Shadowing in Language Learning: 7 Simple Steps to Fluency

Parrot to proficiency
Shadowing in Language Learning: 7 Simple Steps to Fluency

Shadowing is one of the most powerful methods I know for gaining rapid fluency in any language.

It can help you increase your timing, intonation, and even help you develop a near native accent in your chosen language.

So what is shadowing and how do you do it?

The technique involves listening to audio in your target language and repeating (or trying to repeat) word for word what you hear as you listen.

While this may sound simple, it’s not.

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Shadowing is hard

In reality it requires you to consciously split your brain. Then perform three complex tasks simultaneously.

Your brain has to:

  1. Take in the input of the foreign language
  2. Interpret the audio (in order to make sense out of what was said)
  3. Output sounds

For the uninitiated, doing all of these well is damn hard.

This article will give practical advice on how to get better at this.

After learning these strategies, you will have access to a powerful technique to improve your fluency.

How shadowing has helped me

I started shadowing to learn Spanish back in 2017.

Since then, I have:

  • Worked as a Spanish medical interpreter
  • Used Spanish to help teach math to native Spanish speaking students
  • Communicated with parents during parent teacher conferences
  • Passed as a native speaker in Nicaragua

This stuff really works.

You will be able to achieve the same results in your language after learning the shadowing basics.

Step 1: Pick a short audio clip

Shadowing can be a very cognitively demanding task. This is why I recommend you choose audio that is no longer than 10 minutes at first.

As you become more confident with the technique and your target language, you can choose longer content.

What should you listen to?

The audio can be anything that you find enjoyable.

Podcasts, video, tv-series, movie clips; whatever you want. As long as you find it interesting it’s a good choice.

Choosing shorter content will make it easier for you to concentrate while you listen. This will help you reach fluency faster.

Step 2: Prepare to listen to the audio at least three times

In our world of infinite online content, listening to the same thing repeatedly seems like a foreign concept. A rare occurrence reserved only for our most beloved content.

But with shadowing repetition is essential.

The more you repeat, the faster you speak.

When learning a language, repetition will help move words and expressions to your long term memory.

This makes it easier to recall them in organic speech.

An essential ability for fluency.

It also helps your mouth get used to forming sounds and moving in new ways. Another small step to smooth communication in your target language.

Furthermore, the more you repeat a piece of audio, the more you’ll be able to anticipate what will be said. This allows you to get more out of the exercise when you do it.

Step 3: Focus on one thing every time you listen

When shadowing it’s important to focus on one aspect of the language to improve during each listen.

Maybe on the first pass, your goal is to listen for unfamiliar vocabulary.

On the second, you zone in on the speaker’s pronunciation to focus on the “how” instead of the “what” of the audio.

What you concentrate on is completely up to you.

Do not try to improve multiple things when listening. It’s ineffective, frustrating, and tiring.

If at this point you’re at a loss on how to approach shadowing, here is my personal shadowing strategy.

Step 4: Use my shadowing strategy

My shadowing strategy includes three listens of the same piece of audio.

During each listen, I focus on analysis, repetition, then refinement.

Here’s a detailed description of what I do during each listen.

Analyze (1st listen) – My goal is to become familiar with the overall flow and (if possible) the content of the audio.

Some questions I ask myself during this listen are:

  • How fast are the speakers talking?
  • What is the audio quality like?
  • How much of the vocabulary and grammar can I understand?
  • Are there any unfamiliar words or phrases?

The goal of this pass is to get a feel for the content and prepare for the second pass.

Repetition (2nd listen) – This will be my first time repeating after the speakers. I lag behind by the audio track for a second or two when I do this.

Getting used to hearing your own voice while listening to someone else speak can be difficult. But it is a skill that will improve as you do more shadowing.

The second listen is all about getting as many sounds in my target language out of my mouth as possible.

Notice I didn’t say words, phrases, or sentences. Just sounds are good enough in the beginning.

As you become more familiar with the language, you’ll be able to string together longer utterances.

Refinement (3rd listen) – During the final pass, I shadow again, but preferably while reading or after having reviewed a transcript of the audio.

During the second pass, my goal was just to parrot sounds and words. This time I aim to try and understand what I’m saying as much as possible.

Here are a few other options for what you can focus on during your third listen:

  • Hone in on vocabulary or grammar points you want to improve
  • See how your pronunciation has improved
  • Try to string together full sentences
  • Focus on conversational nuances that you picked up on (like sentence connectors), but want more practice on during the first two listens

On my final listen, I always find that my overall pronunciation has improved.

An indicator that I’ve taken another small step toward fluency.

Step 5: Choose audio with a transcript (Optional)

A transcript can help build your vocabulary, focus on tricky grammar points, and aid your comprehension of the audio.

Despite these advantages, there are challenges to using transcripts when shadowing.

  1. Not every piece of audio has one
  2. It’s not always convenient to use a transcript – Most of the time I shadow on the go. This can be while I’m driving, doing the dishes, or some other activity that has me mobile. Viewing a transcript during these activities would be very inconvenient or impossible most of the time.
  3. They cost money (sometimes) – Audio content from well established or more popular language content producers often costs money. This is usually in the form of a subscription fee.

Even though the above mentioned factors can make getting or using a transcript when shadowing more difficult, it is still worth it to use them if you can.

Having the transcript allows you to stop and see vocabulary and grammar you may be struggling with.

It also acts as visual reinforcement to what you are hearing. This aids retention and makes it easier for you to recognize and recall the content in the future.

Be advised that in order to get the most out of a transcript, you need to be able to read fairly well in your target language.

If you’ve just started learning your language, I recommend just listening and repeating at this point.

You can always come back and work with transcripts later, after you’ve reached an intermediate level or higher.

Step 6: Be dramatic! (Mimic everything)

When you first begin shadowing you may feel slightly weird about it at first. You are talking to yourself and that might make some of you feel uncomfortable or embarrassed.

Because of this, you might be tempted to mumble, talk softly, or just blandly repeat what you are hearing.

While that may make you feel a little less shadowing shame, it will also prevent you from getting as much as possible out of the activity.

For this reason, you should strive to have your level of expressiveness match the person who is speaking in the audio.


One of the most difficult things about learning another language isn’t memorizing vocabulary or grammar.

Recognizing when and how to apply the language mechanics native speakers use in real conversation is even more difficult.

By shadowing audio with native speakers you will be imitating how they really talk.

When you throw dramatic nuance into your repetitions, you will be able to speak more naturally and fluently sooner.

It also makes shadowing a lot more fun!

Step 7: Don’t worry about accuracy

Many language learners only want to speak their target language unless they are absolutely sure what they are saying is correct.

I had the same thought process when I began learning Japanese in college.

Because of this, I never really practiced speaking outside of the memorized phrases I had to learn to pass my classes.

For years after college, even while living in Japan, I didn’t try to produce organic speech because I was afraid of messing up the language.

Don’t let that be you. Don’t be like I was.

When shadowing, the goal is to imitate the sounds, emotion and intonation you hear as closely as possible.

Not to sound like a native speaker.

Even if you are only able to produce partial words, that is still better than not speaking at all.

Just like practicing a sport, try your best despite how clumsy and silly you feel.

Look and sound silly during practice so that during game time you make less mistakes.


Shadowing completely changed the way I learn languages. It can do the same for you too if you follow the steps in this guide.

Next time you have a commute or are doing chores around the house instead of listening to music, why not try shadowing?

Even though you’ll probably feel and sound awkward in the beginning, as the weeks and months go by, you’ll see a boost in your fluency.

I credit this technique with taking me from decent to fluent Spanish several years ago.

I wish the same results for you in the future.

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