Shadow Immersion – Surpassing your Speaking Limits
Speaking ability… Everyone wants it. Everyone struggles to get it. Immersion has a great influence over everything you will become able to do, including speaking. But sometimes it feels like it’s not enough. Your conversational ability lags way behind where you want it to be. Since most people judge your overall ability based on how you talk in the language, this gap can bring discouragement.
I was no different. My speaking is fine and has been fine for a long time. It’s steadily grown over the years, but for some reason I am never satisfied. I have continued with two things to counteract this: reading out loud a lot, and having friends to talk to in Japanese.
While these are effective, I felt there had to be something more. Why isn’t there immersion for speaking? A way to practice your speaking all the time like there is for listening. I thought to the popular and excellent technique that many people have used to improve their pronunciation and speaking: shadowing.
Shadowing is where you continually listen to and mimic what a person is saying from some audio source. It allows you to repeat native speech and improve your own. Most people do shadowing in their early and intermediate levels, and in intervals of short periods of time. They retire this technique once their speaking becomes more advanced and conversations become easier. This is what I had done and the thought of shadowing at a higher level had never crossed my mind.
But I’m always experimenting. What can I do to further improve my abilities in new ways I never imagined? What new advice can I give to help all of you that ask how to become a better speaker.
Then it struck me:
What if I combined shadowing and immersion together?
The concept was simple. Listening to Japanese whenever you can on your immersion device results in amazing listening skills. The same could be applied to speaking.
My new goal, which started in June was simple. Whatever I would listen to, I would shadow. Movies, anime, TV shows, podcasts, the news, everything. If there was native sound, I would repeat it. For however many hours of the day it would take.
I’m now here to report the results.
Let’s first start with the major challenges I faced engaging in shadow immersion.
Shadowing is tiring
Copying everything someone says can be exhausting. Doing this for several hours throughout the day can start to drain away your energy. For example, I shadow the NHK news podcast during an hour walk every day. It can really leave you out of breath(not from the walking).
Most people who have tried regular shadowing know it takes a large amount of effort to continue doing it. That effort is multiplied many times over, as there is no firm stopping point.
It takes a long time for your ears to start hurting from listening to too much audio. It takes a much shorter time for your throat/voice to start hurting when you talk too much.
Timely breaks became necessary quickly, and I had to learn how long I could go before I pushed myself too far.
It’s really hard to accurately shadow for long periods of time. I usually understand 99% of what I hear. But repeating that 99% is no easy task. You are introduced to an endless barrage of talking, on a wide range of subjects, and you have to follow it at the same pace. Even at my level, I probably started at around 80%-90% accuracy based on the topic.
Now I’m 2 months into shadow Immersion. To me this is still fairly early in the process, but here is what has been happening so far.
Active vocabulary ascends
Just like your your own native language, your passive vocabulary (what you can understand), is much higher than your active vocabulary (what you can naturally use). Shadow immersion shifted this.
You get the chance to use language that you never use on your own. When you get to real conversations, you find these previously passive words start appearing with more frequency. All of this happened unconsciously and I was surprised at what words would come out of my mouth.
News shadowing turns immersion into an SRS
Daily news stories follow similar patterns. They cover stories that take place over the weeks. You get the same information repeated to you over intervals. This is exactly what an SRS (spaced repetition system) like Anki is.
The thrill of watching your accuracy rise
Being able to fully shadow an entire news segment, whether it is a stock market update, weather forecast, or breaking election development, brings a sense of accomplishment. In the beginning, there were many times where I would get lost mid sentence. I had to take a pause, and then continue shadowing at the next open opportunity. This has slowly faded away.
It wasn’t until the end of these 2 months that I noticed I wasn’t getting tired as much anymore. I used to have to strongly will myself to continue sometimes. But that extra required push is gone. I naturally start shadowing whenever I hear Japanese talking. Sometimes I even have to remind myself not to do this when talking to an actual Japanese person.
You know when you listen to something, and someone asks you to summarize what was just said? Shadow Immersion makes this process easier. You have to absorb information and spit it out while absorbing even more information in a never ending cycle.
It’s easy to have your confidence hurt when you know what you want to say, have the ability to say it, but the words don’t come out the way you want them to. Shadow immersion allows you to release those words freely.
It’s a new challenge that even those fluent and above can appreciate
Shadow immersion can be done at any level, and will always be challenging. One of the major causes of the high level blues is not knowing what to strive for anymore when you reach a certain level. I love the game, but when you’ve beaten almost all of the stages, there isn’t anything much left to do.
This has finally become my new stage to battle in. There is a lot to triumph over from here on out. My accuracy has improved dramatically but getting to near 100% accuracy is still far away.
I also have noticed another new talent and challenge forming: shadow prediction immersion.
Remember how I said that shadowing the daily news is similar to an SRS because of repeated information over intervals? I’m finding that even though shadowing by its nature trails slightly behind what you are listening to, you start to get a sense of what is coming next. I’ve been able to predict sentences and say them even before the newscaster finishes them. I’m not sure how far I can take this, but I’m looking forward to seeing this new development play out.
