Hacking Chinese

A better way of learning Mandarin

Review: FluentU Chinese

04-23-15-11-58-39_250-250I remember what it was like starting to learn Chinese and I have since seen the same thing in students. When first starting out, everybody’s very enthusiastic and even though some parts of the language feel difficult, these challenges are there to be overcome and even repeated setbacks can’t really dent our ambition to learn more.

But it’s with language as it is with everything else in life, the sheen wears off, the dust settles and studying stops being the most exciting part of the day and turns into a part of normal life instead. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it becomes boring, but it means that for most of us, we have to make an effort to make it interesting.

The obvious way of making learning interesting is to make sure that the content in interesting, but as anyone who has tried knows, immersion in Chinese isn’t as easy as it sounds. Reaching a level where you can read and listen to interesting content takes a long time.

This week’s article is an in-depth review of FluentU in general, with an obvious focus on Chinese. I think this new service can help you solve both the problem of finding interesting material and the problem of making it accessible.

Review: FluentU Chinese

In a nutshell, FluentU is a service that uses video and audio to teach you Chinese. While doing so, you have access to a lot of scaffolding, such as subtitles, translations, pop-up definitions, useful player features such as looping and pausing. Added to this, there is a learning and review section if you want to actually learn the content of the media you watch and listen to. Overall, I think FluentU has come a long way towards solving the problems of boredom and inaccessibility of Chinese learning materials.

If you’ve never hard of FluentU before, I suggest you check out my brief video review below. I will discuss the service in more detail below in both text and images, but since this service is mostly about video content, I feel that a video review is in place:

Let’s dig deeper and see what FluentU has to offer learners of Chinese.

Using video to learn Chinese

The videos are the core of FluentU and what sets it apart from many other services, including most podcasts. Using video to learn has obvious advantages, such as being more interesting, engaging more senses and offering more information in general. The problem is of course that video is harder and more expensive to produce, so what FluentU has done is very clever: Turn existing videos into Chinese learning material. They also offer a growing library of videos created by the FluentU team, but more about that later.

At the moment, there are 2441 video and audio clips distributed over six difficulty levels, eight types of content and nine formats. Something to note here is that for each video, you can see how many words it contains, and, more importantly, how many of these words you already know. That means that the more you use the service, the better it will be at showing you clips where you know most of the content already.

You can also view or download a transcript of the dialogue and the vocabulary found in it.

screenshot43

This is what the main interface looks like. You can play the entire clip, loop selected sections or pause the video simply by hovering over the subtitles. The video interface works well and allows you to drill-down into any part of the content you didn’t understand. There are also some extra features that increase the usefulness a lot:

  • Screenshot from 2015-05-27 18:44:49Coloured time panel based on the subtitle content so you can easily find what you’re looking for
  • A loop function that allows you to play the same section over and over
  • The option to toggle Pinyin and translations on and off
  • Choose between simplified and traditional characters

Another great feature is the pop-up dictionary. This is not your average browser pop-up dictionary that simply gives you the CDICT definition and pronunciation of the character or word you hover over, it gives you much more than that. As the screenshot on the right shows, you also get a picture and the part of speech. The pictures are surprisingly well chosen to illustrate the specific words, although not always perfect. Still, this is as far as I know the largest dictionary that includes images

While we’re at it, let’s look closer at the vocabulary, because this is one of the areas where I think FluentU is outstanding. If you click the character or word, it brings up more information about it, like so:

screenshot45There are a couple of really cool things here. First, there are numerous example sentences with translation and audio. Second, some of these sentences have video, which is surely unprecedented in other Chinese learning materials. This means that you can actually watch how that specific word is used in other videos on FluentU! The only drawback here is that if there is no specifically recorded audio, a TTS (text-to-speech) function takes over, but more about this later.

A closer look at the content

As mentioned above, the content is partly from YouTube and partly created by FluentU. The former is very diverse and everybody should be able to find something. Most of the videos are very short, many of them less than a minute. This is good for bite-sized learning, but can also be quite annoying if you want something longer and more coherent. To address this problem, videos are also organised into courses, which focus on a specific topic.

The videos created by the FluentU team are of decent quality, both in terms of scripts, acting and recording quality. Of course, lower-level videos are a bit awkward at times, partly because the speed is reduced and partly because there’s only so much you can say with a limited vocabulary. Considering that it’s almost impossible to create natural-sounding material for beginners, I’m perfectly fine with this.

There is also an audio section, which works very much like the video section, except there is no video. The interface works the same way, you can look up words and toggle subtitles the same way. I do think the audio is useful, but it still feels much less unique than the video content.

