I’ve spent a few hours this morning checking out the website and Youtube channel of Alexander Arguelles, one of the hyperpolyglot subjects of Michael Erard’s new book Babel No More (due for release early next month).
Arguelles’ website doesn’t seem to state his conversational ability in the 38 languages he lists as ‘known’ (quite a few of them aren’t living languages after all) but his reading level for them all is very impressive.
The amount of time and effort he puts into language maintenance despite being a working academic with a wife and kids is something that really puts me to shame.
Have a look at this promotional video from the Babel No More website which will give you a glimpse of his remarkably disciplined self-study regimen:
Expert method: language shadowing
What really got me interested in Alexander Arguelles is his use of the method that he calls shadowing (a method which despite being ascribed to him I’ve been using myself for the last 8 years and termed parroting).
To sum it up succinctly, it’s repeating a portion of native-speaker dialogue verbatim and almost simultaneously, using the target and teaching language transcriptions of the dialogue for reference.
Instead of me poorly trying to explain what I mean just have a look at Alexander’s demonstration using Mandarin Chinese:
Essentially, you’ve got a native-speaker dialogue playing through your earphones and as you hear it, even if you don’t understand a word of it, you’re repeating the sounds at the same time and using transcriptions for meaning and clarity.
It’s basically learning another language in a way that’s similar to how you learned your first language – repeating sounds exactly as you hear them. It’s the best way not only to master colloquial speech, but accent and intonation as well.
Shadowing is also a training technique used by some conference interpreters.
The importance of talking while walking
Arguelles also emphasizes the importance of walking while doing this, rather than sitting at a desk but in my opinion he doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation for why this helps. Remember how I talked about automatic and controlled processes in the brain? It’s very difficult to speak a language that you don’t know well while performing another activity (talking while driving for example) and it’s only through lots of practice that you can improve this.
Walking while shadowing language is directly challenging your brain to comprehend new linguistic input and to automate this process.
Shadowing ‘as Gaeilge’
I’m using this exact same method to teach myself Irish at the moment.
Instead of starting off with a typical, structured product or a grammar book I’ve decided to take real, native-speaker dialogue (several TG4 interviews with people from the Gealtacht and some Ros Na Run episodes on Youtube) and to shadow parts of it repeatedly.
Only after I can imitate sections of the dialogue with accuracy and good accent do I consult the transcription and a dictionary.
I’m deliberately avoiding grammar books and structured programs for a few weeks to see how effective this strategy is by itself.
I’ll leave you with this long video of Alexander Arguelles discussing the technique of shadowing:
Purchase Babel No More here (affiliate link).
This was written by Donovan Nagel.
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