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Learn a Language on YouTube: 14 Hacks for Success

Everyone has problems.

Money problems, job problems, life problems.

Hopefully, you’re able to solve most of them. Eventually.

But in the meantime, learning a language shouldn’t be one of your problems.

That’s not to say that we’re living in some sort of fairy tale world where your ability to get a good night’s sleep doesn’t directly affect how much you can devote yourself to an ambition or hobby like language learning.

But language learning shouldn’t create any additional problems in your life.

And if you’re learning a language with YouTube, it doesn’t have to.

Okay, so it might be an exaggeration to say that YouTube can prevent every language-learning problem there is.

But it might also be completely accurate to say that YouTube is the single richest source of language learning material there is.

Let’s see why.
 


 
Learn a foreign language with videos

Why Learn a Language with YouTube?

  • It has nearly everything (movies, TV, language courses, etc.). Because YouTube is capable of supporting video, it’s capable of supporting most types of media in some way. You can find audiobooks with text, material specially made for language learning and all kinds of authentic content.
  • It’s constantly being updated. There’s always plenty of new content available, so you have a way of being exposed to current native language at all times. In fact, you can even use YouTube to learn languages through the news (see below).
  • It’s entertaining and accessible. YouTube is by far one of the least painful resources for learning, as it’s accessible to anyone who has an internet connection. You probably also associate it with funny animal videos and lazy mornings rather than anything stressful—and that’s great, because cutting down on stress helps you learn better.

Of course, these reasons don’t actually explain how you learn languages with YouTube. Once you see that, you’ll probably be even more convinced. So let’s get right into it.

Learn a Language on YouTube: 14 Hacks for Success

1. Bookmark or subscribe to channels hosting large catalogs of movies or TV.

Two notable public domain film channels are the Korean Film Archive channel and Мосфильм (Mosfilm), from the Russian film studio of the same name. Each of these host huge caches of free movies.

For other languages, it may be easier to look at big media outlets. For example, the French-language RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse) channel hosts many segments that run about 20-30 minutes on a variety of subjects. BBC Mundo hosts short news videos that may be convenient for Spanish learners.

To find a reliable source of movie or TV content on YouTube for your language, try googling “[language] tv networks.” Then search for one of the networks on YouTube. Chances are, you’ll be able to find one with quite a few videos.

Having knowledge of a few authentic channels like this that regularly upload content to YouTube is a great place to start because it means you’ll always have authentic content to binge or practice with.

2. Watch livestreaming news TV.

More and more media outlets are adding live TV streams to YouTube, and that’s another tool you should have in your arsenal. These are a little trickier to find than just big channels with uploaded content, but it’s worth it for the fact that you can simply watch these streams like regular TV, commercials and all.

Here are some to check out. Note that the Euronews and Africanews don’t run one continuous livestream, and CNN doesn’t livestream 24/7, and as such, we’ve linked to their channel homes. Check the top of the main channel page for an updated link—it’ll have a red box with the words “live now” inside.

Chinese

Spanish

French 

German

Japanese

Italian

Russian

Korean

3. Use FluentU.

FluentU is a program that takes real YouTube videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons. While you can do all of the other activities we’re going to suggest in this post without FluentU, it makes everything easier.

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With FluentU, you get to learn through YouTube, but you don’t have to wade through all the YouTube content out there to get to the good stuff. The program offers you a curated library of high-quality content that’s been sorted according to level and given interactive subtitles.

In addition, you get access to a variety of learning tools, including customized quizzes, vocab lists, audio clips, grammar explanations and multimedia flashcards.

Throughout the rest of this post, we’ve included some links to FluentU videos so you can get an idea of what the selection is like. You can see what the videos look like with all the features through the free trial by visiting the FluentU homepage and signing up there.

4. Search for video answers to any language questions you have.

While you can definitely make authentic content your main learning resource, especially with the support of a system like FluentU, you may have questions from time to time that you need direct answers to. It can be helpful to have an exchange partner on hand to help you out, but you can also probably find answers to quite a few of your language questions right on YouTube.

If you’re an intermediate or advanced learner, you’re more likely to have some idea of how to phrase your questions. So go ahead and do a YouTube search for the difference between por and para or how the German genitive case works.

Most learning channels split up their content into searchable videos, so you’ll probably find a video dedicated to your particular question. For example, your search about the genitive case might land you on a useful video from Learn German with Anja.