Learning vs. just watching

If FluentU was just a service which added subtitles to YouTube clips in a neat way, I think it would have been very useful, but it would be very far from a comprehensive solution for learning Chinese. One step in that direction is the learning mode, where you can study the content of a video rather than just watch it. You can do it in any order, but I would strongly suggest you do the following:

  1. Select a video where you already understand a lot
  2. Watch it without subtitles a few times
  3. Watch it with subtitles in Pinyin or characters
  4. Turn on translations and check your understanding
  5. Study the vocabulary you find interesting or useful

If you’re a big fan of bottom-up learning, you can of course but the last step first, but I strongly advice against it since that is far removed from real-world listening. You learn to understand spoken Chinese by really trying to understand spoken Chinese.

screenshot42The learning mode consists of a series of questions where you’re supposed to pick the right translation, fill in the gap, type characters (with a built-in input method) and so on. You can also view the word in different contexts, just as you could with the pop-up dictionary in the video player. In general, this section of the site makes sure you’re actively processing the content, rather than just watching it. If you want that depends on your reasons for using FluentU, of course.

Flashcards, reviewing and spaced repetition

If you want to learn something, you have review it. FluentU has a built-in flashcard system based on a spaced repetition algorithm. They don’t disclose much about it, except that it’s based on Supermemo. In any case, it’s all integrated into the system so you can review words from the videos you have watched and so on.

screenshot49What I like most about the flashcard system is that it keeps everything in context. I have mentioned this several times already, but it’s truly awesome to be able to see the word used in different sentences and the videos in which they appear.

I haven’t used FluentU for long enough to be able to say how well the flashcard system works. If you have used the service for a longer period of time and have anything to say about it, please leave a comment! I’m a big fan of SRS in general, though, and it’s something I use daily myself, although not in this form.

The FluentU iPhone app was launched earlier today, so that should take care of the mobility issues, at least for iOS users.

Pricing

Considering that FluentU creates their own learning materials and really adds value to other people’s videos, it’s definitely something you should expect to pay for. A lot of manual work has also been done with the dictionary (pictures, for instance) and the overall experience is completely different from just watching videos with subtitles on YouTube.

Prices are subject to change, so please refer to the official site. There are several price tiers currently starting with Basic for $15/month  (May 2016). This gives you full access to video and audio, but not learning modes and exercises. For that, you need the Plus plan at $30/month.

Is it worth it? Which plan should you go for? Only you can answer the first question, preferably by first checking it out and then choosing which plan to go for. The basic plan works well if you want this as a source of extra material for watching, listening and reading. The plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, which might be suitable for students learning on their own.

Room for improvement

No review would be complete without bringing up a few points of concern. It should be clear from the above discussion that I think FluentU is great, so the following list is not meant to discourage you from trying it out, but if you think something I mention here is extremely important for you, you should take that into consideration:

  • Text-to-speech inadequate – The single biggest issue I have with FluentU is the text-to-speech (TTS). It doesn’t work. TTS is far from good enough to teach Chinese, especially beginners. Pronunciation is sometimes completely off, clipped, garbled or just wrong. This is not a problem when you watch videos, of course, but it is when you learn vocabulary. For more advanced learners, this might be okay, but beginners should never have to hear this. Here are some examples: 就是 (jiùshì), 想不到 (xiǎngbùdào), also note the missing tone sandhi), 還 (hái).
  • Doesn’t work in China – This should be fairly obvious since the service is mainly based on YouTube videos. You should be able to get around this by using a VPN, but from what I gather, that creates delays that are so serious that it’s not worth it. If you know more about this, please leave a comment.
  • Difficult to integrate – Some learners don’t want or don’t need a complete solution, especially if it isn’t complete (and no solution ever is). That means that being able to integrate FluentU with other ways of studying is important, but it’s not easy. For example, there is no way to export vocabulary. I don’t want to be tied to a web interface to review vocabulary. The iOS app is launched today, but I don’t have an iPhone.
  • Lack of structure and guidance – This comment is only relevant if you want to use FluentU as your main source of learning. Where should you begin? Should you learn all the words? No, you most definitely shouldn’t, but how do you know which to learn? If FluentU wants to become a complete solution for learning Chinese, it needs to guide learners more. Yes, being able to choose interesting content is great, but too much choice has its own problems.

As I said, none of these issues are serious enough to stop me from recommending FluentU, but for now, I can only fully endorse the basic plan, since I think the learning mode still needs work, especially with the audio. If you want it to activate the language you learn, then go for the plus plan, but be aware that the audio is far from ideal.