I’m enjoying it, daily. This has brought a complete rejuvenation to the fun I used to have with my studying. I used to love immersion and always discovering something new. I thought that feeling would never return but it has now resurfaced in a new way.
Continuing Shadow Immersion
I plan on continuing this indefinitely and seeing where it will lead me. The long term effects if I continue this for a year or more are still unknown to me, but this only makes it even more appealing.
I’m not sure whether this article has convinced you to give shadow immersion a try. It isn’t easy. But regardless of your level, you too might also find a new world of Japanese learning that awaits you.
Founder of Jalup. iOS Software Engineer. Former attorney, translator, and interpreter. Still watching 月曜から夜ふかし weekly since 2013.
This seems like an interesting project and a fruitful one to try. However, just so you know, I thought this was a new JALUP product for shadowing and was like “take my money!” before even clicking over.
Haha, I’d sign up for my own shadow immersion product.
Interesting twist to your game. Happy for you, that you found new grounds to conquer :D When I get my immersion device back up I might even try this. Being low level it is probably difficult but I’m thinking of trying this with the audio for the Graded Readers after reading them. That should make it easier.
One small comment on your shadow prediction part though… Be sure to not take this with you into normal conversations. Finishing other people’s sentences is such a bad habit and can be difficult to get rid of once you get started! (speaking from experience here >.<)
Yeah, definitely start with something easy. Because even material that is easy to listen to is hard to shadow.
Thanks for the tip. I will be careful to make shadowing doesn’t negatively affect normal conversations.
This is a really interesting idea, thanks for sharing. And I really suck at things like the process you brought up under the Memory Hacking sub-title (even in English really). Hopefully this will give me some nice practice there (in Japanese of course).
I hope this method helps you. If you try it, come back and report how it went!
The idea of accidentally repeating what people say in conversations is hilarious to me. I imagine someone walking by talking in Japanese and then you start to repeat them by mistake (Although hopefully that wouldn’t actually happen). Good article though, I need to try this.
I’m sure that would be an interesting conversation starter if he noticed me doing that. Give it a try!
I’ve been listening to this in my car. I’m low level and it’s not too bad!
Looks like a nice intro tool to start shadowing in your early levels. Thanks for the link.
For people who are not ready for shadowing or don’t feel ready for it (like I did at the beginning) I’ve found also a method called “mute shadowing”. It’s the same like shadowing, but just that you are going to repeat what’s said in your mind, without moving your mouth or producing sounds. It’s not as effective as real shadowing, but it prepares you for the real deal and you wont’ get any negative consequences by doing this (since your mouth won’t memorize the movements). I’ve tried it now for 6 months and now I’m shadowing out loud and I think it’s much easier now because I’ve prepared it with mute shadowing :)
I think that’s a great starter to shadowing. Thanks for sharing this branch-off method.
Just to make sure: So you are playing your usual immersion material, you don’t stop it or anything and while it’s playing you repeat everything after with a few seconds delay? A bit like an echo to the material?
That sounds incredibly hard to do :O I’m not sure if I could talk over what’s being said but still get what was being said…
Or am I misunderstanding something?
Yes, that’s correct. I don’t stop anything. It’s like continuous immersion except me following with a second or so delay, all day long (when I’m listening).
In the beginning, it takes a little time to get used. As when you are talking a few seconds behind when someone else is already saying something else, you can get lost quickly. But this goes to the memory hack above, as it is a skill that you can develop.
Forbidden technique! Shadow Immersion Jutsu!
That’s how I roll!
Out of curiosity, do you read everything aloud too now? or are you less strict about reading?
Less strict on reading out loud now than I was before. I find shadow immersion more enjoyable/challenging than reading out loud.
Extremely motivational article, thank you very much for posting this. I love personal posts like this.
And I hope one day you give it a try too!
If anyone is sceptical that they are even capable of doing this, give it a short try in your native language.
PS this is my favourite shadowing material of present: Sound Library〜世界にひとつだけの本〜
Search for it on your favourite podcasting app. She speaks relatively slowly with lots of short gaps to catch your breath.
Is Shadowing also active listening? Or in between passive and active? Does the answer depend on the level of the person asking?
It’s active, because to be able to shadow, you are listening intently, and putting a lot of focus on it to reproduce it.
Thanks! It’s nice to know that I practice speaking and have it also count as listening. However, I do notice I sometimes find myself paying more attention to the speaking aspect than the listening aspect because syllables are just syllables until you interpret them if you know what I mean. Sometimes I am in lala land while shadowing.
That’s true, but your shadowing evolves. In the beginning, it will be a lot of repeating what you don’t understand (but can pronounce). However, you are still listening, still copying those words, as they eventually start to make more sense. It’s just a different aspect of listening.
Sorry for going back to an old post, but this technique seems interesting, and I know that there are a number of polyglots that swear by it. I was wondering, how do you hear yourself? Do you speak out loud, or mutter the phrases under you breath?
