FluentU – My Review

I’m very excited to write about what I consider the coolest new listening and vocab resource on the Internet: FluentU

The approach is brilliant in its simplicity: take authentic Chinese videos from YouTube (movie trailers, news stories, music videos, sit coms, etc.) and provide English, Pinyin, and Hanzi subtitles.

They’re basically answering the question that all non-Chinese speakers have when we see those kinds of videos or watch TV: “What exactly are these people saying anyway?”

And the technology is really easy to use also.

Already Great:

  • Free to sign up for full access to all videos and vocab tools (for now).
  • Pinyin, Hanzi, and English subtitles for every video, each of which you can turn on/off if you’re smart enough to find that option.
  • Videos sorted into 4 levels (Beginner – Advanced).
  • Videos tagged with 16 different categories such as “Arts and Entertainment” or “Culture” or “News” or “Movie Trailers”.
  • You can subscribe to be notified by email when there’s a new clip in the categories you’re interested in.
  • All kinds of vocab lists and study tools that I haven’t really tried because I’m too busy just watching videos.
  • The video player itself is awesome:

  • If  you hover your mouse over any Chinese it gives you the definition for that word (in this case the idiom: 平白无故 píng bái wú gù).
  • The video automatically pauses whenever you hover your mouse over stuff.
  • The HUGE gray arrows on the right and left let you advance or rewind the video according to sentences (in other words: go to the next or previous subtitle sentence)

Could be Improved:

Now, I would like to point out that FluentU is in “Beta” so that means we’re supposed to cut them some slack on some of these things. Also, I admit it’s much easier for me to criticize something that someone else made than make it myself. But still, here are a few little suggestions:

  • China users Must have “cloak” or proxy because the videos come from YouTube. This is really not FluentU’s fault, but it may present a little problem for learners in China who haven’t sprung for a VPN.
  • Player doesn’t fit on my netbook screen (as you see above, if I want to get all the way down to the little white play / pause button at the bottom, I have to chop off the tops of the heads of the people in the video). This could be solved in several easy ways, and I’m sure I’m not the only one with a netbook.
  • Very difficult (impossible?) to cut / paste anything. When I wanted to paste “平白无故 píng bái wú gù” from the clip mentioned above, I couldn’t figure out how to do it so I had to just type it myself.
  • No Chinese names or info about clips on the site. The website tells me the clip is from “A Chinese Ghost Story” directed by Wilson Yip. But because the written script (and vocabulary, for that matter) is too crazy at the end of the trailer, I had to do my own research to discover its Chinese name (Qiàn nǚ yōu nún 倩女幽魂). Oh wait! Just downloaded the transcript and I see the Chinese name is in there. Can we have it on the site too please?
  • Dubious levels. The clip mentioned above is listed as “Difficulty: Elementary”. However, I definitely couldn’t follow what was being said the first time (or second time) I watched it. Look at the first few lines from the video’s transcript (again, typed by myself because copy and paste is locked for the PDF transcript):

1. 你应该知道在兰若寺会碰到什么

nǐ yīnggāi zhīdào zài Lánruò sì huì pèngdào shénme


yī zhī qiān nián shùyāo

3. 两条好毒的蛇妖

liǎng tiáo hǎo dú de shéyāo


 háiyǒu yì dà duī shǔbuqīng de yāojīng

Now this may be just me, but there were several factors working against my listening comprehension during those 4 lines.

    1. BOOM! Right in with a place name I’ve never heard of (Lanruo temple).
    2. Although I knew  yāo (ghosty demon thing), I didn’t realize that tree-ghost, snake-ghost, and the generic 妖精 yāojīng existed, and therefore didn’t understand those on first listen.
    3. The narrator is talking at a mile-a-minute (I STILL can’t hear that  huì in the first line).
    4. Various and sundry other little vocab pitfalls: (“A big pile of countless demons”).

And also look at how many 4-character idioms are used in this 2-minute clip:

Seems like a disproportionately high number to me for a “Beginner level” video.  In my opinion, the vocabulary and speed of this clip make it at least Intermediate.

