In dictionary’s terms, a shadow is “the dark shape that somebody/something’s form makes on a surface” (Oxford online dictionary). This means that a body’s shadow is an inevitable copy of its shape. This idea has been transferred to the field of language learning: a student “shadows” what a speaker says when they try to copy or repeat it. This can be a very valuable source of practice both in class and as homework, with the potential of boosting fluency, pronunciation and other skills.
Shadowing requires three key steps:
1. Listen carefully
Listening implies giving your undivided attention to that piece of language that you are later supposed to emulate. If you are shadowing in order to practise sounds, then make sure you pay attention to how individual words are stressed, how sounds are pronounced and the speaker’s intonation. If the speaker is your teacher, then you may ask them to repeat the phrase or word if necessary. You may also want to take notes of anything else that you may find relevant or new.
2. Repeat what you hear as faithfully as possible
Now you can try saying the words yourself. If it is a single word you are shadowing, then it may be useful to break the word up into chunks (that is: parts) and say each chunk slowly in isolation before you try the whole word. You may need to repeat a certain part more than once in order to feel comfortable with it—that is OK! Also, work on stress—you can either highlight the tonic syllable or underline it: this will help you remember in the future!
If it is a whole sentence that you are shadowing, then first make sure you can pronounce every word in it with confidence. Pay attention to the intonation pattern used in that sentence: if you have just started working on intonation, one basic question is "does the voice go up or down towards the end?" You can start by drawing up or down arrows on your sentences, so that you can remember which basic intonation patterns were used.
3. Get feedback
Listen to your teacher’s feedback on your performance. Write their comments down on your notes. If your teacher is not around for feedback, then try recording yourself. You can use your phone or PC for this. Record yourself shadowing the same sentence or word many times. Then listen to yourself and compare your version with the original one: are there any similarities? What differences do you notice? You can also send your recording to your teacher for homework so that they can send you their feedback too!
Additionally, the practice of repeating what your teacher (or any other speaker) has said can help your memory! It’s an excellent opportunity to help you remember new words or phrases, as you can listen to yourself saying them—and not someone else! Repeating phrases with new verb tenses, for example, can help you take the first steps towards becoming an active user of the tense. Even if you are still not using the structure independently, you are still saying it—which has a definite effect on your awareness and memory. This means that shadowing is also an effective technique to help you work on your vocabulary as well as your grammar.
In a nutshell: shadowing can help you improve your pronunciation and also boost your memory in learning new words and grammar structures. If you do not feel confident enough about shadowing, make sure you take some time to discuss it with your teacher in class: they can help you and increase your confidence as you incorporate shadowing as a learning tool. Good luck!