Posted on | April 14, 2008 | 3 Comments
I recently came across a language forum post. A person taught some Japanese students English by playing recordings of native speakers and asking the students to repeat them again and again. The teacher did not give more details, so I assume this was the only method he used. He posted a recording of one of his students and asked for comments on her pronunciation.
I listened to the recording and was surprised that in the first half minute or so, I could not figure out that she was indeed speaking English! In fact, I could pick up less than 10% of what she was saying in my first listening.
Shadowing (a.k.a parroting, chorusing, echoing, etc) is a popular technique among language learners, which is widely claimed to be effective. So I wonder what went wrong.
I listened to the recording again and again. I noticed the student’s intonation was actually very good, but she could hardly get any pronunciation correct. My conclusion was that she was working on something probably not quite suitable at her level. She should pick materials with slower speed and contain simpler vocabulary. She should also put more focus on her pronunciation.
This example shows that doing shadowing exercises alone is simply not enough. This is also confirmed by my own experience. While I find it very helpful in improving intonation and perhaps fluency, it does not help much with my pronunciation.
I believe in two activities that are vital to improve pronunciation. The first is to study how each sound is pronounced. In other words, “Understand how it works”. I don’t think merely listening and imitating the sounds is sufficient to nail them precisely. While I am not an IPA-advocate, I think some kind of knowledge on phonetics need to be acquired. For example, we need to understand the placements of the tongue and the shapes of the month to pronounce those sounds. I am still thankful to John on his article about the tongue placements concerning some Mandarin sounds. I came across it a few years ago and that really helped me a lot with my pronunciation. I believe I sound better in those sounds than many native speakers from southern China.
The second activity is to read aloud on your own, in other words, “Make it work“. This way, you train your brain to work out the sounds by yourself. I have been working on this with my French in the last few weeks, although not very intensively. I would pick a short article with a few paragraphs and read aloud. Then I would listen to the native speaker’s recording separately, to check out some uncertain sounds. I would repeat the process again, and I would do at most one article per week. I would read the sentences slowly and as clearly as I could, which is something I can’t do in shadowing. I have heard many people who made tremendous improvement by doing this exercise.
I still believe shadowing is a useful technique, and we should all do it from time to time. But I believe this technique alone is not enough to reach fluency. We have to do it along with other exercises.