Can you really learn Japanese watching videos?
Tempting though it is to think you can just learn Japanese binging your favourite anime, the truth is that you’ll learn a lot faster if you actively study new words as you go.
FluentU is designed to close the gap between studying and enjoying the language – in an interactive, fun way.
It’s a way to learn Japanese (and many other languages) by watching authentic, native language YouTube content. FluentU equips the videos with interactive captions and a smart built-in dictionary. Simply hover over each word for more information as you watch.
Then, you follow up with quizzes to review new words and drill them into your long term memory.
I love the idea of FluentU, because I am a big fan of learning languages through native materials.
I have been testing out FluentU to learn Japanese for a while now. Here is my full and honest FluentU Japanese review – find out if this could be the language learning solution you’ve been looking for!
FluentU review summary
|$19.99-$29.99 per month. 14 day free trial.
|Website, iPhone app, iPad app, Android app
|Learn Japanese (and 8 other languages) watching real world, authentic video content with smart interactive subtitles.
|Excellent way to learn Japanese for visual learners and YouTube addicts. Great for immersion and native content. But not a complete language course. Best for those with a little prior knowledge of Japanese; total beginners will struggle.
Want to see it for yourself? FluentU offers a 14 day free trial. You can sign up here. Be aware that you will be charged at the end of the 14 days unless you cancel.
What is FluentU?
FluentU takes real, authentic Japanese videos from YouTube and provides interactive subtitles. Hover over any word in the subtitles to instantly pause the video and view a definition of the word, plus example sentences. Click to add the word to your custom flashcard deck to review later.
After watching each video, you can review new vocab, read and replay the dialogue line-by-line, and test yourself with quizzes.
Personally I love the idea behind FluentU, because I’m a big believer in the power of immersion and exposure to learn a language! The best way to learn any language is to use it (hear it, read it) as much as possible! That’s how you learned your mother tongue, after all.
The main problem is that, at lower levels, it can be really hard to stay immersed when you don’t understand much. You can feel stuck with your textbooks until you reach the elusive ‘fluent enough’ to use native materials.
FluentU is kind of the best of both words! You get plenty of real world exposure, and it literally couldn’t be easier to look up words as you go. And the clever interactive subtitles don’t disrupt your flow in the way that pausing to look something up in a dictionary does.
Plus, it’s kind of addictive! If you love spending time on YouTube anyway, simply replace your current content with FluentU’s. There’s a wide selection of content so you’re bound to find something you love.
What sort of videos does FluentU have?
Currently FluentU has 1,266 videos in total for Japanese, and they do add more regularly.
They are mostly pretty short – five minutes or less.
Here are some types of video you can watch:
- music videos
- kids’ stories
- how-to tutorials
- short animations
- movie trailers
- news reports
- and more!
The spread depends on your level. For example, at the beginner’s level you’ll mostly get kids’ songs, animations and vocabulary lessons. But as you progress, there’s more of a range.
The content is interesting and it does seem carefully chosen to cover a wide range of topics, vocabulary and grammar points.
There are also some ‘language lesson’ videos, especially at the beginner level. To be honest this does feel like a bit of a cop-out (since one of FluentU’s main selling points is ‘real world videos’). That said, the interactive captions are a real advantage that you wouldn’t get watching the same videos on YouTube. And even the language lesson videos seem to only use Japanese, no English.
You can filter all videos by level, topic and format.
Since all videos are taken from YouTube, you can discover favourite new channels to explore more outside of FluentU!
Inside a FluentU Japanese lesson
So, now you know what FluentU does. Let’s take an insider peek at a Japanese lesson on FluentU.
You can get your first 14 days of FluentU for free to test it out. Be aware that you’ll have to give your card details up front, and you’ll be charged after 14 days unless you cancel first.
When you sign up, you will be prompted to choose your level: beginner, intermediate or advanced. You can change this later in your settings.
You also choose a daily goal (how long you want to study for) to keep yourself on track.
To choose your first video, go to ‘browse’ and ‘videos’. There’s no pre-set course here – simply choose a video that looks interesting, and away you go!
(Note: actually, at the beginner level only, you will see a course under the heading ‘my course’ which is just custom made slideshows with audio to introduce new words on various topics. It sort of feels like a weak attempt to fill in gaps and make FluentU into a fuller course. I would skip this and go straight to the video content that you came for!)
When you start to watch a video, you will see the subtitles at the bottom. You can read along as you watch. The video automatically pauses when you hover over the video or subtitles.
When you see a word you don’t know, simply hover over it for a quick translation, or click on it for a more detailed explanation. This includes example sentences, and even examples from other videos on FluentU! This is an excellent feature because it’s so useful to hear words in context.
You also get a picture with each definition, which is fantastic for visual learners.
You can click on ‘Add to…’ to add it to your flashcard deck to review later.
By default, there are three sets of subtitles: full Japanese (including kanji), furigana/hiragana only (this is referred to as ‘pronunciation’ in the settings), and English. You can set your preferred format for the subtitles under settings.
Note that there is no romaji option. This might be tricky for beginners, but I think it’s actually a good thing. The quicker you get used to reading hiragana, the better! After all, hiragana is how Japanese children learn to read.
