Last updated: 25 March 2010

Teaching yourself languages
     The Shadowing Technique
     The Scriptorium Technique

Teaching yourself languages
In order to learn a foreign language well, you must always invest much focused energy using intelligent study methods and good study materials with systematic regularity over long periods of time.  In order to succeed, you must take and maintain active control of the learning process.  Studying a language with a teacher as one would study other academic subjects all too often results in students remaining in a detrimentally passive mode, expecting their teacher to control the process and somehow impart the language to them. A good teacher may inspire you and provide you with external structure and discipline, but if you are a sufficiently serious and mature student, you are better off teaching yourself a language than enrolling in a course. In our day and age, good books with accompanying recordings are inherently better resources than living teachers for obtaining a foundation in foreign languages.

1) The Shadowing Technique
The videos I have made about Shadowing demonstrate and discuss the proper form for using my technique of shadowing or listening to and simultaneously echoing a recording of foreign language audio that accompanies a manual of bilingual texts. I gained my foundation in most of the languages I taught myself in my active learning period several years ago by beginning to study them in this fashion, and if I myself were to embark upon the study of any more new languages, I would most certainly start out by doing this exercise. As it is, I am hard put to find the time to maintain all the languages I have studied already in a balanced fashion. Now, in order to produce this video to demonstrate the proper technique, I found it necessary to really and truly do the exercise and not just go through the motions. Thus, I chose to do it with Mandarin Chinese because this is the language I most regret not having learned before. My Chinese pronunciation is confessedly atrocious, but it is infinitely better when I am shadowing than when I am not, so please do not let this fact detract from the true purpose of this video, which is to demonstrate the correct posture and practice of this genuine learning exercise.

In order to shadow most effectively, it is important to observe three points:

1.     Walk outdoors as swiftly as possible.
2.     Maintain perfectly upright posture.
3.     Articulate thoroughly in a loud, clear voice.

Whenever I have taught this technique to groups of college students, they have inevitably found it difficult to develop proper form. Initially, they find it strange to study while in motion and would prefer to remain seated. Once moving, they find it hard to break out of a comfortable stroll, and they are chronically inclined to slouch. They are also very much prone to muttering hesitantly or even just listening silently.

Different people learn in different fashions, and it may well be that the most effective way for you to use this technique is in a less military fashion than I am demonstrating. However, I have experimented with every manner of using this technique, and I have always found that compromising any of the above three points even slightly reduces the efficacy of the method to a very great degree.

Thus, I encourage you to treat this technique as a genuine form of exercise and to attempt to learn the proper form just as I am demonstrating it here (I am marching back and forth for the sake of the camera; you may find such a defined space congenial, but you may also prefer to hike a trail). In the context of a college class meeting twice a week, it generally takes at least a month under my tutelage for most students to develop good form. However, I think that more motivated students learning it under more intense circumstances could certainly learn it more swiftly.

In the video, you see me initially shadowing without looking at a book, then while looking at one. You will want to shadow without a book when you are in the very initial stages of language study, focusing on phonetics only (= "blind shadowing"), before you study any individual lesson, and then again finally after you have worked through your lessons thoroughly. The ideal book for shadowing contains the transcription of the recording on the left hand page and an annotated translation on the right hand side of the page. In several distinct sub-stages of shadowing, you read these texts in different ways to come to understand more and more thoroughly what you are saying.

Thus, in order to use my method of shadowing most effectively, you need:

1.     The proper form and correct procedure, as demonstrated here.
2.     The right kind of manual and other equipment (e.g., earphones rather than headphones).
3.     The discipline to practice with systematic regularity -- 15 minute sessions are probably ideal, though you may want to start with
        only 5 or 10 and you may work up to 30 -- at assigned intervals throughout the day (the more intervals, the faster the progress).
4.     The knowledge of how to pace yourself correctly in terms of finding the proper balance of review and new material.

2) The Scriptorium Technique
I have also made a video to demonstrates the proper form for transcribing languages by hand as I do in my "scriptorium" exercise. In order to do this properly, you should:

1.     Read a sentence aloud.
2.     Say each word aloud again as you write it.
3.     Read the sentence aloud as you have written it.

The whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the stage at which you should check all unknowns in grammars or dictionaries, although that would have been too tedious to show in the video.

Whenever I have taught this technique to groups of college students, they have inevitably found it difficult to develop proper form. They tend to rush through the exercise all too swiftly, and to write silently and carelessly. In truth, copying large numbers of pages mechanically is still a better language learning exercise than many other forms of studying, but it is only a fraction as effective as doing the scriptorium exercise properly. If you can develop the habit of doing the scriptorium exercise with correct form, I believe you will find it to be an excellent means of refining and polishing your knowledge at the intermediate and advanced levels. You can also use a variant of this exercise at the beginning level while doing translations by reading the English sentence aloud initially as well.

In the context of a college class meeting twice a week, it generally takes most students at least a month under my tutelage in order to develop good form in this exercise. However, I think that more motivated students learning it under more intense circumstances could certainly learn it more swiftly.

In the video, I chose to write a sentence each in three different exotic languages in an endeavor to hold the viewer's interest in watching someone write long enough to demonstrate the technique. In order to do this actual exercise meaningfully in terms of improving your overall functional command of a single given language, you should do the exercise for at least 15 minutes, in which time you will probably be able to transcribe an entire page.

Reviews and Recommendations for Self-Instructional Material
In order to teach yourself a language, you need to choose good materials, which can be difficult because all language courses are packaged and marketed to present themselves as the best for all students, and as the one and only set of materials that you need in order to attain fluency.  Now, in truth, in order to systematically study any language, you need to have recourse to four or five different methods or approaches, and certainly not all of those that exist are either inherently good or suited for all types of learners.

home | about | videos | publications | polyliteracy | language study | institute | genetic museum | geographic museum | libraries | great books | contact

© 2010 Alexander Arguelles. All rights reserved.