Making language learning fun via YouTube videos

2016-08-25 01.35.41

I don’t write blog posts often as I’m normally busy running the site – but the following topic is quite interesting, so here we go!

While far from being an accomplished polyglot, I do enjoy learning Chinese a lot! Chinese was actually the first language we offered at over 10 years ago.

While I use my own site to improve my Chinese sometimes I feel like doing something else.

Recently I noticed there are a lot of good Chinese movies on YouTube. Often they come with English and Chinese subtitles at the same time. Most of these movies use simplified characters, which might be a problem if you want to concentrate on traditional characters. In any case it’s always good to learn both.

Most of the time I use YouTube but you might also find plenty of material on Youku, Tudou or for instance. These sites might be blocked for overseas users though. But YouTube is just fine if you have problems.

To find movies suitable for language learning use search terms such as “subtitled chinese movies” or “english chinese subtitles”. Once you find a good movie YouTube will often suggest similar movies on the right hand side.

You can choose between a movie or drama series for instance. Each have pros and cons. A drama means you have a lot of content to go through without having to look for new material all the time, but it can get a bit boring having to learn from the same source for a long time. Another problem: Once I was halfway through a Chinese drama when it was suddenly removed from YouTube for copyright reasons.

Once you found something to watch there is a trick to make the learning experience more efficient. On YouTube you can use the following shortcuts to navigate through the videos:

Space or k : Play / Pause
Left arrow : Go back 5 seconds
Right Arrow : Go forward 5 seconds
j : Go back 10 seconds
l : Go forward 10 seconds
f : Full screen
Escape : Exit full screen
0 : Restart video
Numbers 1-9: Jump to different parts of the video (1 = beginning, 5 = mid-section, 9 = near the end)
Up Arrow : Increase volume by 5%
Down Arrow : Decrease volume by 5%
. (period) : Move forward 1 frame (when video is paused)
, (comma) : Move backward 1 frame (when video is paused)

Especially the shortcuts to jump back 5 or 10 seconds are useful as it allows you to re-listen to difficult parts.

There is also the possibility to add subtitles to YouTube via a Chrome extension called “Subtitles For YouTube” by Yash Agarwal. Subtitles are available mostly for Hollywood movies for a lot of different languages. The only problem here is though, that the subtitles are often not in sync with the movie, but it can be adjusted via shortcuts.

Similar plugins or extension should be available for other browser. Just search for “youtube subtitles plugin Firefox”, etc.

Finally the last problem with Chinese is looking up characters you don’t know. After all Chinese doesn’t use Latin letters.

  • The best option is using an app which scans the texts through the smartphone camera and shows you matching Chinese words and its meanings. Personally I use the app from Written Chinese. Pleco has a similar app but seems to have a lower success rate detecting characters. On the other hand one advantage Pleco has is the ability to scan vertical text as well. This is important as Chinese texts can be written vertically or horizontally. Scanning  Chinese characters in books works much better than on a computer screen. Normally it fails if the colour of Chinese subtitles is similar to the background. (white on white for example)
  • Second option is to draw the character into the app mentioned above. This is tricky though, as the stroke order is important and the whole process is quite time-consuming.
  • Finally you can just enter the English translation or the Pinyin into a dictionary and hope that you find the matching Chinese characters.

While I found plenty of Chinese movies with both Chinese and English subtitles, this seems much harder for other languages such as French or Spanish. For these languages I’ve recently downloaded news apps which send me daily push notifications. For French I use the “Le Figaro” app, and for Spanish I recommend “El País”, Finally for German the “Tagesschau” app is pretty good! When you install the app confirm that you want to receive push notifications and you are ready for your daily exercise! Look up words you don’t know and add them to your personal word lists in

Even though watching movies or reading news is a great activity I think it’s still important to use flashcards to learn less common words.

I’d like to draw a comparison with badminton (which I love to play). In badminton you can either have training sessions or play games. Both are equally important. While the training is comparable with the flashcards where you train the same thing over and over again, the games are the equivalent to watching movies or dramas – testing what you’ve learnt. Learning about grammar could be compared to learning about strategies in badminton from a book. Hope that makes sense!

All in all it’s important to do what you enjoy – this ensures you keep learning and improving your language skills!

Hope you enjoyed this blog post, feel free to comment below!

Oliver Antosch