You’re deep in conversation with a friend, a co-worker, or maybe a kaiju. You understand everything being said, nodding along and doing the good ol’ aizuchi. A brilliant response or comment is forming in your mind. You open your mouth to speak…and fumble, stammer, get flustered. What comes out is nothing at all like you imagined. As a result, the kaiju grows bored and promptly decides to eat you. Your last thought is, I should’ve practiced more with those Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! books.
Sometimes we know exactly what we want to say, but don’t know when or how to say it.
Maintaining a seamless flow of conversation while understanding what is being said can be difficult, especially in a foreign language. For classroom learners of Japanese, speaking and listening practice often comes straight from the textbook, where the dialogues are too formal and boring, or structured too tightly around specific grammar points.
Unless you’re immersed in the language 24/7 or living in Japan, learning to speak like a native isn’t an easy task, but the Shadowing series is a great stepping stone towards obtaining fluency.
The Shadowing: Let’s Speak Japanese! series is printed by Kurosio Publishers, with the Beginner to Intermediate Edition released in 2006, and the Intermediate to Advanced Edition released in 2010. Each book has Japanese dialogues on the left-side pages, and English, Chinese, Korean translations on the right-side pages. Both books have CDs included.
These books are great for beginner students who can read hiragana and katakana and are learning with a textbook like Genki; intermediate students with sufficient grounding in grammar and kanji; and self-learners at any level. Even if you’re fairly proficient and want to skip the Beginner to Intermediate Level book, I recommend starting out with it to get a better grasp of the shadowing method.
So, what the heck is shadowing?
Shadowing “acts as a bridge between understanding what you want to say in your mind and being able to say it out loud promptly and fluently” (p. 10). It’s a learning method relying on a combination of speaking and listening for practical, daily use. Shadowing a conversation requires speaking along with the dialogue as accurately as possible, taking note of context and intonation, and over time being able to repeat the dialogue perfectly.
There are 4 main types of shadowing you can choose from:
- Silent shadowing: following along with the CD inside your head.
- Whispering or mumbling: talking to yourself in a low voice.
- Prosody shadowing: talking with an emphasis on intonation and the flow of conversation.
- Contents shadowing: focusing on the context of the dialogue, paying attention to set phrases and responses.
The books claim that by shadowing for 10 minutes a day you will “become able to process Japanese at a higher speed and also see improvements to your listening and reading exercises” (p. 10).
That seems like way too short a time to learn anything, but this is a method that requires repetition in order to achieve results, and repeating something over and over is mentally exhausting.
The goal of shadowing is not to memorize dialogues word for word or pick apart grammar constructions, but to learn how to listen in certain situations and be able to accurately convey your thoughts. If you want to be able to hold down your end of the conversation, whether it’s with a classmate or another kaiju, then shadowing is one such way to achieve that goal.
Each book is separated into units based on different themes or settings. In the first book, the dialogues start off very short, with basic sentences and one-word responses. There’s no romaji, and most kanji are introduced with furigana. The topics are fairly basic and found in most beginner Japanese textbooks: figuring out train schedules, commenting on food, complaining about tests, and so on:
You’re encouraged to look up any vocabulary and grammar you don’t recognize beforehand so you can focus completely on shadowing without getting hung up on stuff you don’t know.
As you work your way through the books, the dialogues grow more complex in topic and length, challenging your attention span and listening skills. There’s even a dialogue about shadowing:
You might be shadowing only one dialogue for as much as a minute or a week, and that’s okay. Learning to speak すらすら (fluently) isn’t going to happen overnight.
There’s a nice variety of speakers and social roles — friend and friend, male coworker and female coworker, mother and son, and so on. In the second book, the topics range from wedding dress shopping, judging political candidates, and discussing the size of people’s heads (no joke).
What’s great about the dialogues are the emotions. The book urges you to place yourself in a speaker’s shoes to get a better grasp of the situation. You really get an understanding of what the speaker is feeling, something that doesn’t always come across in dry textbook dialogues. By shadowing how a Japanese person conveys a particular emotion, you learn how to do so as well. The kaiju will be less likely to eat you if it understands how you’re feeling.
Some dialogues have a little light bulb icon identifying a word or phrase that is explained at the end of the unit. I found this exceptionally handy, as there were a lot of idioms and cultural terms I didn’t know about, such as 明日は雪だね and 喪中. The text and layout are accessible, with enough room in the margins to jot down notes if need be.
My main problem with the books is the English translations are not consistently accurate. There’s missing punctuation, stiff or awkward phrasing and misspelled words. Because of this, I can only wonder how proficient the Chinese and Korean translations are. As an upper intermediate level learner myself, I didn’t rely too much on the translations, but when I did I was distracted by the mistakes. It’s inevitable that something is lost in translation, but a little more effort could have been made into polishing the translations, especially for super-beginner learners relying on them. While the translations are nice to look to for clarification, it’s not an aspect of the books I recommend relying on all the time.
DOES SHADOWING TEN MINUTES A DAY WORK?
I can easily say shadowing worked for me. As someone who struggles with speaking Japanese, I liked being able to experiment with the different shadowing styles to figure out which one best suited how I learn and process information. Amazingly enough, ten minutes truly is the limit for shadowing. If you shadow any longer than ten minutes, the dialogues begin to make less sense, and you can feel your brain stressing out from the repetition. It’s that intense. Overall, I’m pleased with the content and plan to continue using them.
This series is a worthwhile investment for any learner struggling with speaking or is dissatisfied with the dialogue quality in their textbook. The dialogues offer a nice challenge for people wanting to improve pronunciation and speed while also understanding how to converse in different situations.
The Beginner to Intermediate book works great as a companion piece for most textbooks, while the Intermediate to Advanced book allows more independence for proficient learners.
Not only will your speed and listening comprehension improve, but your confidence as well. Being able to chime in with an appropriate idiom or an opinion will lead to more meaningful conversations in the future, as well as encourage you to keep improving.
Stick with these books and the kaiju will be so amazed by your conversational skills it will forget to eat you.