When you first start trying to pick up a language, you may be able to acquire new words rather easily, even just by listening to music and audio. In the case of Japanese for example, you might decide to listen to J-Pop or watch anime to acquaint yourself with words and phrases. But the speed of natural Japanese—or any language for that matter—might make listening in and gathering information extremely difficult, especially for those who are just beginning their language learning journey.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a service that meshes language lessons together with real TV? That’s where FluentU comes in.
But is FluentU — a popular language learning app — worth your time?
Let’s find out.
FluentU Review: Summary
Overall Score: 3.8
FluentU Review: Overview
Directly from the website, FluentU claims to bring “language learning to life with real world videos”! The makers of FluentU scour the internet for videos from around the world in hundreds of languages then individually translates each video and transcribes the dialog, then adds those subtitles to short video clips for you to study. You can simultaneously listen and read languages spoken in real time to aid with comprehension.
They are constantly adding to the library of videos and currently offer 10 different languages, in addition to English for Japanese, Korean and Spanish speakers. However, the content is not spread evenly across all the languages – for example, Portugusese, which is their latest edition, has only 38 videos in the content library. So it’s worth considering which language(s) you plan to study before deciding if FluentU is the right choice for you.
Here’s a handy little graph showing their distribution of content:
The videos are categorised into 6 difficulty levels, from ‘Beginner 1’ to ‘Advanced 2’. However, you can still get a lot of value from the more difficult levels since you can translate every word and go at your own pace, replay sections as many times as you want. For this reason, you can get just as much value from 50 videos as 1000. Although, having thousands of videos does mean that you can browse around until you find some topics that you find really interesting.
Upon selecting the 14-day free trial or one of the subscription options, you get access to the following:
The platform is easy to understand, it’s set up much like YouTube. You can filter videos on the left side by difficulty, topics, and formats. So, if you want a beginner-level video on Health and Lifestyle, you should have no problem finding it.
Overall, it is an ideal system for reviewing languages. However, there are some disadvantages to consider as well—but more on that below.
The Pros: What We Like About FluentU
Pro #1: Thousands of Videos
Whether you are learning Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Spanish, or something else, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of videos and audio clips for you to use. Every video is expertly captioned, and the content is posted for you as well—either within the dictionary or as a tool-tip by hovering over words. This prevents you from having to pause every 5 seconds to take notes or look a word up.
The variety of content is a great way to maintain your motivation for learning by turning language study into an enjoyable exercise. We felt like we were kids in a sweet shop as we browsed around and sampled all the different videos on offer. You can really experience the language from a natives point of view by listening to popular comedians, vloggers, politicians, or your favorite musicians. Whatever piques your interest there’s bound to be a video on it.
Pro #2: Personalised Learning
This is massive. Unlike other similar language apps, FluentU will track everything that you’ve learnt so far and even tell you how much of a video you know even before you start watching it! Sounds scary, right? It’s super useful. The more you use the program the more accurate it becomes as it builds up a better picture of your level. Eventually a green bar will show under every video in the library indicating how much of the content you already know.
This allows you to select the videos that you are likely to already know a lot of language, which is far more effective that being thrown completely in the deep end because it is far more easier to learn new words when you have as much context as possible to be able to figure out its meaning, even without a translation. This way, you can branch out your vocabulary bank from a familiar web of words that you already know well.
Pro #3: Structured Beginner’s Course
FluentU is primarily a vocab learning tool, however it seems that they are starting to develop a supplementary beginners course for each language to teach the basics. We think this is a brilliant idea because personally I love learning new languages and want to make best use of the languages they offer, but even the most basic videos are very difficult without any prior understanding of the language.
These lessons are currently only available for a handful of the languages they offer (Spanish, French, German, Japanese & Chinese) and only cover beginner levels 1 & 2, with the exception fo Chinese, which goes right up to Intermediate 2. The lessons are definitely not exhaustive and won’t teach you everything, but it’s a nice touch to have, getting you up to a level where you can at least start watching from the video library without being too much in the deep end.
Pro #4: Intuitive Interface & Well-designed App
The whole process is very simple and user friendly. Just like watching TV or streaming anime online, you can watch short clips from videos or movies. It kind of feels like Japanese karaoke. You can add an unfamiliar word to your vocab list or a specific flashcard deck by clicking on it and selecting ‘Add to’.
Once you select the word, you’ll not only get a translation and voice clip but also several other sample sentences with video clips of instances the word is used elsewhere in the video library – very handy! This way you can get a really good understanding of how and when it’s used, from a variety of different native speakers.
Pro #5: Gamified Learning
Similar to duolingo, you earn coins every time you finish a video or learn any new vocabulary. You can set yourself a daily learning goal from 1 minute per day to 50 minutes per day. The whole concept creates a very enjoyable and addictive learning experience that gets you coming back each day and developing a daily habit. You can trade in your coins to freeze your streak and other goodies.
