Reviews

How to Learn to Speak Japanese – A Review on Shadowing

Okay, so you want to know how to learn to speak Japanese, right? Well let me ask you a few questions:

How would you like to “sound like a native” Japanese person? And how would you like to fully hear and understand every syllable that a Japanese person speaks when they are taking?

Most people would would agree that if they could do both of the above, it would improve their Japanese speaking and listening skills TREMENDOUSLY!

While having a slight accent isn’t really a bad thing, being able to correctly identify what the other person says is vital for good communication! And one of the best ways to improve your listening skills is to be able to produce those sounds yourself so that you can not only hear them, but feel them in your mouth as well.

So how can you so this? What is the best way? Well before I get to that, I’d like to show you a quote from the prolific author Buckminster Fuller:

If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.

Rather than focus on what you need to be thinking when you speak, and how you need to position your mouth when you pronounce Japanese words, it is far better to simply use a tool each day that will naturally produce the result of sounding like a native speaker when you use it.

And when your normal and natural way of speaking Japanese is like that of a native’s, then your ears will also have been trained to listen for those exact sounds. Especially the ones that are very similar to each other like the “shi” and “chi” sounds.

That brings us to this particular tool, also known as the Shadowing book.

What is the Shadowing Book?

The Shadowing book is a book and CD combination that was created by Hitosi Saitou. The book is written in four different languages! They are:

  • Japanese
  • English
  • Chinese
  • Korean

The primary focus of the book is to learn how to speak and hear Japanese words. As long as you can read and understand English, Chinese, or Korean then you can use this book. I assume that anyone reading this post understands English, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The book is broken into five units. Unit 1 is, of course, the easiest and as you progress though each new unit, it gets progressively more difficult.

Within each and every unit there are ten sections and each section has ten parts. Furthermore, each part consists of two-person dialogues as they talk back and forth to one another. Usually in a question/answer format. Here is a little example that I created to kind of show you what a typical conversation might look like:

japanese shadowing example

Remember, this is just an example. The book actually has a lot more in it.

In the book, each section (remember there are ten per unit) has ten of these “two-person dialogues” on the whole left page. And the right page has the translations in English, Chinese, and Korean.

There is no Rōmaji in the written part of these dialogues. It is all written in full Japanese kanji (with furigana), hiragana, and katakana.  So you can improve your reading comprehension as well if you like.

There is a short introduction at the beginning of the book that goes over things like “what is Shadowing? How should you use the book? How is this book outlaid?” and all of that. So you will want to go over that section first so that you can use the book and CD the way that they’re intended to be used.

Other than that, the rest of the book is full of Japanese conversations and their translations.

I looked through it, and the breakdown of it goes like this:

So as you can see from above, there is plenty of practice materiel for you to use – Almost a thousand sentences!!!

And seeing as how the later examples are tougher than the starting ones, you will have more than enough to work with in just this one book.

How and Why Does Shadowing Work?

If you’re not all that familiar with what the Shadowing Technique is, then let me take a minute to explain.

Basically how it works is that you first listen very carefully to what a Japanese person says, and then you immediately repeat exactly what they said, exactly the way that they said it.

You see, typically a person will listen to Japanese words and then try to repeat it using their own language’s normal way of pronouncing words. This is why you can recognize a Russian accent both when they speak English, and Japanese. That “Russian flavor” gets added on to each and every other language they speak (just an example).

But when you learn a language and try to say it exactly the way the native said it, you are not trying to recreate words, but rather you are trying to recreate sounds!

You see, by listening and then repeating what you hear at the same time, you are training the muscles in both your ears and mouth to take in and then spit out information that is entirely Japanese.

Normally you would:

  1. Hear it in Japanese –>
  2. Translate it into English –>
  3. Think of a response –>
  4. Translate that back into Japanese –>
  5. Say it in Japanese.

Do you see how long that process is? It’s no wonder people have a hard time actually speaking a new language!

Have you ever had the experience of understanding what someone said to you in Japanese, but you were unable to respond back to them in Japanese? That’s because hearing and understanding are right at the beginning of that whole process. By the time you get to the end with your response, you are typically lost!

So what’s the solution? Simple: take out the English part and keep it all in Japanese. See below:

Better way to use Japanese:

  1. Hear it in Japanese –>
  2. Think of a response –>
  3. Say it in Japanese.

And when you reach a high level at Japanese, you don’t even have to think of a response. It’s so normal and natural that you just 1) Hear it and then 2) Respond in Japanese. This is probably how you communicate in English right now. And this is the level of mastery that most people would consider “fluent” in any language.

This shorter process of “hearing and responding” is what the book trains you to do.

Remember that quote from earlier? Rather than “thinking” about this whole process, just use the “tool” of the Shadowing Technique to promote you automatically and naturally using this shorter and faster 2-step process of “hearing and responding” in Japanese.

