While it is generally possible to improve your reading and listening skills by yourself, it’s rather difficult to do the same with speaking. First of all, the latter usually requires a conversation partner while the first two aspects can be practiced on your own. Secondly, language acquisition consists of two parts: passive language learning and active language learning. Passive language learning is the input – the information you absorb and work with, like reading this article or listening to a TED talk. On the other hand, active language learning is an output you produce in the form of speaking or writing. The input and the output are being processed by our brain in different ways. Have you ever read a text and then spoke about it, just to find out you are not able to remember the words you have just read and understood? The knowledge you absorb doesn’t always equal the knowledge you can produce.
If you are an advanced student, you have probably had an insane amount of input. But, does it equal your output? You might have been looking for that missing piece that would polish your speaking skills and take them to the next level, making you indistinguishable from a native speaker. That hidden piece might be the studying technique called “shadowing”. What is it?
What is “shadowing”?
In a class, the situation is most likely as follows: you repeat words or sentences after your teacher. Sometimes, you repeat after recording. But the point is – you repeat AFTER something or someone. Shadowing technique is NOT about repeating – it is about echoing (or, shadowing – hence the name of the technique.
Therefore, you do not repeat – you speak at the same time, at the same pace as your source. Your source is usually a recording – for example, a TED talk, a short movie scene or a podcast.
Shadowing is not merely listening and speaking. It is about getting the pronunciation, the intonation and the rhythm of the words right. You need to follow your source 1:1, which means keeping the speed of your speech steady and tone adjusted to the original tone of the speaker.
What are the benefits of the shadowing technique?
Long story short, the benefits of the shadowing technique can be truly stunning.
The first and most vital benefit is learning something which typically isn’t taught in your regular English class – the rhythm and tone of the language. If you think about it, it is not surprising you don’t get to practice this in a class – time of the lesson is finite and there are more important aspects to learn, like vocabulary and grammar. However, an awareness of the natural rhythm of the spoken language is something native speakers got, and usually this is the reason we think of them “they must be an English native speaker” instead of “they speak such good English”. If you master “shadowing”, you will also be able to follow that tone.
Furthermore, you will be able to practice pronunciation with a native speaker – if you choose your source to be produced by a native speaker. English pronunciation is something that Asian students in particular struggle with – probably due to the difference between sounds in Asian and Indo-European languages. Apart from repeating what the source speaker says, you can also observe his mouth movements and “shadow” them as well. If you learn proper pronunciation, this will adjust the muscles of your vocal apparatus, which will influence the way you pronounce in general. Your muscle memory will do the work and eventually, it will help you articulate new words correctly, with no effort.
How can you practice the shadowing technique?
To start practicing, find yourself a quiet space, with no distractions. Choose a short video or audio – it is recommended to choose a 3-5 minutes long medium, preferably about a topic that interests you! You can choose a longer one, but a short track will usually be less demanding, in addition you will be able to finish it quicker. Make sure the speed of the audio/video is not too fast for you and that you more or less understand the content. Some people say it is not important to understand it. You do not need to check the definition of each and every word, but if you do grasp the meaning of the content as a whole, your exercise will make much more sense.
Once you have selected the source, watch it till the end and make sure you understand it. You can do it once or twice, it doesn’t matter. Then, watch it again, but this time, pause after each sentence and repeat it a few times. Once you think you’ve got it, go on – pause after the next sentence and repeat it again. The point is, you need to practice like this through the entire video and get to the point where you do not need to pause and repeat anymore – the ultimate goal is to be able to speak together with the original speaker.
Do not make such practice too long, though! It takes effort to be fully concentrated on such exercise. Try to do it for 10-15 minutes daily.
Who can practice the shadowing technique?
It is said that “shadowing” is a technique for advanced students, whose English level is around C1/C2. It makes sense – this technique teaches students the tone, the pronunciation, as well as “the flow” of the language, which are something the beginners might not need yet. However, if you are a beginner or an intermediate student, there is nothing that can stop you from using this technique as well! In fact, it is good if you pay attention to the rhythm and pronunciation at this level of English. However, you need to keep in mind that you shouldn’t choose anything difficult. As interesting as they may be, don’t choose TED talks, news broadcasts or even TV series (unless you know the language is super easy). For starters, try to look for cartoons and kids’ songs. Usually they are easy to follow and to understand by beginner and intermediate students.
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