Since I posted my blog post on the importance of prosody, many of you wrote to ask for more explanation of how my shadowing exercise works.
It is a very powerful exercise and has helped me immeasurably. It is particularly useful for tonal languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Thai.
I’ve written a more detailed explainer here, and made some videos of me doing the shadowing exercise in Chinese, Spanish, and Tagalog!
Where Does the Shadowing Exercise Come From?
I first learned this exercise when I was training to be a simultaneous interpreter. When you are interpreting simultaneously, you get a few seconds lead time before you jump in with your translation, but then you have to start interpreting exactly what you hear almost in real time, just a few seconds behind the speaker.
This feels really unnatural at first, because we don’t usually have to listen and comprehend at the same time as we are speaking (unless you speak certain dialects of American English where interruption is more socially accepted…)
Now imagine on top of that, having to interpret what you are hearing into another language!
It isn’t easy. But before you can get to the point where you can simultaneously interpret, you first need to learn to simply “shadow” in the same language, so that you can train your brain to listen and talk at the same time.
It took me a few weeks of practicing shadowing for about 30 minutes a day, before it started to feel natural.
Later, I realized shadowing would actually be a really great exercise for working on prosody, because it helps you hear and practice how pitches change, how rhythm changes.
Most importantly, this exercise gets all of that into your muscle memory so that later you won’t have to think about it, and you can focus on other things like trying to remember that tricky word you always forget.
How to Shadow
First of all, if you are beginner or lower-intermediate in a language, you might want to start by reading along with a transcript as you shadow. Once you are more advanced, you can try doing it without a transcript. Just listen and repeat as you go.
How to Find Audio Resources + Transcripts
These are my favorite resources for audio + transcripts.
1) Innovative Language Learning
The company behind ChineseClass101, FilipinoPod101, etc) offers excellent resources for a huge array of languages, and best of all: you can access audio + transcripts for free!
I find the best length of audio for our purposes is in the Advanced track (it is ok if you aren’t an advanced learner). In your dashboard, go to Advanced, then choose a lesson and scroll down to the transcript.
You can even adjust the speed! I usually set mine to .75x.
I discovered this transcription software in the course of my “day job” running a linguistic consulting firm. This online software automatically transcribes audio into dozens of languages.
Beware: the quality of languages other than English and Spanish is not great, so you might want to clean it up a bit or ask a native speaker to do so.
The cool thing about Trint is that you can play back the transcript in their player and adjust the speed, and you can even see where in the text you are, or easily skip to another part of the audio.
This online software is paid, but you can pay per minute transcribed, or you can subscribe monthly.
3) SBS Podcasts
Podcasts and news videos for a variety of languages, but unfortunately no transcripts available. You can upload the audio to Trint.
4) NHK Podcasts
News Podcasts from a Japanese news program, translated into several languages. It is easiest to find the multilingual podcasts if you search directly in your podcast app on your phone. No transcripts available.
Do you know of any other great audio + Transcript resources? Please let us know in the comments!
Here Is What I Look Like Doing the Shadowing Exercise
Want to see what shadowing looks like? Here I am doing a shadowing exercise with Mandarin. My Mandarin is currently pretty advanced, but not quite high enough to shadow without a transcript, so I’m reading the transcript from ChineseClass101 while I shadow.
Using the Shadowing Exercise for Mandarin Chinese
Now of course I made some mistakes here, and my pronunciation wasn’t perfect because I was focusing on the prosody, but I hope this gives you a good idea of how shadowing works!
Using the Shadowing Exercise for Spanish
Here is what shadowing without the transcript looks like. Here I shadow with Spanish audio, using an SBS podcast I fed through Trint. For Spanish I am finally advanced enough to shadow without reading the transcript.
Using the Shadowing Exercise for Tagalog (a language I have never studied!)
Finally, I want to show you how useful this exercise can be when you just start learning a new language. After all, mimicking pitches and rhythm is much easier than trying to replicate difficult consonants and vowels right from the beginning, right? This is a great way to get a sense of how the language sounds overall, so that you can later fill in the details.
Disclaimer: I have literally NEVER studied Tagalog. I wanted you to see how beneficial this exercise could be even when you’re starting from scratch. My pronunciation will be terrible and I’ll make lots of mistakes, but I hope you can hear how I’m just trying, above all, to mimic the speaker’s prosody.
Have you tried this method yet? Do you have any other methods for improving prosody? Let us know how it goes in the comments!
By the way, this post includes some affiliate links, which means I get a small commission on each sale when you click them. They don’t cost any more for you, and sometimes you will even get a discount! I only link to products and services I have used myself and can recommend to my readers. These commissions also help me run this blog, so thank you for your support!
I want to learn basic conversational French.
(For Travel to France again. I know a little French: 2years high school & 2 courses in college a long time ago! When I’m France, I try first in French to be polite. But – I do not comprehend hearing French well. With the little I know, I feel I’m overly dependent on seeing it written to comprehend it. eg I hear a word & want to see how it’s spelled to try getting it. My Uncle taught me a few French songs & some words & phrases as a child, without reading them, & I knew what they meant .
* My Question: Should I try only Speaking & Listening? Or, just work on much less reading & writing? Thanks!
Totally depends on your goals! If you want to learn French to travel to France, then definitely focus on speaking and listening!
This is such an interesting idea and technique! Do you know if the prosody of a language changes in different contexts? So, for instance, would it be different if someone were reading the news or if they were in conversation? I’m just trying to think what kind of resources might be best to use (also, I’m curious!)
Thank you for your very interesting blog!
Definitely, great question! Prosody will be very different for the news vs regular speech, although of course it will share a lot of characteristics (so I still find it useful even if I’m trying to improve my casual speaking). Of course the distance between journalistic speech and casual speech varies – in Arabic it is very different, for example.
what is the mandarin term for the word “to shadow ” or “shadowing a native speaker” in mandarin ?
by the way, your shadowing with eyes closed in Spanish is very good and your Tagalog performance is miraculous. Your method is convincing. I wish you more success !