How to Use the Speech Shadowing Technique to Hack Chinese (or Any Language)

If you want to level up in your target language in the fastest, most efficient way possible, then you’ve got to try speech shadowing.
Shadowing is a language learning technique that is fun and super simple. All you need to do is listen to a piece of audio and repeat what you hear with as little lag behind the speaker as possible. Aim to speak with the audio recording simultaneously.
You can use the shadowing technique no matter what language you’re learning, but if you happen to be learning Chinese right now, you’re in for a real treat.
Throughout this article, I’ll provide you with top tips and resources specific to Chinese and a video demonstration of how to shadow Mandarin at various levels.

Does the Shadowing Technique Work?

I first heard of speech shadowing from Professor Alexander Arguelles, a highly accomplished linguist and polyglot who has studied over sixty languages to varying degrees.
This language learning technique is relatively taxing, but it’s highly effective and worth the effort.
I shadow for a few minutes at least every other day to maintain and improve my Mandarin level, and it works like a charm.
But don’t just take it from me. Studies have shown the positive impact of the shadowing technique on language learners.
Shadowing is also a standard technique used by simultaneous interpreters to hone their skills. I’m not sure if you’re aware, but these guys are the most competent second language speakers out there, so you know it’s legit.

Why Shadowing is So Effective

two asian women talking


Language learning can be challenging, especially when the foreign language you’re learning has a super high “barrier to entry.” Characters and tones, for example, make learning Chinese far more time-consuming than most other languages. So, when a technique comes along that saves time by working several language skills simultaneously, you should use it as much as possible.
That’s right. Shadowing helps to improve multiple aspects of the language at the same time.
Here are the main benefits you’ll see if you exercise speech shadowing regularly.

It Improves Your Pronunciation

Shadow speaking solidifies your ability to identify and produce various sounds and syllables through repeated exposure to native content and the development of muscle memory.
After using it regularly, I guarantee you will notice an improvement in your pronunciation.

It Helps to Master Prosody

Prosody is the pitch variation at the level of entire syllables, sentences, or even conversations. You could say it’s the “music” of a language.
Prosody is an umbrella term that includes intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm, none of which can be “studied,” only “acquired” naturally.
The shadowing technique is a fantastic way of improving prosody because you aren’t just repeating the language, but you’re also mimicking the “music” of your target language.
Over time, using this method will lead to you sounding more like a native speaker. You will be more able to understand native speakers (even when they are laughing or eating while talking), more able to parse speech (identify where to add pauses during speaking), and generally more able to impress the heck out of people.

It Reinforces Listening

To perform shadowing successfully, you must actively focus on an audio recording over and over again. As a result, your listening comprehension will naturally improve.

It Consolidates Vocabulary and Grammar

Although shadowing isn’t designed for this, you will see a natural improvement in your ability to use the right words at the right time and in the right way.

It Improves Your Fluency and Overall Confidence

Why are you so confident speaking in your first language? Because you’ve spent many thousands of hours using it. As a result, your mouth muscles produce the sounds effortlessly, and you have little trouble thinking of what to say in most situations.
You find it harder to converse in a foreign language due to a relative lack of speaking opportunities.

While shadowing language is not technically speaking practice (you have a script, after all), producing the language does become more straightforward and sounds more impressive to native speakers. You develop muscle memory allowing you to generate phrases in the right situation more automatically.
In this sense, it’s kind of like heavy bag training for the big fight. It might not be 100% true-to-life (the bag doesn’t hit back), but it will make you lethal in the ring.

How to Shadow Mandarin Chinese: a Step-by-Step Guide

smiling woman with a phone using shadowing technique

Check out the video below and learn step-by-step how to shadow Chinese like a pro. First, I go through “the three little pigs,” an intermediate story unlocked at level 35 of The Mandarin Blueprint curriculum.
Later in the video, I shadow content aimed at higher-level learners.
I’ve included some extra tips in this article that are not in the video, so I highly recommend you read all the way to the end.

Step 1: Find a high-quality audio

Find a piece of audio that is high-quality, preferably, studio-recorded and something near your level that you can understand without too much reference to a dictionary (this is far more efficient).
Ideally, the audio should have text to go with it.
Keep reading for detailed guidance on finding engaging learning content, regardless of your level.

Step 2: Listen to the recording

Before you start speaking, it’s a good idea to listen to the audio several times to familiarize yourself with it until you understand everything.