If you’re a beginning learner, you may want to seek out some YouTube content that’s specially made for learners. Here are some resources for structured courses you can try out and use as libraries for your question searches:

  • Innovative Language offers a variety of YouTube channels for various languages. You can sign up for more materials on their websites. Clicking any of the separate channels will take you to an array of videos. In addition to exploring the playlists, you can watch their 24/7 livestreams for learners, which can be found in the individual channels.

  • Easy Languages gives you conversational content for multiple languages. Many of their videos, which include real interactions with native speakers, are most appropriate for intermediate learners. However, they also have “Super Easy” options, like a Spanish video that takes place in a library.

5. Watch trailers for upcoming movies.

Search for “movie trailers” in your target language and you’ll find bite-sized material for regular language practice. Watching a full movie in your target language can be difficult to fit into your schedule, or it may not be as good for intensive listening practice. But a movie trailer is short enough that you can sit down with it and, depending on your learning level, work out anywhere from a few words to the whole thing.

Movie trailers are meant to give you an intriguing sense of the plot, so see if you can work out the gist of a trailer, even if you don’t catch all of the words in it. Then, try writing out in your target language what you think the movie is about.

Another learning strategy you can use is searching for trailers for movies dubbed into your target language that you’ve already seen in your native language. See if you can work out all the dubbed language based on your knowledge of the movie.

For example, if you really enjoyed “Black Panther” and you’re learning Italian, you could check out the movie’s trailer in Italian.

6. Look for playlists of funny commercials. See if you can follow the comments on them.

As it turns out, humor in commercials is pretty universal (even if the humor itself isn’t always), and people love compiling lists of funny ones. This makes for another great short-form learning resource.

Reading comments on funny videos also tends to be good reading practice, because people always have something to say about them, even if it’s just how hilarious they are.

To find a playlist or compilation, search in your target language for “funny commercials” or even “funniest commercials,” because sometimes commercials are so awesome they deserve awards.

It’s worth mentioning that FluentU has an especially good selection of funny commercials and that you can still easily access all of them on the YouTube platform if you want to see the comments. You can also easily share them on social media. I had to show this Korean commercial to my cousin and a friend immediately after seeing it for the first time because it was so bizarre I couldn’t stop watching it.

7. Find video reviews of books you’ve read. Leave comments.

The beauty of this is that it doesn’t matter if you choose a book that you’ve read in your native language or your target language, as long as it’s available in the target language. You don’t even have to be a big reader to make this work.

Let’s say you’re learning French, read “Wuthering Heights” in high school and remember finding it intriguing. Go on Wikipedia and type in the novel name in English. Then, once you have the article up, change the language to French, and you’ll have your target language title: “Les Hauts de Hurlevent.” 

Plug that into a YouTube search, and you’ll find, for instance, a French-language video about the book from Pinupapple & Books.

As you already have an idea of what the book is about, you’ll be able to better follow the commentary. You can then easily test your understanding of the video in a low-pressure way by responding in the comments section. Or, if you don’t have anything in particular to say about the video, simply get some writing practice by explaining what you liked about the book.

8. Look for audiobook versions of books you’ve read or videos of authors reading their work. Use these for dictation exercises.

This works especially well with older public domain works.

For example, let’s say you’re a Russian learner who’s a fan of Gogol’s “Dead Souls,” and you already know that the original title in Russian is “Мёртвые души.” Go ahead and type that into a YouTube search along with “аудиокнига” (audiobook), and you’re all set.

For more contemporary authors, you may be better off looking for videos or audio recordings of writers reading their own work instead. For example, here’s a video of Julio Cortázar reading his poem “Los Amantes” (“The Lovers”).

Once you have a recording of a work you’re familiar with being read, try using it for a dictation exercise. Take a small clip (of about 30 seconds or so) and try to transcribe the recording word for word. Then, check your transcription against the text. If you do this regularly, even if it’s only every week or so, you may find your listening comprehension and general comprehension improving a lot.

9. Search out videos of celebrities you like being interviewed. Use them for extensive listening practice.

Whether it’s writers, actors, athletes or musicians, watching celebrities who speak your target language being interviewed is a great way to stay focused on your listening practice.

Also, interviews tend to be good material for listening practice because they’re full of visual cues and more informal language. And they’re generally unscripted (or at least meant to look that way), so the person talking tends to speak slower, repeat themselves and rephrase their thoughts in different ways.

If you don’t already have something in mind, searching for “interview with” in your target language can get you a good handful of results (along with probably at least one video having something to do with “Interview with the Vampire”).

