How I Use YouTube to Learn Foreign Languages

One of the things that separates human beings from the rest of the species on the planet is our ability to use tools.

YouTube is a tool, too. A tool that many people complain about, saying that it's only a means to waste away hours of your life, without getting value in return.

I personally have lost many distracted hours to YouTube. But just because it can be used for distraction, doesn't mean that YouTube is a tool of distraction. Actually, YouTube can be beneficial to your life, too, if you know how to use it.

Today, I'd like to show you how I use YouTube not as a way to waste time, but as a way to add nearly endless value to my efforts to learn foreign languages, and my life as a whole.

If you've ever felt like YouTube is only a waste of your time, I hope to convince you that YouTube, when used thoughtfully and deliberately, can be one of the best tools in any language learner's arsenal.

Step 1: How to Find YouTube Videos in Your Target Language

According to YouTube's own statistics, YouTube users collectively watch over one billion hours of videos on YouTube every single day. 

No wonder, then, that the website can be so distracting. 

If you're going to succeed at ever using YouTube for learning languages (and not aimless watching), you need strategies to help you get to the right videos before you're sucked down the rabbit hole of distraction.

My first recommendation is this: choose the video content you want to watch before you get to the YouTube homepage.

If you already have a specific video in mind, this is easy—simply type the name of the video or channel into Google, and use the link from Google to take you right to what you want to watch. 

Then watch the video, and you're done! 

In, out, easy. No distractions. 

If you haven't thought of a specific video to watch, staying focused will be a bit more difficult. This will require you to actually click around YouTube before you find what you need, and that can be risky, especially when it comes to avoiding distraction.

The best way to start searching for new videos to watch is to actually visit a language learning forum and ask around to see if learners and/or natives of your target language have any video or channel recommendations. 

For any language, there are usually a number of YouTubers who are popular among learners, so once you have a recommendation, you can at least visit the channel directly and go from there.

An alternative, but riskier approach would be to change your location settings on YouTube to a country where your target language is spoken.

Once your location is changed, the YouTube homepage will show you all of the most popular and trending videos in that country, meaning that many of the videos you see will be in your target language.

Step 2: Choosing the Videos that Are Right For You

Whether you ask for video recommendations from learners, or search around for videos yourself, you're bound to soon run into a problem—you still have a massive amount of videos to choose from.

Having too many choices can soon lead to decision fatigue, so you'll need a way to zero-in on the right videos for you, before you get bored or overwhelmed.

When I pick YouTube videos for my learning, I follow these easy rules of thumb:

  • Be on a topic that I personally find interesting
  • Feature comprehensible language
  • Be short (between 5 and minutes)
  • Have subtitles, either in my target language or my native language (but preferably both).

Any video that doesn't meet any of these criteria gets completely ignored. If it meets some of the criteria and not others, I might bookmark to watch in the future. And any video that meets all of the criteria gets immediately added to a playlist, so that I can access it quickly, whenever I need to.

These rules are great because they help me go from a lot of options to just a few options in a short period of time, allowing me to quickly get to the most important step—actually watching!

Step 3: Getting Ready to Watch

With your playlist of videos at hand, it is now time to sit down, watch the video, and actually learn from it.

This may sound simple, but it's not. If you want to extract the maximum value out of your video watching experience, you need to approach the watching process quite differently than you would with a normal video in your native tongue.

First off, that means no laying around. The goal is to be focused, so when you hit play on a video in your target language, you should be seated at a table or desk, with a pencil and paper in hand.

Before you watch, I recommend downloading a tool that will help you translate YouTube subtitles on the fly. This will allow you to more quickly understand what is going on in each video, without flipping back and forth between the video and a dictionary.

I personally use a Google Chrome extension called Wisesub for this purpose, though I'm sure other browsers have similar plugins that can be found through a simple search.

Step 4: Watching and Reviewing Foreign Language YouTube Videos

Learning from a foreign-language YouTube video means much more than watching it once, and then forgetting about it. 

Instead, I recommend a multi-step process that will help you progressively learn and review the video content, so that you gain a greater and greater understanding of it over time.