Unlike other programs like Rosetta Stone that can be very dry, this gamification really helps to keep the whole experience lighthearted and fun, with even the quizzes being broken down into manageable chunks with lots of cool sound effects and motivational boosts after reaching each checkpoint.
The Cons: What We Don't Like About FluentU
Con #1: No Course Structure
If you’re looking for a structured syllabus with a coherent theme that ties everything together, then you’d better look elsewhere. Despite the variety of videos, there is no clear pathway to progression – your learning is completely down to you.
Some students might find this a bit overwhelming and would prefer to be spoon fed exactly what to study next and which videos to focus on. FluentU is not this kind of course, and those looking for a tailored syllabus should instead find a language tutor or actual language program with a linear structure.
Con #2: Lack of Speaking Practice
One of the biggest problems with FluentU stems from the lack of speaking practice. The site does not offer any way for you to practice pronunciation or conversation. While you can read the sentences on the videos and try to match what people are talking about, this does not teach you how to command and construct sentences in the language you are trying to learn. It’s based more on rote memorization, and that doesn’t always lead to fluency. This prevents FluentU from receiving a higher rating.
Con #3: Robotic-sounding Voice Clips
FluentU relies too much on text-to-speech software for most of the sample sentences and quizzes. This leads to a really annoying robotic-sounding voice that is very unnatural and off putting. Thankfully, many of the quiz questions have the video clips that you can click on to hear the actual native speaker, but many of these robotic clips will still play automatically. In the future, we’d like to see more recordings of actual native speakers.
Con #4: The Videos Are All Streamed Directly From YouTube
Whilst this is not a bad thing, it does introduce some additional problems. For instance, some of the YouTube videos already have built-in subtitles. So if you want to toggle off the English and focus on just the target language, it’s impossible to do so since the English subtitles are built into the video itself, not the FLuentU software.
Since all the videos are freely available online, it also raises questions about the possible redundancy of apps like FluentU. After all, in YouTube you can already change the speed, add subtitles and change the language. Of course, FluentU provides native translations, not automatically translated, and the real time hover function. But there are in fact some chrome extensions that aim to do this exact same thing (we’ll take a closer look later – see competitors).
Con #5: No Romanisation/Transliteration
It was really cool to discover all the languages they offer and I couldn’t wait to start singing along to Baby Shark in Russian, or binge-watching my favorite Anime in Japanese, however we quickly discovered a pretty big road block – there’s no transliteration. Without being able to read the Russian script or Japanese Kanji, it’s basically impossible to be able to follow what’s being said – not very beginner friendly at all.
For languages like Russian, we understand that this isn’t a massive issue since you can learn the full alphabet for free on the internet in a few days, but for languages like Chinese or Japanese where there’s literally thousands of unique characters this is not going to be an easy task. Note, the Chinese course does at least include the pinyin, but has no instruction on how to pronounce each sound in the pinyin.
FluentU have justified their decision based on the fact that it gets you learning the script right from the start, which is true, but without any instruction on the script whatsoever this is not very helpful. It’d be best if the Romaji or transliterations were at least available for the beginner levels and then filtered out for higher levels. Here’s what FluentU had to say regarding the Romaji:
Their decision basically rules out any chance of beginners benefiting from the videos. Plus, the script is not even taught in their beginner’s course.
What Are The Lessons Like?
To start a lesson, you simply select the video you would like to watch and click it. You will be taken to the viewing screen. FluentU sets up every single video lesson in the same way: A short video with layers of subtitles. In Japanese, for instance, depending on your level, you might see the hiragana and katakana, kanji with furigana, and the English translation. You can also hide the subtitles and listen multiple times.
Every single word in the subtitles are linked to the internal dictionary, so when you hear or see a word you don’t know, you can move your mouse over the word (or tap it with your finger) to get the instant translation, complete with a picture that illustrates the meaning. Any words you have yet to learn will be highlighted in the subtitles.
As you watch the videos, you can skip around to different sections by using the slider on the frame bar at the very bottom. You can loop a specific section by clicking on the loop button to the right of the play button.
However, you should keep in mind that this isn’t truly a lesson. No one is teaching you anything, and the grammatical points are not being discussed by an instructor or native speaker. The videos have merely been translated, and you are independently studying the content to enhance your understanding of the target language.
After watching the video, you are guided through a series of Duolingo-style multiple choice questions to test your knowledge and review what you’ve learnt. On the top right are two buttons. The first is to continue to the next question, however the one underneath ‘Already Know’. This is where the smart learning comes in, and the word will be remembered by the system and not shown to you again.
You can enhance your independent studies by using the flashcard system to review whatever vocabulary you are having trouble with. You can even do fill-in-the-blank sentences to test how much you comprehend. Therefore, the usefulness of FluentU depends on you and how far you are willing to go by yourself.
