goal of one new language a year. I’m looking forward to starting Japanese or German on the 1st January 2021.

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