I find if I speak out loud (other than looking like a nutter of course), I find it can be difficult to hear the recording clearly (using ear buds). Also, does it not reduce your enjoyment of, say, tv dramas or movies?
I also had another question regarding reading novels if you had time: Do you listen to your immersion device at the same time as reading (for example, on the way to work), or is reading a silent moment for you? I find reading far more enjoyable if I switch off the sound immersion, and probably more productive in picking up new words due to the increased concentration.
Many thanks for a great blog, very much appreciated.
The level of my voice depends on where I am. Usually outside, in any kind of open space, I shadow loud. It doesn’t really look that strange from the outside because everyone else is on their phones. Moving to smaller spaces, I lower it to a mutter, and then places where it’s really not polite to be talking nonstop, it’ll be mouth movements, and sometimes just mental shadowing.
As for hearing it clearly, it depends a lot of the type of recording. This is why podcasts or audio books are easiest, as you don’t have to worry about other noise getting in the way.
TVs and movies I find the most difficult, because yes, it does impede enjoyment. If it is an immersion listen (passive listen), it is fine, but shadowing the first time I’ve seen a tv show or movie can be tiring. However, I don’t find it to decrease the entertainment value as much with podcasts/audio books.
For reading, it depends. For extremely casual internet reading (website surfing, social media, etc.), the background immersion doesn’t bother me. However, for novel reading (or any kind of real book reading whether fiction/nonfiction), I always turn off the immersion and make it silence. It makes it easier to “immerse” in the story or book, and I find that more important. It took me a while to figure this out by comparing the 2, but I definitely find the silence to be key for me.
Hope this helps!
I’m keen to hear Adam’s response too.
Some observations I have found:
Try different types of headphones. The ones that go right inside your ears, I have a hunch they cause your voice to seem overpoweringly loud. If the in-ear ones are all you have, then try them halfway out so they don’t seal.
Try different source material – I find listening to a voice that sounds totally different to mine is easier to hear as they don’t mask each other so much.
Headphones are extremely important. And I agree, that there is a certain type of “immersion headphone” that works best for you, and it’s not the same type of headphone you’d normally use for music/etc.
However, I think everyone likes a different type of immersion headphone. For example, I like in-ear with mild (not heavy) noise cancellation.
Do you mean noise cancellation or noise isolation?
Ahh, wasn’t aware of the difference between the two. Noise isolation (the seal of the earbuds block out some ambient noise).
This information is for in-ear noise isolating earbuds only:
I have come to the understanding/realisation that the deeper the earbuds sit into your ears, the less “inner voice” you will hear. You won’t have to turn up the volume as much to compensate. You could try pushing them in deeper, changing the tips, or if you’re buying new ones I’m sure some models sit deeper than others.
If you have the earbuds sitting out of your ears (breaking the seal) you may be inadvertently turning up the volume too much and exposing yourself to potential totally damaging levels of sound, especially if you are in an already noisy environment.
I haven’t had an opportunity to test out other types of headphones so if anyone has any comments I’d love to hear them!
Adam and Lostasock
Thanks for your replies- I really appreciate you taking the time. Very helpful indeed. I do have some “non in the ear” type earphones, which I use in the house so as to clearly also hear what’s going on around me. Usually I will use noise-cancelling buds on the street because of the traffic noise etc., but I’ll give the other earphones a try for the purpose of shadowing! I notice my toddler son shadows all the time to TV shows he likes, or at least tries to, and he really seems to pick up new phrases that way (annoyingly sometimes!).
With the reading, I agree, and am kind of relieved to hear that you switch off the audio for serious reading like novels or textbooks! I feel like my concentration is very light if I am listening at the same time, even if it’s just music. The speed and pleasure of the reading seems to pick up in silence, and I think that when you are truly immersed in something without outside distractions is when you will subconsciously pick up new phrases and grammatical patterns.
At my job I am able to listen to Japanese all day. In the end I get about 6 hours a work day when all is said and done. The problem has always been, I have a wandering mind that contemplates many things throughout the day and I noticed I was constantly ignoring what was being said. Realistically I probably got about 45mins to 1 hour of active listening a day at work. This bothered me a lot but I could never maintain focus no matter what. I recently started shadowing at work as much as I could. This made a HUGE difference. Shadowing makes me pay attention and now my active listening and shadowing is more like …maybe 3 hours a day.
I had a couple questions regarding this:
How much is a good amount of shadowing time per day?
Where do you (anyone) get news to shadow? A streaming service? YouTube channel?
And Adam, after a year of shadowing, what are your results?
Thanks as always!
That’s awesome shadowing is making a difference for you.
1. Shadowing is draining and where it can be done is limited, so I think if you can get in even an hour a day of shadowing that’s great.
2. Check out this post (https://japaneselevelup.com/current-japanese-podcasts-love-listening-to/) I used the NHK news radio podcast.
3. Very good results :) I felt way more confident in my speaking abilities.