In this article, I am going to review FluentU, a database of YouTube videos in Mandarin with subtitles (and much more).
Because I think videos are the best way to achieve “immersion” while studying a foreign language. Admittedly, talking with native people on a regular basis is even better; however, it’s not always possible and, at least when you are starting out, it’s extremely difficult.
What is immersion? And why is it so important?
You can’t learn a new language by just “studying.” In the end, mastering a language comes down to being able to communicate effectively with native speakers. The language you can learn through books is usually quite different from the spoken language, and with Chinese, the gap is even larger than with English or French, for example.
During the time I spent in China, I met many people who, after studying Chinese in their country for several years, came to China and became completely frustrated. Why? Because Chinese people were unable to understand them and, even worse, they couldn’t understand what Chinese people were saying. Even if they had good grammar and vocabulary basics, they had never been in contact with the “real” language.
How can I achieve “immersion” in my own country?
There are many ways: listening to Chinese music, watching Chinese movies, or chatting with Chinese people, to start. You can check out this list of free online resources for leaning Chinese to discover websites where you can get in touch with Chinese native speakers.
However, all the methods I listed become interesting only after you already have a good knowledge of the language. So, let’s get back to FluentU…
What is FluentU?
FluentU is a language learning tool that offers a large database of short, authentic YouTube videos with well-synchronized subtitles (in Chinese).
The subtitles are especially important, as they will allow you to pick up many more words than you could understand by watching a movie without subtitles or listening to a song.
Why do I like FluentU?
FluentU is much more than a selection of YouTube videos; it’s an excellent interactive software designed to help you learn Chinese efficiently. Here are some of its most useful features:
- Videos: At the time of writing this article, FluentU has more than 1100 videos (they are constantly uploading new videos), which are carefully chosen and organized by level of language proficiency (Newbie, Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced), topics (Everyday Life, Science and Tech and so on) and format (Movie Clips, Commercials and so on).
- Audio: It also offers a large selection of audio recordings with subtitles.
- Interactive word definitions: This is probably the feature I like the most. At any time, you can hover over any word in the subtitles with your mouse and the clip will pause immediately. You can then click on a word and its definition, along with three example sentences, will appear. At this point, if you want, you can add the word to your custom vocabulary list to review it later.
- SRS based vocabulary review: You can review your customized lists or chose one from the many lists available and review it efficiently through an SRS system (if you don’t know what an SRS system is, just click here). Also, they have included a quiz mode to make review more interesting.
What I don’t like about FluentU
Up until now the only problem I have found concerns users in China. As you may know, YouTube is blocked in China. So, if you want to use FluentU, you need a good VPN service.
However, I talked with FluentU developers and they told me that they are working on alternative video sources such as Youku or similar websites.
How much does FluentU cost?
There are three types of subscriptions:
- Free Plan: You can register for free and watch some of the videos. However, they are not updated, you can only watch a limited number of videos per month and you won’t have access to all the extra features such as vocabulary revision.
- Basic Plan: For 15 USD/month you’ll have access to an unlimited number of videos and audio recordings; however, you’ll be unable to use the other learning features.
- Plus Plan: This plan gives you full access to all learning features, videos and audio recordings. The cost is 30 USD/month.
My suggestion is to start with the Free Plan and see if you like FluentU. Then, if you do find it useful, move to the Plus Plan. I think that using the vocabulary revision tool is essential if you want to learn Chinese efficiently with FluentU.
The FluentU app
FluentU has just released an app for iOS systems. So, if you own an Apple device, from now on, you will be able to access the software from it. This is what I think about their app:
As I have already written in the past, I love apps for learning Chinese, as they can be quite helpful when studying Chinese.
FluentU invested a long time into developing this app and the results are impressive. I’ve been playing with the app for several days and as of yet, I haven’t been able to find any problems.
Apart from its impeccable design, what I like about the FluentU app is that you can use most of the features offline. That way, you can study on the go without “wasting” the data of your cell phone plan.
Even though it’s hard to find a problem with the app, as a user, I do miss one thing:
The FluentU app allows you to download the videos, but you are not allowed to watch them when you are offline; you can only view the dialogue. However, if you have internet access, you’ll have no restrictions and the data consumption won’t be so high.
And the ugly
The app is only available for Apple devices with iOS 8. Therefore, if you’re like me and aren’t such a big fan of Apple devices or have an old one, you won’t be able to enjoy the app. So, you’ll be limited to using FluentU on your computer.