Conclusion

I think FluentU is a unique and valuable addition to the different paths to Chinese fluency. It has come very far since the early days and I’m sure most of the issues I mentioned above will be addressed in due time. In the meantime, I think anyone who is interested in learning Chinese through video content should check it out. Exactly what you think about the service and if it’s worth the money will depend on your current situation and what you need, but I think the basic plan should be attractive for most students who takes immersion seriously.

Have you tried FluentU Chinese? What do you think? Please leave a comment!

Do you want more practical exercises, audio versions of articles and Chinese transaltions? Check out my Patreon page!

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11 comments

  1. Mason Wev says:

    Ollie, I have been a Fluentu iPhone app beta tester for over 6 months and can add a lot. As background, I have never taken a formal class in Chinese, but my wife is Taiwanese. The interface to learn Chinese is truly awesome, and the content once you get past the newbie level is pretty good, certainly better than what you get from other sources. I have recently upped my level to intermediate, and certainly the content is harder and takes time but you can master it. I’ve learned 4 Chinese songs so far. I recommend the service to anyone as very helpful. However, there are two major issues: 1) Fluentu is awesome for passive Chinese (reading and especially listening), but it does not help your speaking in particular and we know how important tones are. In addition, learning the tones of the words you learn to me is the hardest part, and Fluentu could GREATLY improve in this area. I.e. I know guaiwu the character and word (怪物) but not its tones. Also, Fluentu cannot address your pronunciation, and my wife says my tones are terrible. In general it cannot as much help active Chinese (the spoken, typed, written Chinese that you produce). The service could be improved by forcing you to produce Chinese and somehow evaluate it. The second issue is particular to traditional Chinese learners: the service simply gets words wrong. You provide the right answer and it says you are wrong; it misreads the Traditional character that you correctly put in. That is bad; what worse is since it is SRS, it CONSTANTLY quizzes you on it since it says you are wrong. Very annoying. Your comments on the robotic speech and wrong tones is interesting as well. Still the service is recommended to anyone who wants to do independent learning. Any comments from you on what tools I can use to improve pronunciation (pleco tone quizzes? — super ideal if your vocab list could integrate with Fluentu — but so far it cannot) would be welcome.

    Mason (魏梅森)

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, you’ve used FluentU much more than I have and it’s interesting to hear what you have to say. Regarding traditional support, I do Chinese language support for Skritter, so I know how bad it is if you rely on automatic conversions (I fix dozens of those every week).

      When you say pronunciation, do you actually mean listening? You can use Pleco or Anki. The latter is very flexible and you can set up audio-only cards. Since you can’t export anything from FluentU, it’s hard to integrate it with anything else, though, which is a problem. You could just not use the flashcard part and use an external program for that, although that’s far from ideal.

  2. I have been a (paying) fluentu user for a few years now. I think it is a very good product, well worth paying for. However is it not the only tool I use for learning Chinese. I use skritter on a daily basis and what I miss most is that I can not integrate the new vocabulary from my fluentu videos into my skritter word database. Even a simple export function would be fine. But now there is nothing.

    Fluentu is great for improving your listening skils, give you an good insight into ‘real life’ chinese and also link the vocabulary and the new phrases that you learn to context. This not only makes it easier to remember the new stuff but it also provides this precious cultural insight that learns you to use the right words in the right circumstances, something you can never really get out of a dictionary.

    I usually read the transcript first so that I have at least an idea what the clip will be about. Then I watch the videao a few times and try to understand the content. After that I study the video online. This takes a long time. In the beginning I thought that there were far too many exercises, fluenty really makes you work at every word, every sentence. But the advantage is that you just study automatically, while you do the work. With other methods, especially textbooks, I often have the feeling that the exercises are there as some kind of test, expecting you to have learned the vocab, expressions, etc, by rote and then just reïnforce what you have learned with the exercises. Fluentu really makes you work at it and so I find that I don’t need to do anything else than just go through the whole set. At my level (upper intermediate) this often takes more than one hour.

    I don’t use the flashcard system, I just allow myself to eventually ‘forget’ some words that I learned. In Skritter I have several frequency based lists and all the HSK lists as a basis so I just expect that all the words that I need to become fluent in Chinese will eventually show up there.

    Marc

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Thank you for sharing your experience! I completely agree with you about the importance of being able to export properly, which is why I wrote the comment about it not being easy to integrate. I don’t want a complete solution, I want a service to solve a couple of problems or provide for a few needs. Then it needs to be able to work with the other solutions I have. I don’t want five different vocabulary review services! Other people might want a more one-stop solution for learning, but I’m not one of them and most independent learners won’t be either.

  3. Harland says:

    How does it stack up against the usual problems with Chinese learning services?

    1) A ton of advanced content, and only a few beginner videos. Staff considers creating novice content beneath them.

