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.

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. So what does it cost? There are three tiers (click here for actual details):

  1. Free ($0/month): You have full access to all functions, but for a limited amount of content. I see no reason not to try this if you’ve come this far in my review.
  2. Basic ($8/month): You now have unlimited access to the content, but some functions are not available, such as learning mode and flashcards.
  3. Plus ($18/month): You have full access to all content and all functions.

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 listening and reading material, the plus plan comes closer to a complete solution, so it depends on what you’re after.

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!

Easing yourself into reading novels in Chinese

wotI don’t know about you, but I know started reading novels in Chinese way too late. This was partly because I thought it was scary and more difficult than it actually was, but also because I lacked a good approach and a strategy to overcome the difficulties reading native material implies.

Looking back at how I learnt English, it strikes me that there is a powerful way of getting used to reading novels in a foreign language, namely to reread something you have already read before and like a lot, but now you read in the target language.

Comprehensible input

We have perhaps left the times when comprehensible input was a buzzword, but it’s still a useful concept when talking about listening and reading. Simply put, it means that you have to understand what you read in order to benefit from it (input should neither be too easy nor too hard, but just above the level of the student).

However, it’s often misunderstood to mean that you have to understand everything that is said, which is definitely not true. In my opinion, you need to understand the gist, because without that, you’re just looking at pretty symbols and if meaning is not involved, I doubt there’s much point (or indeed pleasure) in reading. Understanding the key message is enough, it’s okay if you don’t understand all the adjectives, adverbs and descriptions of people and places. Dialogues tend to be important.

There are many ways of making incomprehensible input comprehensible. As independent language learners, we can’t really make use of some common methods such as creating word lists, creating interesting preparation tasks, substituting difficult words for easier ones and so on, because they typically require a teacher. However, one very effective way of reducing the difficulty of a text in Chinese is if you’re already familiar with the content.

Not ready for a novel yet?

The method described in this article works for all lengths of texts. You can read a short news article in English first and then read the same article in Chinese. Another place to check out is the Marco Polo Project, where enthusiasts translate articles from Chinese into various languages (mostly English).

Read the Chinese translation of a novel you have already read and liked immensely

I started learning novels in English with Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time fantasy series. This was when I was twelve and realised that it took ages for the translator to translate new books into Swedish; I simply wasn’t prepared to wait that long. I had read a few books and wanted more, but rather than wait a year or so, I decided to read the series in English. To reduce the shock, I decided to read from the beginning, including the books I had already read in Swedish before.

This turned out to be a very good idea indeed. Reading a few books in English covering what I had just read in Swedish was a really good way of being able to read novels in English even though my English really wasn’t up to the task at the time. The fact that it then took the author fifteen years to finish the series (or, rather, for him to die so someone else could finish it for him) isn’t my fault.

Why is it a good idea to read the Chinese translation of a book you have read and like in English?

  • You know for a fact you like the book. Naturally, you should choose a book you want to reread, perhaps something you read and loved a long time ago and want to experience again. Action-packed adventure novels are great. This guarantees that you’re motivated to read. No-one can recommend books to yourself better than yourself. If you choose a book I have read, you might simply not like it, which will severely reduce your motivation to read it.
  • You have already read the book, so you know what it’s about and you know what’s going to happen. Your task is to see how this is expressed in Chinese. You will not encounter characters you don’t understand, a setting that makes you confused or subtleties in the plot you overlook, because you know most of this when you start reading. If you’ve forgotten, you can always read a summary online (Wikipedia is your friend). If your Chinese is already quite good, you can skip this step and re-experience books you’ve mostly forgotten but don’t really wan to reread in English.
  • You avoid regional, dialectal and stylistic language, as well as cultural references you might not get. Normally, I would say that reading about culture in a rich and varied language is a good idea, but it can be overwhelming for someone who has never read a novel in Chinese. For instance, wuxia novels that take place in ancient China aren’t written in a language you can transfer directly into your everyday Chinese and many novels set in modern China are sometimes written with a certain style that might not be familiar to you at all. Of course, you need to learn about these aspects sooner or later, but you will have enough of a challenge facing the basic language of the novel. Simply put, reading a translated novel is easier.

Thus, reading your first novel in Chinese turns from impossible to merely difficult. It will take hard work to get through (depending on your current level, of course), but it’s definitely easier to do it this way than choosing random book your Chinese friend recommends to you.

A few words about the language in translated novels

You should be aware that some translations aren’t very good (in fact, some are terribly bad). I don’t mean that they are bad in the sense that the translator fails to capture the soul of the original novel and used another language to express it expertly, instead I mean that the Chinese in the translation is not good. This is probably because the translator was paid too little and just rushed through, translating sentence by sentence, sometimes even word by word. Therefore, when reading some translated novels, you can feel the English behind the sentences. Obviously, this is bad for us as readers, especially if we want to learn Chinese along the way. That translated novels will not sound exactly like first language novels is kind of obvious and I don’t think that’s a problem, but at least the language should be natural and correct.

The best way of checking this as an intermediate learner is to simply ask a native speaker, preferably one who reads a lot, and see what they think. Remember, you’re not really interested in the quality of the translation; what you want to know is if the Chinese is good or not, so just let them read a few pages and ask what they think about this as potential reading material. If you buy books online, there are usually previews available you can use for this.

Also, note that reading your first novel in Chinese is about reading practise. It’s about understanding words, piecing them together into sentences and get the general idea of what’s going on. This is not the time for memorising sentence patterns and detailed studying of syntax.