However, it does mean that FluentU is not great for complete beginners. I would recommend learning hiragana before you start.
Reviewing, quizzes and flashcards
After watching the video, you can review the dialogue line-by-line, and also view a list of the new vocabulary.
There is also a quiz to learn and review new words. The quiz has various types of questions based on lines from the video: multiple choice, translation, drag the words into the right order, type the answer, and more.
I did have some small issues with the quiz. Like some other language learning software that has been developed for multiple languages (such as Duolingo), they fail to take into account the flexibility of Japanese word order. You will only be marked correctly if you recreate the sentence exactly as it was used in the video, even if you did submit a sentence that is correct in Japanese!
All the words you marked as unknown while watching the video and reviewing the quiz will go into your personal flashcard deck, for you to review later.
Well, they’re called ‘flashcards’, but they take the same format as the quiz (mixed format questions, rather than the typical front and back flashcards).
The flashcards use an SRS (spaced repetition software) to show you the words at increasing intervals, which is scientifically proven to be the most effective way to remember things long-term.
FluentU also has ready made flashcard decks collecting words on various topics, including JLPT vocabulary.
FluentU pros and cons
There is a lot to love about FluentU! Here are some of it’s major advantages:
- Using authentic native videos is way more motivating and interesting than contrived textbook examples
- Learn words in context; new words always accompanied by example sentences
- Video player/captions very easy to use and addictive!
- Good range of interesting videos
- Fun; doesn’t feel like work
- Great for visual learners (learn from images, body language and other contextual clues. I especially liked the pictures that accompany each word definition)
- Easily switch between the app and desktop versions
Like any language course, FluentU is not perfect. Here are some of the downsides:
- Not cheap
- Not a complete course: although FluentU is great for listening comprehension and learning new words, be prepared to study a separate course or textbook alongside to work on grammar, writing and other areas.
- No features to learn more about kanji characters (for example, radicals, onyomi and kunyomi pronunciations, or stroke order)
- In the flashcards/quizzes, words are written in kanji only (where applicable) and there is no furigana option that I could see. This means you are likely to encounter kanji above your level – but there are no tools/information to help you memorize them. This could make FluentU too overwhelming for beginners in Japanese.
- Similarly, adjectives and verbs are taught in the conjugated form they appear in the video. There is no way to see the dictionary form and no explanation of the grammar points. Sometimes a grammatical construction is taught as a ‘word’ but explanation is limited. If you have some experience learning Japanese you could look these things up yourself, but again, it’s overwhelming for beginners.
Basically, I would like to see features to allow a deeper dive into the language. For example, to learn about the kanji that make up a compound word, or see the dictionary forms of verbs and adjectives.
How much does FluentU cost?
FluentU does not come cheap.
There are two options: You can pay on a monthly rolling basis: that’s $29.99 per month.
Or, you can pay a year’s subscription upfront for $239.99. That’s the equivalent of $19.99 per month, or 4 months free.
The subscription actually gives you access to all 9 languages currently offered by FluentU: Spanish, Chinese, French, English, Japanese, German, Korean, Russian and Italian. So, if you happen to be studying more than one language, it makes it better value!
You can get a 14 day free trial here. Please note that you need to give your payment details in advanced and you’ll be charged automatically at the end of the trial unless you cancel first, so maybe pop a reminder in your calendar for when the two weeks are up!
So, is FluentU worth it?
Well, it is a great resource, but it’s not cheap. I personally believe that FluentU can help you make leaps in bounds in your Japanese comprehension and vocabularly – particularly if you are the type of learner who learns best from seeing and hearing things.
Just consider that it’s not a comprehensive course… you will have to use FluentU alongside other resources such as textbooks or a full online Japanese course.
But of course, the question of whether it’s worth it is up to you. If it gels with your study style, and it will motivate you to study regularly, I’d say it’s 100% worth it!
FluentU review: conclusion
Overall, I am impressed with FluentU. I think it’s a fantastic idea, a great way to increase your immersion in real life Japanese, and it’s fun!
FluentU is an engaging and addictive way to improve your listening and learn new words.
FluentU would be best for upper beginner or intermediate level learners. I would not recommend it for complete beginners. At the very least, you should know hiragana before starting.
This is because the videos and vocabulary lists do not have romaji. You should also be comfortable with the idea of kanji. FluentU does kind of throw you in the deep end – perfect if you are after that immersive experience, but perhaps overwhelming if you prefer to take things slowly!
And remember, it’s not an actual course. FluentU is best used as a supplement, and not your main course of study.
If you are already taking a Japanese course but you want more exposure to authentic Japanese media, FluentU could be the perfect tool for you!
But if you can only afford one Japanese course right now, I would probably suggest a more well-rounded option such as JapanesePod101.
See more Japanese course reviews:
- JapanesePod101 Review (my #1 recommended course!)
- Rocket Japanese Review
- Pimsleur Japanese Review
- Best Textbooks to Learn Japanese
Rebecca is the founder of Team Japanese. She spent two years teaching English in Ehime, Japan. Now back in the UK, she spends her time blogging, self-studying Japanese and wrangling a very genki toddler.