    2) Teaching students Taiwan Chinese without identifying it as such, leading to bewildered looks when used in China.

    3) I seem to remember when this one came out, and really questioned the youtube integration seeing that it’s blocked. Is it really unusable? Sad they went down that path, seems completely avoidable.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      Good questions! The first might have been a bigger issue earlier in the development, but not so much now. To start with, there’s lot of beginner content on YouTube and they use that. I think this is a bit dubious, to be honest, but I guess they know what’s legal. It just feels strange when someone else produces a high-quality beginner-friendly video (teaching you Chinese, not just dialogues) and then you import that into another service to teach your students. In any case, there’s plenty of beginner material there. It’s definitely not the case that the staff thinks it’s beneath them, though, lots of the custom-made videos and audio are for beginners.

      Regarding your second point, since the videos are from all over YouTube, you get all kinds of dialects and accents. Sure, YouTube is blocked in China, but there’s still a lot of Mainland material there. I haven’t tried to count, of course, and I don’t think they have either. However, you’re right in that the dialect used in each video isn’t labelled. I also think the custom-made material is produced in Taiwan, but having learnt most of my Chinese and spoken with plenty of Mainland Chinese, I have never thought this a big problem.

      Finally, regarding speed issues while using a VPN, I have no personal experience of this. My comment about that was based on what I have seen other people say about it. If anyone has managed to get it to work well in China, please let the rest of us know!

  4. Margaret says:

    I have just started the Plus plan, after some time as a non-paying member and scarcely using FluentU.
    There seems to be no explanation anywhere of how their system works. Why does it say I have learnt 53% of the video and refuse to go further? How do I get out of the Help section (which contains no introduction to the system) and back to videos? What happens if I say I already know a word – what effect does it have?
    A lack of help in the program (although I can see it will be very useful to me).

  5. Nikolaj says:

    I really like Fluentu, or at least the idea behind it. I’ve been using the free version on and off for a year or two and it has helped me some, although I expect it would have been much more helpful if I’d been using the paid version consistently over the same period. I don’t expect I’ll ever be willing to pay a monthly fee, though, for a service I consider supplemental. All of the videos are already available on Youtube, but mostly without the Chinese/English subtitles. I think that once you reach a certain level, you might be better off just watching the videos on youtube and perhaps try to write down your own transcript.

    The biggest issue for me is the google plugin they use for typing Chinese. As Mason Wev says it doesn’t support traditional characters very well. As I’m learning traditional characters, I try to limit my exposure to simplified characters as much as possible, and Fluentu does make this a bit hard when it requires me to type simplified Chinese when reviewing vocabulary. I believe this is because they’re using a Google plugin for typing characters, so I don’t expect much improvement here anytime soon.

  6. ajsldkj says:

    Being unable to export is a major shortcoming, especially because the flashcard system used by FluentU cannot be customized. Their flashcard system is incredibly slow—using Anki, I can study several dozen words in a few minutes, but on FluentU, those several dozen vocab take several dozen minutes. The context is nice, but I don’t appreciate not being able to control how I use the flashcards.

    I was able to scrape my vocabulary off the website into a google spreadsheet and import that into Anki, so problem solved.

    There are other issues, such as “mastering” a video takes countless repetitions of the flashcards, which is absurd. I made a macro to repeatedly run through the learning section for an advanced video I felt comfortable with, marking everything as “already known”. It took dozens upon dozens of learning sessions. Holy crap.

    Supposedly, the upside of marking things as “already known” is it helps your video recommendations, as the little blue bar underneath will show you how much of the video you know and how much you don’t. However, as far as I can tell, the algorithm used by FluentU sucks for SRS. Then again, the algorithm may view “mastering” a video in one day unfavorably, but if I’m a native speaker, it shouldn’t take so much effort to tell FluentU what I know.

    Room for improvement while watching videos:
    1. Left-click: “Mark as known”
    2. Right-click: “Mark as unknown”
    3. Double right-click: “Bring up more information about the word.”
    4. Option to set entire sentences as known automatically.
    5. Shortcut to set current sentence to known.

  7. Matthew Truesdell says:

    FluentU seems to have really gone downhill. It is now quite expensive and there is, as far as I can tell, no free trial, or even a monthly option. I tried emailing the administrators, but got only boilerplate in response. It was a good idea, but $$ seems to have trumped education.

    1. Olle Linge says:

      They seem to have doubled the price compared to when I wrote the review! I think there are still monthly options, though. I agree that $15/month for just the basic plan and $30/month for the plus plan is definitely expensive. Do you know if it’s just a price increase or if there’s new content as well?

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