What novel to choose

This might be obvious, but choose a novel that is interesting for what happens or because who’s in it rather than because the way it’s written. Action, mystery, adventure and fantasy stories are all very good.

In order to close the circle,I’m now rereading The Wheel of Time in Chinese. Obviously, it isn’t my first novel in Chinese, but it’s still interesting to return to a series I never finished as a teenager, now in a new language. I don’t think Robert Jordan is a great writer in general, but I am interested in the plot. The curiosity over how the series ends keeps me motivated to read the next page. It remains to be seen if it keeps me motivated through ten thousand pages, but it’s worked well so far!

Listening strategies: Deliberate practice and i+2

Actively listening to and working with spoken language that challenges our listening ability is probably the best way to improve listening ability. It is also the most demanding form of practice. Sure, we can spend hours and hours doing background or passive listening, but remember that these are useful not because they are better than active listening, but because they are much better than no listening at all. We can’t challenge ourselves constantly, it’s simply too demanding.

Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Romary

However, challenging ourselves is what we should do as much as possible (meaning, as much as we feel that we can cope with). In this article, I’m going to discuss ways of approaching challenging listening material. We need this not only if we want to challenge ourselves, we also need it if we can’t find material at our own level, a problem which is quite common.

In other words, how do you approach spoken Chinese which is above your current level?

Before we go into that, though, I’d like to connect this article with the rest of the articles in this series about listening comprehension. Here is a list of all the other articles:

Articles in this series:
Introduction
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2 (this article)
Diversify your listening practice
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

Using scaffolding to overcome difficult challenges

The i in the title of this article refers to Stephen Krashen’s input hypothesis, which basically says that we we can advance from our current level (i) to a more advanced level (i+1) through comprehensible input. A similar theory about learning comes from Vygotsky (psychologist, founder of cultural-historical psychology), who regards learning as a building project. To reach a new level, scaffolding (help from the teacher) is used and the student can manage more difficult tasks. Gradually, the scaffolding is removed and the student can manage these harder tasks independently. The process is then repeated.

I think comprehensive input is essential. We need to listen to Chinese which is challenging, but that we still understand. Finding suitable material is quite hard, especially if you’re on your own and below the advanced level (in which case finding suitable audio is easy). Still, if we use scaffolding, we can enable ourselves to understand audio which we normally wouldn’t stand a chance to understand. This is what I call i+2. Normal i+1 is what I recommend for passive listening, but it is possible to understand i+2 if you use the proper aids and scaffolding.

Tips and tricks to understand i+2

Here are some tactics I’ve used to understand audio which is actually too hard for me. I have used them separately and in various combinations. This list is sorted so that the first types of scaffolding gives you just a little bit extra support, whereas the later ones give you quite a lot. Choose what you find appropriate. Combine, experiment.

  • Keep to topics you have already studied – If you’re new to the formal Chinese common in news broadcasts, don’t start your listening adventure with an article about financial legislation. Pick something which you are relatively familiar with in Chinese. If you feel your sports vocabulary is okay, then choose sports related articles. Then slowly expand from there.
  • Read about the topic in English first – Find a topic you can read about in English before you try in Chinese. News broadcasts are of course perfect for this purpose, because as long as you choose major events, there will definitely be English versions of the article, perhaps not on the same website, but you’ll find it on Google News.
  • Read headlines for context and keywords – Nothing is harder than understanding something completely without context. If you read the title and headline(s) before you start, you stand a much better chance of understanding. Headlines also contain keywords, so make sure you understand these. Note, however, that headlines in Chinese newspapers are notoriously difficult, so don’t worry about them too much if you don’t understand them (but do check the words).
  • Pre-listen – Put the audio on your phone and listen to it passively when you have some spare time. Do this for a few days before you tackle the audio properly. This means that you will be familiar with at least the outline of the recording. If you understand nothing at all, you’re doing i+3 and should perhaps try something else.
  • Listen more than once – Even when listening actively, it’s hard to get everything the first time. Listen again and again until you get it. You can either repeat the entire recording or just repeat the parts you find difficult. Gradually, you will be able to home in on the parts that really cause you problems or are new to you.
  • Read the transcript, look up words – Make sure you pick audio that has transcripts. If you’ve ripped a TV show or something similar, there might be subtitles you can read. Many news sites also provide both audio and text versions of the same article. Read the text and make sure you know the vocabulary. Then listen again. I use RTI news for this.

These are some of the approaches I use when I listen actively, along with some of the suggestions I made in the article about active listening. Gradually, you will feel that you no longer need as much scaffolding. You can move into areas you’re not so familiar with, you don’t need to listen to the audio as many times as before, you don’t have to glance at the transcript as often. This means that you’re slowly accommodating to the requirements of i+2 and that it will soon be i+1, meaning that you can understand it, but that that it’s still more advanced than your current level.

For teachers

Teachers can prepare students for harder challenges by doing some of the work for them. If you teach someone else listening comprehension, but find that the material is too hard, consider helping the student with providing scaffolding according to the above suggestions. For instance, you can prepare a word list beforehand or write a short outline of the content to help the student.

For everyone

Slowly build upwards. If you keep at the same level and remove scaffolding, you will feel that you improve. If you tackle ever harder content, you will need an equal amount of scaffolding all the time, but your level will nevertheless increase. Which one you prefer depends on how brave you feel. I suggest tackling as difficult challenges as you can when you listen actively, but if you fail or become frustrated, perhaps you should step down and try something slightly easier. If it’s still too much, abandon active listening for the day and move to passive or background listening instead.