FluentU is the only resource I’ve subscribed to twice and canceled my subscription both times. It could easily be one of the best resources for learning a language but in my opinion, it falls short of its potential. I really want to love it, but for me, it’s just okay.
So what is FluentU?
FluentU uses videos from Youtube and makes them suitable for language learners. Along with Chinese, they offer videos in nine additional languages. Their library has videos for six different language levels – newbie, elementary, intermediate, upper intermediate, advanced and native.
FluentU is very well designed. The video library is clean and easy to use. You can filter content by difficulty, length or a variety of topics. I like the design of the video player. It’s easy to use and allows you to quickly pause, rewind, look up words and even get example sentences.
Another interesting benefit is that they have pictures included with the definition of each word. They may have the most complete picture based dictionary for Mandarin learners available. They include the dialog for you to review, tell you how many new words you’ll encounter in each video and have quizzes as well. While the majority of the content is videos, they also flashcards and audio lessons.
One thing worth mentioning is that if you live in China, you’ll need to use a VPN to be able to watch the videos. I’ve never personally had any problems with this but I know others have.
Sounds pretty great but that’s exactly why it’s such a disappointment.
First off, I think using SRS flashcards are very important. However, most people learning a second language will pull vocab from all sorts of places and want to review it somewhere that’s convenient for them. I have a couple thousand cards on Pleco and not being able to export new vocabulary is inconvenient. For the people who only use FluentU, the flashcard platform can be helpful, but for most other people, it’s basically useless. I need all my flashcards in one place and available offline.
Another issue I have with the flashcards is that the sample sentences use text-to-speech and aren’t recorded by an actual person. This is a big problem as the pronunciation can sometimes be completely off.
Next, I’m not interested in their audio lessons. Unfortunately, these aren’t Chinesepod (review) style in-depth podcasts. They’re basically the same as the video clips, but without the video. There are a total of 460 audio lessons. At the intermediate level, they have 113 total audio tracks, with the longest being 1:22. The playback is the same as with videos where you can pause and get definitions. I have a hard time imagining a situation where I would want to use this section. Maybe some people would want to loop a short audio clip for when they’re walking around. Still, even then, there are better places to find listening material. If the length of the clips were longer, this would be a useful feature. As it stands though, it’s just an unnecessary distraction from the reason people come to FluentU – the videos.
This leads to another grievance I have with FluentU; the length of the videos is often too short. A large number of videos are commercials and less than a minute long. Of the 248 videos at the intermediate level, 60% of them are less than one minute long. If you prefer to study in five or ten-minute chunks, you might love FluentU. I’d prefer longer study sessions and I find it difficult to get into a good study rhythm because of how short and unrelated the videos are. I wish they’d try to add more longer content or multi-part series like Yabla (review) does or have full movies like LCFM (read my review). One benefit of video is that it allows you to get into the story much more easily than audio or books are able to. However, with most of the videos being short and disconnected, that doesn’t really happen.
Another issue I see with FluentU is that there isn’t much material for the newbie and elementary levels. There are 69 newbie and 127 elementary level videos. I understand that it can be hard to find native content for such a low level of Chinese. To make things worse, most of these lower level videos are taken from Youtube channels made specifically for learning Chinese. This means that the creator of the video has often already broken everything down very clearly for their audience. For these videos, there isn’t much benefit to watching on FluentU compared to watching for free on Youtube.
Another problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much or any new content being added. When Ollie Linge of Hacking Chinese posted his review on May 29th, 2015 there were 2,441 audio and video clips. On February 1st, 2017, there are 1,827 videos and 460 audio files, for a total of 2,287 lessons. I guess if you include flashcards, there are 2,551 total lessons. Perhaps some videos have been deleted and others added. They say that new content is added every week but the library doesn’t seem to be growing much or at all.
Finally, we get to the pricing. The Basic plan is $15/month or $120/year. This plan gives you unlimited watching and listening. The Plus plan is $30/month or $240/year and includes the learn mode. I don’t have first-hand experience with this plan but it includes vocab decks, quizzes, and pdf printouts.
Is FluentU worth the cost?
For me personally, no. If you’re learning multiple languages at once, it may be worth the investment as there’s no additional cost to watch videos in multiple languages. It may also be worth the money if you just love their interface or for some reason love watching commercials. For those who are looking to incorporate videos into their study routine, I think Yabla Yabla, free Youtube videos and LCFM provide better content.
As an independent learner on a budget, I won’t be giving FluentU a third chance anytime soon. However, what’s best for me isn’t necessarily best for you. There’s no doubt that FluentU is a useful resource. Watching real-world videos can definitely help make studying more interesting and perhaps get you to study more hours than you would have otherwise. It’s free to use for 15 days so there’s really nothing to lose by trying it out. A lot of people love FluentU, I’m just not one of them.