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Language Shadowing: A Superior Learning Method

Babel No MoreUPDATE: I highly recommend this online resource which I reviewed recently and found excellent.


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:

Babel No More Trailer from Robert Shore on Vimeo.


Expert method: language shadowing

Alexander Arguelles ShadowingWhat 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:

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8 Responses to “Language Shadowing: A Superior Learning Method”

  1. Hey Donovan

    Just out of interest – how did the technique go for you? Was it effective?


  2. My ideas below are suitable for practising listening comprehension and speaking (through self-check) when learning any language.
    In order to have good skills in listening comprehension in English and to speak it fluently, a learner should practise listening to audio and video aids in English (dialogues, thematic texts and narrative stories) with subsequent speaking. It is preferable to have English transcripts of audio and video material. I suggest that learners practise listening comprehension with subsequent speaking on a variety of topics and with materials for all levels on a regular long-term basis in the following sequence:

    1. Listen to each sentence several times. Alongside listening see and read each sentence in the transcript.

    2. Make sure you understand everything clearly in each sentence in terms of pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar.

    3. Without looking into the transcript, try to repeat each sentence (say it aloud) exactly as you have heard it. Being able to repeat a sentence means that a learner has remembered its content.

    4. Listen to that particular conversation or text (story) in short paragraphs or chunks, say each paragraph aloud, and compare to the transcript.

    5. Listen to the whole conversation or story without interruption several times, and try to tell the content of the whole conversation or text (story) you’ve heard. You can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on that particular dialogue or text to make easier for you to convey the content in English. It is important to compare what you’ve said to the transcript.

    It is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio aid to compare it with the original audio/video recording.
    I believe that for practising listening comprehension and speaking in English it is a good idea to include various practical topics for potential needs of learners with comprehensive vocabulary on each topic. As you know the content of materials matters a great deal.
    Ready-made thematic dialogues, questions and answers on conversation topics, thematic texts (informative texts and narrative stories), grammatical usage sentences (in the form of dialogues and texts), and sentences with difficult vocabulary on various topics, especially with fixed phrases and idioms can be used in practising listening comprehension in English.
    It’s possible and effective to practise listening comprehension and speaking in English on one’s own this way through self-check using transcripts, books, audio and video aids to provide additional solid practice and to accelerate mastering of English.

    By Mike on Mar 5, 2013 | Reply
  3. There are quite a lot of ready-made conversational English dialogues on a multitude of topics with authentic natural wording with useful content (vocabulary) at all levels of difficulty from basic to advanced levels. It's hard and time-consuming for learners to create such dialogues on their own as this would require a lot of imagination about potential content of conversations in various situations and issues of discussions.

    Therefore it is a good idea for learners to select ready-made dialogues with the most practical helpful content at all levels of difficulty and with the best wording in terms of vocabulary. So learners can select a number of ready-made dialogues at their own discretion on each real life topic. On the basis of those ready-made dialogues learners can create their own dialogues taking into account their potential needs, preferences, circumstances and personal situation.

    After listening to and reading dialogues learners can write key words and phrases, or main ideas as a plan, or questions on each dialogue that require long answers to make easier for them to imitate (reproduce, act out/role play) each dialogue to practise speaking in English.

    When practising speaking using ready-made dialogues on one’s own it is a good idea to record one’s speech on audio and to compare it with the original text or audio recording.

    By Mike on Mar 17, 2013 | Reply
  4. It is really nice to hear that this is a common practice. I have been doing something similar to this in my learning of French because I noticed that it would keep me from getting lazy and not paying attention to the words that I was hearing. Sometimes, I noticed that I would actually understand a word only after it came out of my mouth and not when I heard it the first time. Unlike you, I started with different methods and only started shadowing later. It still has been very useful.

    By aaronfortune2013 on Feb 6, 2014 | Reply
  5. just watched the 1st video… and his mandarin sounds terrible!…..

    By guest on Jun 6, 2014 | Reply
  6. He says in the second video that some accents are not his strong suit so I wonder how effective this is for that aspect of language learning, especially for a tonal language.

    I tried using this method for French and Cantonese, for French it is ok but for Cantonese it really sucks. Well that was my experience.

    I don't think it has improved my french accent but it has made a difference to how fluidly I can speak without stumbling over words.

    By Joss on Jun 16, 2014 | Reply
  7. I've learned 4 Scandinavian languages by shadowing audio books. I first process the audio for "speech enhancement": 1) low pass filter below 400 Hz and boost 2-6KHz 2) Compand – compress and expand or normalize – to boost the rapid transitions of consonants. Relative to the overwhelmingly loud vowels of syllable peaks 3) Slow to 70-80% speed with a high quality slow downer (or better yet, use scripts to find silent pauses and lengthen them) After 3 years, I no longer need to slow it down, but it really improves pronunciation and intonation. Otherwise the brain perceives foreign sound patterns as your native phonemes, and therefore poor accent.
    I've repeated nearly 50 mysteries and classics while walking, mowing or driving. I hardly look up words – they mean the intersection of the dozens or hundreds of sentences I've repeated them in. And I usually guess who dunnit. Now when I speak, I do have some delays in word finding but tend to use well worn expressions, like anybody else would.

    By Doug on Dec 8, 2014 | Reply

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About The Author:

I’m an Applied Linguistics graduate, ESL teacher and translator with years of travel and language learning experience. I have a huge passion for language learning and for helping to raise awareness of endangered minority languages around the world.

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