My Personal Thoughts and Experiences On It

So now you know all about the book/CD combo and how it works. What do I think about it?

Well personally, I love it!

It’s one of the few Japanese books that comes with an audio accompaniment so that you can actually learn the correct pronunciation of Japanese words. I mean, you can figure out how to pronounce words from an explanation, but that will never be on the same level as hearing a native speak. Combine hearing a native with repeating it yourself, and you’ve got a winning combination!

Bottom line: I have it and use it myself, so that’s really the biggest endorsement that I can give it. It works for me and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t work for you too as long as you follow the program through to the end, and take the actions that it tells you to take.

But everyone is different, I understand that. What works for me, might not work the best for someone else. So you’ll have to be the final judge on that part of it.

The way I see it is that it’s so ridiculously cheep anyway, that there’s really no risk if you get it and end up not liking it too much.

But I digress.

Let me warn you though, that there are two things in it that might give you some trouble:

  1. The people speaking the dialog go really fast!
  2. Shadowing is hard when you first start off.

I believe that the reason the people speak so fast in the recording is to help you to practice at a level that is slightly higher than the speed at which normal people talk.

It’s kind of like when you are moving some really heavy objects around your house, and then after that you go to pick up something that you would normally consider to be heavy, but now it feels really light because you were just lifting other things that were much heaver.

Likewise, if you practice listening and speaking at a very high speed, then when you talk to normal people it will feel like it’s a very comfortable pace for you.

That’s also why students who practice Japanese slowly (so they can understand it) have a really hard time communicating with natives. It’s primarily a speed issue.

As for the second part, what can I say? It’s hard at first to do the Shadowing Technique. Most likely you’re not used to repeating after people before they’ve even finish speaking.

Just stick with it. It get’s a lot easier the more you do it.

Alright, let me wrap this up by highlighting the benefits and where you can pick up a copy if you’re interested.

What You Get and Where to Find It

Let’s say that you pick up a copy and then go through the book, along with the CD that it comes with. Here are the results:

Process Japanese at a Higher Pace

Practically Use and Apply the Learned Dialogues

Improved Intonation and Rhythm

Respond Promptly and Fluidly (muscle memory)

Learn New Kanji and Japanese Vocabulary

Learn Japanese Grammar Naturally

I got mine off of Amazon.com and you can find it there as well if you wish.

 

 

If that is something that you are interested in, then I highly encourage you to check it out. Like I said, I really like it and it’s one of the things that I advise other people to use as well when I’m asked.

I hope you got a lot out of this review! If you have any questions about it, or if you have any thoughts that you would like to share, please do so by leaving me a comment below! Thanks!

See you!

28 Comments

  • Daniel

    I’ve tried shadowing before, but I kept getting lost while the other person was talking. It seems like it might be easier for short sentences, but once they get into long sentences it becomes really difficult. Any advice on overcoming that?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, you’re totally right about it getting harder the longer each sentence gets. I would advise that you take a step-by-step approach with Shadowing where you focus on short sentences until you feel like you’ve mastered them and then you move up to slightly longer ones.

      If you can take an approach like this, then you shouldn’t ever feel like it’s too much for you. Rather you will feel like you can nail it with just a little more practice.

      This book in particular is wonderful for a graded increase in difficultly like this. If you just grab random people talking as your material, then it will tend to be more hit and miss.

      That’s one of the primary advantages that learning books (or courses) have. The fact that it starts slow, goes up to medium, and then ends with the hardest stuff. It’s a great way to feel like you’re making progress with what you’re using to learn Japanese.

  • andrejs

    This way of learning language looks like it really can work, I guess it is just hard work anyway. I am interested in Asian languages, especially Chinese. Although I do not think that I will ever visit the beautiful and wealthy country, but I would still like to learn enough to be able to read descriptions of China-made products. Sometimes when goods come directly from China, you can find English or Russian which I speak fluently. My question is, is it a good tool and how long does it take to reach some progress? Thanks.

    • Nick Hoyt

      The thing I’ve noticed about most language books is that, they actually have thousands of words and phrases in them. So there’s usually not a problem when it comes to finding a wealth of information.

      The two questions are really, (1) – does this particular book present all of that information in a way that is easy to take in, and (2) – will you put in the necessary work to copy the information from the pages onto your brain.

      I can say that this shadowing book does a great job on #1 and giving you a format that is efficient at moving the information from the book and into your memory. It is hard at first, but becomes easy as you practice repeatedly (like most things).

      But the greatest techniques won’t do squat if you don’t apply them day in and day out. 

      So the sort answer (a little late, I know!) is that this technique works, if you do.

      As for how long it take to see progress, I would say you’ll start seeing some good results after a few hours of using it, and you’ll get a nice compound effect after a couple dozen. The Shadowing Technique is one of those unfair advantages because at some point, the results start to outstrip the work put into it.

