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Shadow Listening

A colleague who speaks a foreign language almost perfectly described his method:

While listening to someone speak, repeat aloud what the speaker says.

  • What – Find spoken English close to your level and in a standard – not regional — dialect.
  • A recording — You can shadow one recording many times.
  • A live broadcast on air or on line — A news cast may work if the content and level are within your reach.  A short speech or story, even a TV sitcom might work, but watch out for changes in dialect and differences in gender.  They might make shadowing unproductive for you.

  • How — Listen to the speaker and immediately begin repeating aloud everything as best you can – just a phrase or so behind the speaker.

    Why — Shadowing helps you catch the intonation or flow of spoken English.  All languages have a natural flow, a cadence or rhythm that is better caught than taught.

    How Long — Shadowing 20 minutes a day will improve your fluency and intonation, as well as increase your speed.


Shadowing helps to improve fluency, increase speed and develop natural intonation.

One of my good friends from Taiwan earned a translation degree in a university there, working toward a career in diplomatic translating. He shared with me a very helpful tool called “shadowing.” It is a method of practicing speaking that I recommend to all language students. It involves simply listening to someone speaking the second language and simultaneously repeating back what they say—like in simultaneous translation, but the repetition is in the same language as that of the speaker. This exercise helps to improve fluency, increase speed and develop natural intonation.

All the student needs to start, is to find some spoken audio or video content that is roughly appropriate to their language level and that features someone speaking with standard pronunciation, rather than a regional dialect. It can be recorded material or a live radio, TV or web broadcast. The benefit of finding something recorded is that the student can use the same content multiple times. But this is not essential. A newscast may suffice, but not if the content and level of language is beyond the student’s capacity to actually follow. A short speech, sermon or story, like a portion of a book on tape would be ideal. Even a TV show like a sitcom might work, but there may be dialect variations and changes in the gender of the speaker which can make the exercise a bit more challenging and less productive.

The object of this exercise is for the student to listen to the speaker and immediately begin to repeat aloud everything the speaker says. It is important to speak aloud, repeating everything just a bit behind the pace of the speaker. It takes some time to get used to doing this, as you have to learn to listen and speak at the same time—something frowned upon in most cultures!

It can be helpful to wear a headphone on one ear, leaving the other ear free to hear your own voice. Again it is important to aloud with a focus on reproducing as clearly as possible the sounds of the speaker and keeping up. Through shadowing the student will get a feel for the natural rhythm (intonation) of spoken English as well as improve their ability to place proper stress on English words.

All spoken languages have a natural flow to them. And this cadence of speech is better “caught” than “taught.” English happens to be a language in which meaning is often informed and carried by intonation. An example is the simple phrase, “He’s divorced.”

Depending on where the stress is place and the intonation, this phrase could be a statement, or two different sorts of questions. Asian languages do not rely as heavily on intonation to carry meaning. Shadowing helps students develop a sense for proper intonation at the sentence level and to develop natural stress at the word level. It is not important that the student understands everything the speaker is saying or that they keep up meticulously with each sound and word–the key is just to keep going and not stop.

Practiced regularly this exercise improves fluency and comprehension, and helps increase speed. Shadowing 15-20 minutes a day will yield noticeable improvement over time. It is a generally thought that if possible when studying a new language it is better for a male student to have a male teacher and vice versa. Aside from relative differences
in auditory pitch, which may influence a student’s learning, there are other difference between the sexes in terms of speech patterns and vocabulary choice. This may be something for your student to consider as they search for appropriate audio or video content to use in shadowing. It is best that a female find a female voice to shadow, and a male shadow a male voice. There are also advantages to video content, especially if it is filmed in a “talking head” format. We get subtle pronunciation and intonation cues from being able to see a speaker’s face.

I have used shadowing for years in my Mandarin studies and use it even in situations where speaking aloud is not possible or appropriate. I still shadow the speaker, moving my tongue and lips and engaging my mind as I repeat along. It requires intensely-focused listening and proves to be a very effective language consolidation exercise which I highly recommend.

In closing, I will say that shadowing does not work in real conversation. I tried it today over lunch with my wife. Not helpful–for my language or my marriage!

Time — It takes some time to get used to what early teachers may have frowned upon — speaking while listening.


Speak aloud

Reproduce the sounds

Keep up


Do not try to understand everything the speaker is saying.

If you miss a sound or word, do not stop.  Just keep going.

Headphones Help — Leave one ear free to hear your own voice.

Men vs. Women — Because men and women use slightly different speech patterns and vocabularies, remember that by shadowing male speakers you learn “male English” and by shadowing female speakers you learn “female English.”

Video — Shadowing a video has its advantages, especially if the video is shot in the “talking head” format.  A clear, steady view of the speaker’s mouth and face gives important pronunciation cues.

Shadow listening develops fluency, speed and intonation. Please let me know how it works for you.
Prof Parks

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