  • 1
    Watch the video twice, with target language subtitles
  • 2
    Watch the video once, with subtitles in your mother tongue
  • 3
    Watch the video once, with subtitles in the target language
  • 4
    Watch the video again with target subtitles, but take notes on new and/or difficult words or phrases
  • 5
    Watch the video once without subtitles, but focus on visual elements and body language

As you can see, this process helps learn the video through repetition, but also through varying the ways in which you process the video content:

  • Watching with target language subtitles helps reinforce the bond between the spoken language and the written script. This simultaneously improves your listening and reading skills.
  • Watching with subtitles in your mother tongue helps you quickly understand what's going on in the video, so you can use that knowledge to later learn new target language words.
  • Watching again with target language subtitles allows you to match the knowledge you gained from the English subtitles in the previous step to the target language as it appears in the video.

Watching while taking notes allows you to think critically about the video content, draw relationships between words and ideas, and commit new words to memory.

Watching without subtitles and while focusing on visual cues allows you to grasp the visual quality of language, including body language and facial expressions.

When you watch a video in your target language, you should rotate through these steps, repeating steps as often as you like. 

With every listen, you'll gain a new perspective on the video's content, and a greater grasp of the material overall.

Step 5: Write Down What You Learn from Every Video

One of my favorite things about using YouTube videos for language learning is that each video can teach you so many different things about your target language and culture, including:

  • Grammar
  • Vocabulary
  • Pronunciation and intonation
  • Accent
  • Idiomatic expressions
  • List Body language
  • Culture (Customs, History, Politics, etc.)

The thing is, though, that you can't just watch one YouTube video a bunch of times and expect to have embedded all of that information into your brain. 

To keep that knowledge accessible and usable for the future, you need to write useful information down and keep it in a safe space.

This is why note-taking was a key phase in our watching process: you need to make time to actually preserve the new knowledge you’re gaining, or you'll forget it.

But honestly, I believe you should take things one step further: Don't just take notes, but develop a system for storing them so you can review them in the future.

In my case, this is as simple as keeping a notebook. While I watch a video, I either write my notes directly into the corresponding section in my notebook, or I write them elsewhere and transfer them into the notebook later.

If you want a more modern alternative, I recommend typing your notes on your computer, and then saving the files to the cloud. Free services like Google Docs and Microsoft one note are great for this.

In any case, remember what the Romans used to say:

Verba volant, scripta manent

("Spoken words fly away, written words remain".)

You don't want the "spoken words" of your video to “fly away”, right?

So write things down. You won't regret it.

Conclusion

Though YouTube may have a reputation for distraction, I hope I've convinced you that, like any tool, the true value of YouTube is in how you choose to use it.

You can waste hours and hours clicking from recommended video to recommended video, but you can also spend the same amount of hours on the platform learning and reviewing target language content.

If you choose the latter, you won't waste time—you'll save it. By using YouTube as a near-endless source of target language videos, you'll actually be learning at a faster rate than ever, meaning you'll reach your language learning goals quicker than expected.

Once you've tried this process for yourself, leave me a note in the comments! And if you've used YouTube for language learning before, let me know how your experiences have been.

Oh, and one last thing:

To help you get started using YouTube for your own language learning, I've compiled a list of my favorite foreign language YouTube channels. Click here to check it out! Then write in the comments section which is your favorite or if you know other channel. I’d be grateful if you helped me expand my playlist.

Written by Luca Lampariello

  • Barbara says:

    I found your ideas helpful. I have been using YouTube as a tool to learn my languages. Want to trade Hungarian lessons (I’m native, for Italian lessons. My new target language.)

  • Hello, Luca! Thanks for giving us such a helpful source of materials. This morning, I was watching a video from Easy German, and I followed the steps you’ve mentioned above, but even so, I think I’ll be enrolling in a traditional course because I’m not so organized and disciplined as I’d like to. I’ve been struggling in choosing between German and Italian. I think the Italian sounds beautiful. German would offer kind of a great challenge because it seems to be more difficult. I’m saying that the Italian would be easier for me because I’m Brazilian. I have a major bound to the Italian language because when I was a kid, I remember I used to listen to an Italian radio program with my grandmother as well as I’m a big admirer from the Italian and language culture. Would you have any piece of advice relating to this, please?

  • Stephen says:

    Luca thanks for sharing such great information and ideas. I really enjoyed the article and the video. What do you recommend as a next step after these 5 steps in terms of reviewing? Do you just schedule time to go back and re-read the notes that you took in previous sessions? Or do you do something beyond just reviewing/re-reading? I seem to remember reading you say that you don’t typically create flashcards. I may be wrong – but curious to know if you have any ideas about how to review the notes from previous sessions.

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