  • Katherine

    Great article! I know someone who used this method and said it’s the way to go. I am a teacher and understand the benefits of such a technique. I am looking into teaching English to Chinese students virtually. I do not know enough about it yet but hope they use some form of shadowing. Katherine

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I think one of the reasons it works so well is because it forces you to actually use the language, instead of trying to get you to understand how the language works.

      As a teacher, you kind of have to know both ways. But if you’re a student, then gaining a functional use of the language is much more beneficial than just an “understanding” of it. 

      That might sound a little weird, but it’s kind of like the kid who can speak fluently, but doesn’t know anything about grammar, vs. the student who can explain proper conjugation, but can’t hold a five minute conversation.

      One of the common things I hear about Shadowing is that it’s hard, and that’s definitely true when you get started with it, but anyone who has stuck with it can attest to the results. They’re good!

  • Katherine Dasta

    Shadowing is definitely the way to go. I have talked to others that have used that technique and say it’s amazing. Looking to teaching Chinese students English, I am not sure exactly how it will work, but it will be interesting to see if they can use a form of shadowing. Do you know if they use it with other languages than Asian ones? Katherine

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, so I’m not really sure if there are any books or programs that are dedicated to shadowing with languages other than Japanese. Probably because I haven’t really looked for any, but I’d be willing to guess that they do exist.

      Since “Shadowing” itself is a technique, you can do it with any language as long as you’ve got some kind of audio material that the student can listen to and follow along with.

      I mean, even English people do it with English when they want to mimic an accent or do impersonations.

      So even if you are unable to find a good book on Shadowing for the language you want to teach, you can still do it. You’ll just have to do a little additional work setting everything up so that the student can learn using it.

  • Stephen

    Very interesting! I’m actually thinking about what language to learn next and Japanese is quite high on my list. I have considered Chinese but there’s something about Japanese which makes it more attractive.

    Your post may well have made up my mind for me and I’ll apply this shadowing tactic that you explain so well. Thanks for the post!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I know what you mean. I always thought that as Asian language would be a cool one when I was a kid. I almost went with Chinese because of all the kung-fu movies that I loved to watch. But in the end Japanese won out due to the anime, manga, and video games.

      If you are brand new, then the shadowing technique might seem a little hard at first, but stick with it and you will quickly get the hang of it. It’s great since it not only allows you to listen to the native sounds of the language, but it also gets you speaking and using Japanese from day one!

      That’s really powerful when you consider how long it typically takes students in a classroom to start talking and regularly using Japanese when they are in the process of learning it.

  • Meena

    Amazing review, Nick! As a translator/teacher, I’m always interested in learning a new language. However, I have to admit that many online tools, apps and websites are simply not worth it, as they teach you a language in the traditional way, where no new methods are introduced to a learner. Therefore, it’s really hard to memorize things you would be able to do so instantly if you had a good tool. So, I’ve been trying to find the Japanese online course that would suit me, but no success. Now I’ll definitely give it a try! Thank you!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Meena, it’s true that there is a lot of low quality programs and apps out there that try to teach Japanese. It’s kind of crazy that only 10 or 20 years ago there was almost nothing, and now you can find a million different things with just the click on a button!

      I think that nowadays is probably the best time ever to learn a language, and Japanese in particular 😉 since you can find some amazing methods for learning it. But, you gotta know what’s good and be able to separate it from what’s crap.

      That’s actually one of the reasons why I started this site. To share my thoughts and experiences with all of the different courses, books, and apps that I’ve tried so that people can focus their time and energy on the really great stuff that works, and avoid wasting time and money on the stuff that primarily fluff.

      The concept of Shadowing has always been around (it’s an oldie, but a goodie) but this particular book was specially designed to teach you Japanese through using it. I highly recommend it to anyone who is serious about learning Japanese!

  • Indasa

    Nick, I love the idea of speaking and using dialogue right away. As an ESL teacher in Costa Rica, I encourage the immediate use of dialogue for my students.

    I’m curious about the reading comprehension portion. Most of my students are familiar with the Latin alphabet. So, reading and writing issues are minimal. What advice would you give to a beginner if they are having problems with decoding Hiragana, Kanji, and Katakana?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I think that speaking the language from day one really helps with the whole learning process since it requires total involvement and participation on the part of the student. 

      As for understanding the written part of Japanese, I would encourage people to just focus on learning the first writing system of Hiragana. 

      I’ve written on how you can learn all of it in just a few days in this step by step guide

      Once you’ve gotten Hiragana down, you can move on to Katakana whenever you please. There’s really no rush as long as you’ve got Hiragana memorized because you can start reading most beginner Japanese stuff with just the first writing system.