It’s really cool that you can even create your own flashcard sets. The process is as follows:
You can enhance your independent studies by using the flashcard system to review whatever vocabulary you are having trouble with – there’s dozens to choose from. You can even do fill-in-the-blank sentences to test how many you know already .
It’s really cool that you can even create your own flashcard sets. The process is as follows:
- Type/paste in the words you want to add in your target language
- The program will automatically recognise them and create a list of translations or closest matches
- You can edit as you wish
- Quiz yourself on your flashcard set (will automatically put the word into sentences and match with an image)
Who Is FluentU For?
FluentU can be advantageous for many people, especially if:
Who Is FluentU NOT For?
FluentU, like any other program, does have disadvantages that might not help some people, including those who fit into the following categories:
Language learning software comes in many flavors. Some are sweet deals, while others, well, leave us feeling a little bitter. That said, everyone has their own unique way of learning, which means what works for you might be entirely different for someone else. So, with that in mind, how does FluentU stack up against its competitors?
FluentU vs. Yabla
Yabla is FluentU’s biggest competitor that offers pretty much the same thing at a lower cost. Unlike FluentU, they offer full movies and documentaries in addition to short commercials, songs etc. Their layout is slightly different to FluentU, it feels a little more rugged and basic but with pretty much the same functionality.
One of the biggest differences is that Yabla’s quizzes (which they call games) have a timed element to them which some people like. However, Yabla only offers 6 languages, with no Japanese.
FluentU vs. Language Learning With NetFlix
Do you have access to a Netflix account? If so, then this option might be the one for you. It’s a free chrome extension that offers interactive translations just like FluentU. Which all the best programs on Netflix, what more can you ask for?
Of course, you won’t get all the extra quizzes like with FluentU, and you’ll have to find videos with human translations in your target language (which isn’t always easy), but for a free option with over 30 languages available it’s worth checking out.
FluentU vs. Language Learning With YouTube
Again, it’s another free extension that converts your standard YouTube player into a language learning tool. However, the translations arn’t always good quality and you’ll have to pay an extra $4.95/month in order to save new vocabulary.
FluentU vs. LingoPie, CaptionPop, 3Ears etc.
Over the past few years several other companies are jumping on the immersive video-learning bandwagon with their own version of FluentU. The few that are mentioned here (‘LingoPie’, ‘CaptionPop’ and ‘3Ears’) are best avoided since their content library is very limited and their interface is quite sloppy – overall, not as good as FluentU or Yabla.
FluentU vs. Innovative Language
Now, onto the real language courses. Innovative Language offers a ton of different languages and provides full comprehensive courses. For example, JapanesePod101 uses video content and podcasts to teach you how to speak Japanese.
As you listen to the dialogue, you can also read it below. JapanesePod101 is not just audio but a complete language resource. For example, you also get PDFs with notes to study in your free time. JapanesePod101 makes it easier than FluentU to listen, read, and understand grammatical patterns in Japanese, because you are not just listening passively, you are being taught.
FluentU vs. italki
Do you prefer getting speaking practice? Then you shouldn’t just listen, you should be conversing with native speakers. That’s where italki comes in. The software comes with online lessons that can be streamed from anywhere in the world while providing you the opportunity to pay-per-lesson for one-on-one tutoring. If you are serious about learning to speak a language and not just translate, give this a try.
Is FluentU Worth The Money?
FluentU isn’t cheap. The cost of the program continues to rise, and the free trial of 14 days will go by too quickly to learn much. A few years ago, the basic plan was around $15 a month, but it is now $29.99 a month. It is clear that FluentU is pushing the annual membership.
Furthermore, whilst we think that FluentU is awesome for getting exposure to your target language, it isn’t a magic pill. You’ll still have to put the work in on top of it and learn from other language courses, textbooks or tutors. For this reason, most people just can’t justify the price.
However, it’s worth noting that you don’t have to sign up for a full year. In fact, we recommend just paying for a month first, doing some intensive study and then cancelling your membership and taking a break to focus on other resources for a while before coming back to it again.
FluentU Review Conclusion
Our Verdict: A good resource, but it shouldn’t be your primary study method.
Although FluentU is an excellent resource, it should not be used as your primary means of learning a language. The goal of the program is to immerse yourself into the language, but without the speaking practice, you’ll be lacking in this essential skill that gets you actually using the language you’re learning.
Ideally, you would use FluentU as a complimentary resource for vocabulary and listening and study from more structured, educational programs, like JapanesePod101. Doing so will expose you to both correct grammar as well as a range of new vocabulary, which you can then show off and practice with a native tutor from italki.
Michael has lived in Japan on and off for almost 10 years. He loves studying Japanese, and is currently working on going from N2 to N1 on the JLPT.