If you read blogs for learning Chinese then you’ve no doubt seen the FluentU blog. Well, FluentU is more than a blog, it’s a full-featured service for learning Chinese through web videos.
Put simply, FluentU takes popular video content from around the web, transcribes the audio to create Chinese subtitles with Pinyin and English definitions, then adds all sorts of cool functionality for learning the vocab contained in the videos. It’s difficult to do it justice in one sentence, so read on and find out more.
Plus – we’ve got 10 beta invites to give away to try FluentU before it’s released to the public, the first ten people to leave a comment below will get an invite. (all the invites have been taken, thanks all!)
Registration is easy and immediately after logging in you are asked to select your level of Chinese (newbie, beginner, intermediate, advanced) and the topics that interest you. There are many topics to choose, ranging from Business to Traditional Culture. Being a geek I decided to stay in the Science and Technology section. You can edit your interests, and change your level, at any time, so don’t worry about making the wrong choice at this stage.
The decision you made above about your level and interests determine the videos that you will see in your FluentU dashboard. In the dashboard you can also see videos that you have completed, or are still in progress, along with videos you have flagged as favourite. Just click a video to get started.
Watching a video
The video watching interface is done really well, it’s clear that you’re here to watch a video. When the video begins the subtitles, along with Pinyin and English translation are displayed below it, on what could be described as cards. The cards, each of which contains a sentence or distinct section of dialogue from the video, follow the video and are swiped to the left to make way for the next sentence as the video progresses. At first the swiping, which is quite abrupt, was a bit distracting, but I got used to it after a while.
Hovering over vocab on a subtitle card displays the English definition in a pop-up bubble, and clicking it brings up an overlay on the video that includes the definition, pronunciation and example sentences. To add it to your vocab list, which is displayed to the right of the video, just click the heart icon.
The value of the subtitle cards and vocab list really becomes clear after you click on a word and see the video jump to the exact spot in the time at which the word was spoken. Likewise, quickly flicking through the subtitle cards also moves the video along. Very useful.
As mentioned above, the English is present on the subtitle cards, though it’s doesn’t feel intrusive. It’s displayed at the bottom of the card, and it’s in a smaller font than the Chinese, so it’s easy to ignore. The Pinyin is the same – While it is displayed directly under the characters, the font is small enough that you can easily ignore it and concentrate on the Chinese, only glancing to view it when absolutely necessary. Using the controls you can also turn off the Pinyin and English.
Further down the page, below the video, are the details of what you’re watching, including a summary, difficulty level, and featured words, among other information. The featured words section feels a bit under-utilised, though. You can’t click the words to see where they were used in the video, or even view their word-card. If this were part of a Chinese course then the featured words would be more prominent and the video would be centered around learning them. Though, this is self-study, so the idea is probably that you make your own lists and use the featured words as a guide only.
After watching the video, you can add it to your favourites, or download the transcript and featured words list in PDF format.
The words that you added to your vocab list while watching a video are also available from the My Vocab area of the site. Here you can see the automatically generated lists, that are named after the video from which you listed the word, and also your custom created lists. The name ‘custom list’ here is a bit deceiving as, while you can make new lists, the only words available to add are words that you have already listed while watching videos. That is, you can’t manually type in a word and add it to a list, each word must be related to the video from which you found it.
In a word list you can see the word itself, the pronunciation, definition and the video where you found it. Clicking the word shows you some example sentences and also the videos in which it appears. You can further click the video to load it in a pop-up at the exact spot that word is said, without you having to leave your word list.
In the future it’d be nice to see full custom list functionality – imagine being able to manually add a your own word, without having to find it in a video first, and then be able to see a list of every video that contains that word. Now that would be powerful.
Improvements We’d Like To See
The most glaring omission from the website, from the perspective of a Chinese learner in Taiwan, is the lack of Traditional Chinese. It’s so significant, in fact, that It might stop me from using the service. Luckily, though, after exchanging email with Alan of FluentU, I am assured that the priority for including of Traditional Chinese has since been increased, so I wouldn’t be surprised if it followed closely after launch.
Along the lines of including Traditional Chinese, I’d also love to see other phonetic alphabet choice, namely Zhuyin. Though I know the chance of this is very slim, so i’d just settle for Traditional Chinese at the moment.
As I mentioned above, I would like to see the featured words functionality expanded more. To take a more primary role in a student’s Chinese studies featured/relevant word lists are essential to create course-like content.
I love the way clicking on words in a vocab list takes you to the exact place in the video, though I often noticed that the video would play a fraction of a second after the word had been said. For instance, I clicked 「啟動」 and the video jumped to 動 missing out 啟. Not a huge issue, though, and I am sure this can be easily fixed before launch.
Lastly, a small issue, but one I think is worth noting. I noticed that on one video, an iPhone advert from Taiwan, the pronunciation in the video for 和 was “hàn”, as is used in Taiwan, though the Pinyin was listed as “hé”, the common Chinese pronunciation. Not a particularly big problem, but as the video pronunciation did not match it stood out.
It’s great to finally see the Chinese learning market mature enough for a website like this to be developed. So long as the content in FluentU is kept up-to-date this will be a great resource and addition to your Chinese study routine.
There are a few areas that I’d like to see improved but for the most part (except for the omission of Traditional Chinese) these are of little significance to the overall experience of the product.
As most of the videos on the website are only a few minutes long, if you got stuck in it would be possible to burn through them quite quickly. So it’s essential that the site content is kept fresh, especially since a lot of the videos are topical. This means a huge amount of effort will be required to maintain the site, which is why I can’t imagine the site being free when it is released to the public. I am guessing that it’ll be a subscription model, though this is pure speculation on my part. Either way, it’s a valuable resource, so I couldn’t argue if it was.
The final word is that I was impressed by FluentU and would recommend anyone learning Chinese check it out if they want real-world Chinese content to study, as a break from the boring grind of textbooks.