      Kanji it an entirely another beast since there’s thousands of characters, so just learning a few of them a day is a good plan so that at the end of the year you will have learned them all. 

  • Fred

    Amazing Review Nick! The shadowing book and CD combo actually works on the principle of listen and learn. I like how this book and CD works. Like you said, first lift the heavier products and later, get so used to it that them seem lighter than before. I myself always thought of Japanese as a very tough language, which is why I was never good at learning it.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Thanks Fred, I’m glad you liked it! And yeah, it is all about listening first, and then from there repeating it and learning the language.

      This is pretty much how children learn languages naturally. And not just their first language, but also when a child learns several languages at once. I believe that the official name for this technique is called “mimicking.”

      I think that adults don’t like to use this method because there’s a lot of feeling foolish at first. Most of the time, people who have gone through school want to learn a language the same way that they learned things like history or math – by reading it, understanding it, and then remembering it.

      But learning a language is much more like learning how to ride a bike – you actually have to DO IT over and over again in order to get any better at it!

  • Vesna

    It’s a very interesting article about this new and successful method of learning Japanese. I like the product, too. I’m sure that this book would help many people learn Japanese. I agree with all your points and mentioned techniques of learning. I know very well all the difficulties, but also the beauty of learning new languages – because I personally speak three foreign languages. My learning was based on similar principles as in shadowing. So, this mentioned method – shadowing, could be easily applied on learning any other language, too. Thank you for the excellent review!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Vesna, that’s pretty cool that you’ve used similar methods to learn three foreign languages!

      Yeah, the techniques (and a lot of the products) that I talk about here on JT could easily be applied to any other language. Which is pretty cool since you can then repeat what’s worked for you when you want to start learning something new!

      Shadowing is something that very few people know about, and even less talk about it, so I’m glad that I’ve got a platform where I can share what I know and talk about it with others. Thanks!

  • Ronnie

    I think this is a possible good way to learn. My experience in trying to learn years ago in a classroom was a nightmare to me. This approach seemed to be a little bit more comprehensible than the way I was being taught years ago.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, I think that one of the problems with most classrooms is that they teach a lot ABOUT the language, like the grammar rules and how to spell words, but they don’t have the students actually using the language enough.

      At least, that was my experience of language learning in college. Something like The Shadowing Technique is so great because it really forces you to speak the language and you therefore get really good at using it.

  • alham

    Hi thanks for providing your thoughts on this! I’ve never heard of shadowing before, but it sounds pretty unique. I was really looking to learn Japanese as the language is getting really popular nowadays. Just go to any anime convention to see what I mean.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Oh yeah, I hear you on that one! I went to a convention a little while ago and it seemed like people were throwing Senpai and Kawaii all over the place!

      Then at one point people started a conversation about all the different ways to talk about oppai! WHAAAAATTTT!?!?!?

      But yeah, I think I read that at anytime there’s at least 3 million people studying Japanese, so it’s not hard to find other people who share that passion! And some people find different ways to be easier for them personally.

      That’s why I like to do a lot of different reviews. Maybe you’ll find one that resonates with you and works out well. That’s my goal at least!

  • Dira

    Very interesting product. I was always curious about Japanese as a language, but found it to be quite difficult. I used to watch Anime that were mostly in Japanese, so I relied a lot on the subtitles. It was very difficult because I couldn’t relate to any of the sounds and pronunciations. For languages like this, it is good to have something that could take you step by step. Thanks a lot for this review!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Dira, yeah I can totally relate to what you mean. Back before I had learned any Japanese at all, watching Japanese anime with subtitles wasn’t all that great. Mainly because I had to watch the screen AND read the SUBs.

      But the really interesting thing is that as you learn more and more Japanese, you start recognizing words and phrases that the charters are saying. Even if you only spent a few minutes learning Japanese, you would be surprised how often you then notice those exact words in the shows!

      I guess that’s a pretty normal thing for people who are studying Japanese, but it really makes you feel awesome when you know what the characters meant in their dialog just by hearing it, and not by reading the SUBs.

  • Pat Bateman

    Quite an interesting product and system! Makes sense when you explain it the way you did. I tried learning Japanese with Rosetta Stone and it was just way too academic. it took me too long to grasp the language. I also did Pimsleur German which was alot more successful and similar to this shadowing technique, but not exactly that. Shadowing sounds like it could be an effective learning method. I think I’ll give this a try in Japanese

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Pat, yeah I’ve also used Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur before, both for Japanese. Rosetta Stone is okay, but there are a lot of reasons why I don’t think it’s really as good as they are advertised as being.

      What I like about Pimsleur is that they have you speaking and using dialogue right from the start. That’s a super useful way to actually learn how to speak the language!

      Shadowing just takes it to the next level above Pimsleur. It is harder since it goes a lot faster, but as long as you are able to stick with it the results are fantastic!

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