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Shadowing Alone April 14, 2008

Posted by Edwin in Speaking.

I recently came across a language forum post. A person taught some Japanese students English by playing recordings of native speakers and asking the students to repeat them again and again. The teacher did not give more details, so I assume this was the only method he used. He posted a recording of one of his students and asked for comments on her pronunciation.

I listened to the recording and was surprised that in the first half minute or so, I could not figure out that she was indeed speaking English! In fact, I could pick up less than 10% of what she was saying in my first listening.

Shadowing (a.k.a parroting, chorusing, echoing, etc) is a popular technique among language learners, which is widely claimed to be effective. So I wonder what went wrong.

I listened to the recording again and again. I noticed the student’s intonation was actually very good, but she could hardly get any pronunciation correct. My conclusion was that she was working on something probably not quite suitable at her level. She should pick materials with slower speed and contain simpler vocabulary. She should also put more focus on her pronunciation.

This example shows that doing shadowing exercises alone is simply not enough. This is also confirmed by my own experience. While I find it very helpful in improving intonation and perhaps fluency, it does not help much with my pronunciation.

I believe in two activities that are vital to improve pronunciation. The first is to study how each sound is pronounced. In other words, “Understand how it works”. I don’t think merely listening and imitating the sounds is sufficient to nail them precisely. While I am not an IPA-advocate, I think some kind of knowledge on phonetics need to be acquired. For example, we need to understand the placements of the tongue and the shapes of the month to pronounce those sounds. I am still thankful to John on his article about the tongue placements concerning some Mandarin sounds. I came across it a few years ago and that really helped me a lot with my pronunciation. I believe I sound better in those sounds than many native speakers from southern China.

The second activity is to read aloud on your own, in other words, “Make it work“. This way, you train your brain to work out the sounds by yourself. I have been working on this with my French in the last few weeks, although not very intensively. I would pick a short article with a few paragraphs and read aloud. Then I would listen to the native speaker’s recording separately, to check out some uncertain sounds. I would repeat the process again, and I would do at most one article per week. I would read the sentences slowly and as clearly as I could, which is something I can’t do in shadowing. I have heard many people who made tremendous improvement by doing this exercise.

I still believe shadowing is a useful technique, and we should all do it from time to time. But I believe this technique alone is not enough to reach fluency. We have to do it along with other exercises.



1. Ramses - April 17, 2008

A while ago I watched a short movie of Professor Arguelles (of the How to learn any language forum) about Dutch. He advocates shadowing, but I couldn’t help hating his Dutch accent. It’s just so bad, and I wonder if he learned it by shadowing. If so, I believe shadowing is one of the worst methods for pronounciation.

2. Edwin - April 19, 2008

Not sure if you are talking about the same video clip. Someone actually put in a comment saying that his Dutch pronunciation is “extremely good”! I can’t tell. I don’t know dutch.

His Mandarin sounds a bit weird, but his writing is ok.

I think shadowing can only be done when you can already speak a bit of the language. It might help to improve your fluency.

3. eduFire » Blogs - June 19, 2008

[…] of Tower of Confusion definitely fits the bill. Check out recent posts on Migration to Anki and Shadowing Alone. Good […]

4. Fendy - December 21, 2008

Hi, I like your site.

I am a native-English speaking English teacher in Japan, and I have recently become interested in the benefits of shadowing (I had seen the ‘How to learn any language forum’ before). A Japanese teacher of English told me that she practiced shadowing for an hour every day at home over a year, and although she hadn’t previously told me that she was doing that, I had noticed an amazing improvement overall in her English skills over the months. Little did I know she had been studying so much. Anyway this is an example of the benefits of shadowing.

I have thought of an interesting technique that incorporates the concepts of speed reading and shadowing for language learning – I recommend recording your own voice for several minutes when reading some language text, and then playing it back to yourself while reading it aloud a second time – and so on a third time, etc. You will find that you are able to read much faster each time. In effect, reading fluency will greatly improve. If you time yourself, you will notice improvements each time. Of course, you need to get used to listening to your own voice, stumbling over the words. This technique allows anyone at any level to do shadowing at an ideal speed. The idea is also to read as fast as you can at a steady pace.

I think shadowing (particularly as I suggested) can improve spoken fluency, while reading aloud can benefit language learning considerably overall.

5. a soucy - April 28, 2009

This is the first i’ve heard of shadowing that didn’t involve reading – in my ESL classes, i’ve only used it with a combination of audio recordings of passages plus copies of the actual text. Learners then read along with the recording – silently the first time (or even a few times), then (when they feel ready) aloud trying to shadow the phrasing & intonation patterns of the reader. It is also useful to mark the phrases, or ‘chunks’, and stressed words or syllables to focus on suprasegmentals which help a lot with communicative quality. Also, as they read along, after trying to shadow, they can highlight the elements that give them problems. Finally, it’s ideal to have the learner record their own reading of a section & compare it with the original, and then have the teacher listen to it & provide feedback on a copy of the written text, focusing on 2 or 3 of the most significant/frequent problems to work on. I have found that these shadowing exercises can, over time, help reading speed, fluency & language awareness, as well as oral fluency. Moreover, the learner recordings – easy with Goldwave, freeware online – make excellent autofeedback items for a portfolio evaluation during a course.

6. freefood - November 9, 2010

shadowing works only if you are good at listening. also it’s a muscle memory workout, not a way to learn a language.

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