But regardless  of the little kinks they’ve still got to work out, FluentU is still a very cool way to improve listening and vocabulary. I’ll just talk briefly about that.

How to Use FluentU for Listening Practice

Here’s one option:

  1. Watch the clip without looking at any subtitles at all and try to understand as much as possible.
  2. Read the transcript to get an idea for which words tripped you up.
  3. Watch the clip again without looking at the subtitles to see if you can understand more this time (I bet you will).
  4. Go slowly through it sentence by sentence reading and watching together, repeat if necessary to get every word.
  5. Watch the clip again without subtitles and see if you can understand 100%.

I know that’s a pretty slow way to do it, but my experience has been that understanding every word is the most important part of improving listening. Of course guessing is also a skill, and the above steps are not necessary for practicing guessing. But that’s a different skill than listening comprehension.

How to Use FluentU to Improve Vocabulary

The big question with vocabulary from the dictionary is always: “Do people really use this word… REALLY?!”

The great thing about FluentU vocabulary is that you never need to wonder about that. These are all clips that are taken from the “real world” of Chinese usage. Of course you won’t know how frequently these words are used (for example, the above mentioned “一路平安 yí lù píng ān = safe journey” is, by far, the most useful of those 5 idioms in daily life), but you’ll know they are at least in use especially within the genera of the clip (“News” or “Kung fu movie” or whatever).

I think this is one of the greatest strengths of FluentU: it’s an absolutely reliable source for new vocabulary. As far as I’m concerned, if a word is in a FluentU clip, it’s worth learning.

Thanks to the team at FluentU for providing this awesome resource. Sorry. Got to go watch another clip now.

[special thanks to Alison at teavivre.com for catching my chéngyǔ 成语 typo]

11 Replies to “FluentU – My Review”

    • @Jeannie,
      Sorry. Must have missed your first comment.

      Since you like youku, etc. it might still be a good idea to pay someone to do it for you. By the way, FluentU does not seem to be ignorant of the fact that they’re blocked in China (as you can see here).

  1. I had already thought of paying a poverty-stricken university student to do this sort of thing for me. Dumb mistake to use youtube though – it just baffles me that people can be so ignorant. What, like there aren’t millions of videos on youku and sogu?

  2. Thanks a lot for the generous review!

    You are right on the issues you mention, especially the one about difficulty levels being inaccurate – we are on it!

    @Harland: we considered using Youku but we chose Youtube because 1) Youtube is much easier to work with (see their API) 2) Youku is unusably slow in the US 3) Extra complexity and resources required for having libraries on both Youtube and Youku. Hope you still get a chance to use the site!


  3. Really amazing site I use it all the time. Love your suggestion about integrating the transcript more. Usually I disregard it and follow your last step through the video, dissecting it sentence by sentence. I can see the use of watching the video without subtitles though. Cheers for the review.

  4. Hi! Gave you a little shout-out on my own Chinese-learning blog for introducing this nifty website – hadn’t heard about it before! It seems like it has good potential. My complaints about it are slightly different to yours (did a mini-review at http://ruminationsofanegg.blog.com/2012/11/29/getting-out-of-ruts ‎), but one rebuttal I would like to make is that finding the Chinese name/original on Youtube is actually far easier than “doing research.” All you have to do is right-click on the video and hit “open video link.” You’ll be taken right to the original.



    • @Danji,

      Thanks for the props! And I plead “guilty” to the charge of being so dumb about knowing where to click that I caused myself a lot of extra work. Wouldn’t be the first time. Won’t be the last, I’m sure. Thanks for the tip!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to share this detailed review with everyone!

    I’ll add that FluentU videos are now being used as course materials in Chinese listening classes at Cambridge – they’re pretty popular.

  6. FluentU is an awesome site for students of Chinese. I love the ability to stop the videos at any time just by moving my mouse pointer over the script below the video. Great Job! and it’s Free!

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