Step 3: Shadow the content

Once you have a piece of audio that suits your level and you’ve listened to it enough times to familiarize yourself with the content, it’s time to begin practicing.
Alexander Arguelles refers to this as “blind shadowing.”
Suppose you have the text to go along with the audio, no need to look at it now. Just speak along with the audio alone.
He suggests that you do this as many times as it takes for you to start hitting a “plateau.”
Then, when you get bored, frustrated, or aren’t making noticeable progress with each repetition, it’s time to look at the text.

When you read and listen together, you’ll find it more accessible as the two skills help each other out when one of them begins to waver.
Not that I want to disagree with the professor (he speaks WAY more languages than I ever will), but if I’m practicing with a particularly challenging piece of content, I like to start reading along pretty much from the get-go.
I then drop the reading once I become more comfortable.

Step 4: Keep on practicing

My favorite part of this technique is the consistent improvement you feel with every repetition, making it possible to utilize a single piece of content many times over.
You will hit plateaus eventually for several reasons. For one, shadowing is relatively high intensity, so you’ll need to take regular breaks. Sessions from between ten and twenty minutes seem to be the sweet spot.
You can only build so much muscle during a single workout; you can only improve so much during a single speech shadowing session.

If you feel like you aren’t progressing much more with each repetition and you’ve also tried reading along with the audio a few times, then take a break or call it a day.
It’s important to point out that, even if you’ve chosen a piece of content that’s easy to understand, shadowing new content may still be challenging at first. Even in your mother tongue, it can be tricky! But, I assure you, it will get easier with every single repetition.

Shadowing MAGIC: How to Shadow Language Learning for Awesome Gains – Mandarin Chinese

Can Beginners Use the Shadowing Technique?

While it’s true that advanced speakers can shadow longer content, intermediates or even beginner learners can also find fantastic results from daily shadowing.
It’s all about finding suitable material.

If you are a beginner, you’ll need to follow the shadowing steps above with much shorter and easier content, such as single sentences, and build up to more complex content as your foundation of characters and words increases.
Repeat individual sentences over and over again, attempting to mimic the speaker in every way you can. When done this way, it is commonly referred to as “chorusing.”

How to Go From Beginner to Shadowing Chinese In No Time

If you can’t read Chinese yet, I highly recommend working through The Mandarin Blueprint Method curriculum until you get to level 13.
Once you complete the first 12 levels of our course, you will be able to read and understand Chinese sentences without pinyin or translation.

We provide downloadable audio files for all 7,000+ sentences provided expressly for early shadowing – or “chorusing.” The sentence text is the very title of each audio file, so you’ll be able to read what you hear at the same time whenever you need to.

For intermediates and upper intermediates (new HSK 3-6 level), we provide downloadable articles and stories so you can practice with more challenging material.
I’ll give you access to a ton more shadowing resources for all levels later on in this article.

How to Find the Right Materials for Your Target Language

If you aren’t learning Chinese or wish to go out and look for content on your own, here are some quick and easy guidelines to follow:

Find Short Content

Content should be no longer than a few minutes. Ideally 1-2 minutes. If you are using longer content, try to listen to the audio for a smaller chunk of it at a time.

Aim For the “Acquisition Zone”

Shadowing is more about improving how you sound when producing the language. It is less about learning words or solidifying grammar, so it’s essential to choose a piece of content that is at or slightly below your level.
98% comprehension is ideal for general reading and listening immersion, as you can learn new words while consolidating other words and structures. However, with speech shadowing, we aren’t trying to learn new things. Instead, we want to sound awesome.

Choose a More Conversational Style

Generally, you’ll end up starting to sound like the audio you use. So, unless you want to speak in a super formal way for some reason, I recommend you stick to a more neutral or conversational style.

My Favorite Shadowing Resources

shadowing technique, How to Use the Speech Shadowing Technique to Hack Chinese (or Any Language)


Here are my favorite resources to use for speech shadowing practice.

Podcasts with Transcripts

If I could go back to 2013 and start learning Chinese all over again, I’d learn to read ASAP, then start shadowing short dialogues from podcasts while reading their transcripts. I’d do this every day.
As a learner, you can try Popup Chinese, Slow Chinese, and Chinesepod. If you are higher level, go for short, native podcasts.

Graded Readers

Most popular graded readers come with audio. These are more extended versions of learner podcasts and can be highly engaging.