Another advantage of using interviews for extensive listening practice is that they can be fairly long. For example, if you’re learning French and are a big Stromae fan, you might enjoy an approximately 26-minute RTS interview over your lunch break, and feel pretty accomplished for having done so.

10. Binge TED and TEDx videos. More extensive listening practice!

TED and TEDx talk videos are also excellent for listening practice but for different reasons. Because TED talks are planned out ahead of time and center around one specific subject, they use a logical order and allow you to follow along even if you miss significant chunks.

You can also use talks for extensive reading practice, either alongside audio or with subtitles alone. Here’s a breakdown of talks available in some form in various languages. If you’re advanced enough in your target language, you can even volunteer to help translate and transcribe more talks.

To find talks that are originally in your target language, you can go right to YouTube. For Spanish, there’s a TED en Español channel and for Russian, there’s TED на русском языке.

For other languages, you may be able to find playlists of talks. Here are some for common languages:

11. Mine popular vlogs for multipurpose phrases.

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Watching vlogs is fun regardless of what you use them for. To find the most popular vloggers in your target language, scroll down on Social Blade’s list of top YouTubers and select your country of choice under “Top 250 by Country.”

Channels with more views are often packed with scripted funny videos, which means you get stretches of smooth, deliberate audio. This is good for sentence and phrase mining. It can be especially useful to look for phrases that can be reused in different contexts. For example, if someone says, “I need to go to the store,” you can make note of that phrase, but blank out “[store]” and practice putting other words in its place.

This is a very simple example, of course, and if possible, it may be best to focus on language that’s somewhat idiomatic but also simple and versatile. For instance, if I were learning English, a phrase like “What’s up with [that]?” would be a good one.

It’s also good to focus on phrases that include prepositions because preposition use can seem arbitrary in terms of how it’s employed even within a single language.

12. If you’re learning multiple languages, look for speakers of one language creating videos about another language/country.

This may be more or less successful depending on the languages in question, but it’s worth a shot. For example, when I started learning Korean, I found that it was fun to maintain and enhance my (much better) knowledge of French by seeking out YouTubers who were French speakers living in Korea.

If you search in your stronger target language for “My life in [country that speaks your weaker target language],” you may get lucky. Channels like this can still be a toss-up as far as how much language you’re going to learn. But they can provide a lot of motivation and put you in the mindset of being more confident about your weaker language.

Another strategy is to search for specific language questions and content about your weaker language in your stronger language. To take a broad example, let’s say I think I might want to learn some common Korean sentences. I can search in French for phrases coréennes (Korean sentences). Among other results, I find Seboom’s video of a French speaker teaching Korean sentence structure.

This isn’t even exactly what I was expecting to find, but now I’ve got access to a channel that includes a whole playlist of Korean lessons in French.

13. Find a video for a song you like and let YouTube choose related music for you.

This seems simple enough but I mention it because I’ve found that it can actually work surprisingly well for finding music across a language. And YouTube seems to work better for this than some popular streaming services like Pandora.

You can, of course, start playing a video for a song in your target language that you already like and see what pops up under “What’s Next” and in the sidebar.

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But you can also just let YouTube run in the background while you’re doing something else. This way, you’re getting some casual language exposure, while also possibly finding some new artists to explore later. If something that’s not in your target language pops up, you can just quickly nudge YouTube back on track. If you hear something you especially like, you can make note of what it is for later.

If you’re not familiar with any target-language music and need some help getting started, check out the iTunes International Charts on Pop Vortex.

14. Follow easy recipe videos.

Of course, if your language and cooking skills are both more advanced, the recipes you choose don’t have to be easy. But not everyone is there yet. Some of us may want to start with something like an easy tuna-stuffed tomato recipe from Conmishijos.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t understand how anyone can follow a recipe video without first writing down the process. So really, I think it’s best to make this a two-step learning method that involves some dictation (or paraphrasing, which is also a useful skill to learn in your target language).

Try writing out the recipe the way it would appear in a cookbook, with an ingredient list at the top and a description of what steps need to be taken in the imperative. Of course, you’ll need to use common sense to decide if something doesn’t quite add up or seems like a bad idea (please don’t set anything on fire unless it’s part of the recipe and you know exactly what you’re doing).

If you have doubts, you can keep going back and watching the video until you feel confident. Then, when you’re ready, head into the kitchen.

 

Learning languages with YouTube addresses so many language-learning needs that you may as well just make it your main study resource.

Enjoy your videos, and happy learning!


Elisabeth Cook is a language enthusiast and book blogger who writes about literature (and occasionally languages) on Lit All Over.

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