Audio Courses

Audio courses always contain a lot of valuable listening content and text files that you can use. I would use Glossika and Pimsleur.
Check out our post 200+ resources for learning Chinese for all of the above resources and a ton more.

Integrating Shadowing Technique Into Your Learning Routine

Speech shadowing is rather versatile and can be integrated at various points in your routine, serving differing purposes.
For example, when you have a new piece of audio-based content you want to start digging into, shadowing is an effective way of familiarizing yourself with it.
It also works as a warm-up before starting a speaking practice session with your tutor.
Try shadowing for a couple of minutes before your class starts, and you’ll find you are more alert and responsive.
Shadowing is perhaps best utilized as a consolidation technique. First, go through a piece of text and learn all of the new words and phrases. Then, repeat the content aloud to solidify and internalize what you’ve learned.

Some Words of Warning

Language shadowing daily will undoubtedly lead to you sounding more like a native speaker, but with one big caveat.
If you wish to quickly and effectively acquire a foreign language, the first step is conquering at least the basics of pronunciation. Not doing so can create gaps in your knowledge that turn into crevasses as you advance in level.
Therefore, it is vital that you first understand how to identify and pronounce every sound accurately in your target language before you start shadowing material.

Without this foundational knowledge, you could develop bad habits, which are super tough to break.
Our 6-hour crash course on Mandarin pronunciation covers everything you need to know. Sign up for free and make your way through Pronunciation Mastery before you further cement any bad habits you may have.
One final thing to keep in mind is that there is no magic bullet in language learning. This language learning technique is highly effective (perhaps the most effective), but you still need to show up every day and put in consistent practice before you start seeing results.

10 Tips from a Serial Shadower

shadowing technique, How to Use the Speech Shadowing Technique to Hack Chinese (or Any Language)

Here are a few tips to make your Chinese Mandarin learning an even more fruitful and fun language learning technique:

1. Perform Other Tasks While Shadowing

Shadow your target language while walking around, exercising, performing simple tasks such as checking your Instagram feed, playing with your dog, or doing housework.
The next time you practice or speak Chinese with someone without doing these extra tasks simultaneously, it feels so much easier in comparison.

2. Choose How You Want to Sound

Every language contains many differing accents. However, with Chinese, there is standard mandarin or 普通话 pǔtōnghuà, which is what you should use for shadowing content.
However, it’s worth noting that the accents and dialects of China are almost incomprehensibly diverse, and a tiny fraction of Chinese people speak standard Mandarin when they aren’t at work.
Therefore, to develop a well-rounded listening ability, you should listen to a broader range of accents.

3. Get Into The Content

Try to choose content in line with your interests and focus on it for the duration of your shadowing session.
Don’t simply repeat what you hear, but also absorb the meaning of what’s being said and contemplate it.

4. Always Keep a Bottle of Water On You

The more you speak, the more your mouth will get dry 😀

5. Practice in Your Native Language First

Practicing for a few minutes in your mother tongue is excellent as a warm-up, as it gets you used to the rather odd feeling of speech shadowing with a more familiar language.

6. Get Feedback From Native Speakers

Record yourself while shadowing and send the recordings to a paid tutor or language exchange partner. Part of your session could be going over some areas that need improvement and working on them.
It’s also nice to record yourself so you can benchmark your progress.

7. Use Just One Earphone

Try what works best for you, but I recommend using just one earphone while shadowing so that you can hear both your voice and the voice-over.

8. Vary the Speed

Try to repeat the audio at full speed, but start at a slower pace if you need to. Most music players come with this function built-in.
The moment you start feeling comfortable with shadowing the text, you can switch to 100% speed.

9. Don’t Let Mistakes Interrupt Your Flow

Note that in the point above, I said “comfortable,” not perfect. When you inevitably lose your place or make mistakes, don’t stop and start all over again. Just take a breath and jump back in whenever you’re ready. You’ll do better the next time around.

10. For Advanced Learners: Try 得到 dédào

When it comes to advanced language learning for Chinese, Phil and I like to use the 得到 (dédào) app regularly, and we recommend you do the same if you think your level is high enough.
So there you have it. Pound for pound, shadowing is probably the most efficient and effective language learning technique for improving your Chinese because, when done right, it improves so many areas of your skillset at the same time.
Now get out there and give it a shot!

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