There are so many ways to learn and practice a foreign language today. One of the easiest is by using an online language learning platform.
Language learning platforms aren’t complete universes unto themselves – each platform has its own way of teaching and its own materials, so you aren’t likely to find, say, written lessons, speaking opportunities, audio and video, interactive features, flashcards, etc., all on the same platform. Instead, think of them as specialized features that can help you with a few aspects of learning French.
I learned French in the early days of the internet, when platforms like FluentU weren’t really a thing. So, in my own version of Never Been Kissed (sansthe handsome teacher and beautiful Shakespeare-inspired dress, unfortunately…), I wanted to explore a few. The first one I wanted to get to know better is FluentU.
After testing out FluentU, here’s what I learned:
Benjamin Houy (the founder of French Together) is a FluentU and italki affiliate. This means he will earn a commission if you purchase FluentU or italki using the links in this article.
What’s FluentU and why should you use it?
FluentU’s tagline is “Bring your language-learning to life with real-world videos!” In a nutshell, FluentU has a really impressive collection of French (as well as other language) YouTube videos for three different levels of learners: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. They also have audio recordings on grammar- related subjects.
So, what’s the big deal, you might be wondering? You could just search for French videos on YouTube, yourself. Trust me, the people who created FluentU know that, too, so they took this idea to the next level. Instead of just having videos to watch, or videos with those YouTube-generated subtitles, which are often inaccurate or too slow or fast, FluentU’s platform has its own really neat subtitles.
Not only are they accurate and correctly matched with what’s being said in a video; if you don’t know a word, you can hover over it and the video will pause. Then, you’ll hear the word and see a little box with a definition and illustration. Very helpful!
You can choose to add the word you clicked on to a personalized vocabulary list. It will also be added to a quiz that goes with the video. Once you feel like you know the word, you can click “already know” to have it removed from the regular quiz option.
Similarly, these words and any grammar concept that’s touched on will be saved and adapted into lessons you can follow, for your own personalized course.
Vocabulary words are shown written and with audio. Plus, there’s an illustration that can help with memorizing each one. Sometimes these are even kind of funny, like the boy who is obligé to eat his vegetables because an old lady is standing over him with a machine gun. (As a sugar addict and also the parent of a picky toddler, I deeply related to both figures in that image…).
You can also create flashcards by clicking on a word in a subtitle. That said, the flashcards don’t actually seem to be formatted like cards; instead, they appear in a list where you have to click on each word to see the card (even though you’ve just seen the definition beside the word).
The FluentU videos don’t just help with your listening skills – you’ll also get some French culture, since many of them, especially those for the advanced and intermediate levels, are actual YouTube videos the average French person would watch, from news clips, to vlogs and sketches from French YouTube megastars like Cyprien and Norman.
For beginner and intermediate learners, another helpful feature is that you can slow down the speech in the videos. It doesn’t sound weirdly or comically distorted, and it will help you practice your listening and/or pronunciation skills.
So to sum up, here are the pros of FluentU:
- A large selection of videos, on a great variety of subjects.
- Videos that French people actually watch.
- French subtitles that allow you to click on a word you don’t know for an instant definition.
- Words you don’t know are automatically saved so that you can quiz yourself on them later.
- Images help you remember vocabulary words.
- Personalized vocabulary quizzes and a course based on your specific challenges.
- FluentU apps for Android and iOs.
- Available in French, Chinese, Spanish, Russian, English, German, Japanese, Italian and Korean.
What I don’t like about FluentU
The phrase “pronunciation skills” brings up something that makes FluentU less than perfect to me: Essentially, it’s not enough. Watching videos is important for your ear, but that’s not going to help if you actually want to interact with French speakers – you have to learn how to talk, too.
Passivity is also a factor when it comes to the vocabulary exercises. These are multiple choice or sometimes fill-in-the-blank, but you never have to actually write complex phrases or sentences or use them in new contexts.
FluentU can definitely help you improve your vocabulary, but as far as more advanced writing skills like grammar and general usage go, not so much.
For example, I was disappointed that even for advanced learners, adjectives are shown only as the modifier of the word they agree with in the specific context they come from. For instance, that little boy is obligé to eat vegetables, but you’ll see no indication that the word takes an extra “e” if you’re talking about a picky girl (or a thirty-something, somewhat anti-vegetable female writer).
Adjectives are sometimes described as being masculine, but you don’t seem to get to see their feminine form or make a difference between them, even on the “Advanced French Adjectives” quiz.
There are some videos about grammar concepts, but they seem to be isolated topics, not a specific, progressive series made by FluentU or a partner site. There are also no basics like conjugation – even simple charts for regular verbs. You’ll learn a phrase with étais but will have no way to see how it would be conjugated with, say, vous, or in another tense.
The audio options would seem to be the answer to what’s lacking in terms of grammar, but not really. Even a topic like “Irregular verbs” just randomly gives you sentences with certain conjugations of a particular verb. There is no “lesson” here about things like, say, irregular “-ir” verbs, just random example phrases with a few conjugations of assorted verbs.
I also have mixed feelings about the vocabulary quiz that goes with each video. Each one highlights vocabulary words and very brief phrases from the video you’ve just watched, and incorporates any words you might have added as vocabulary to study while watching. Overall, the concept is really helpful, but I quickly got tired of the quizzes. You will be asked pretty much the same questions based around this pool of words and phrases, over and over again, until you click “already know” to eliminate a word from the list.
Of course, if you’re a beginner or are studying for a test in a class you’re taking, I can absolutely imagine that it would be helpful to review these words over and over again until you’re absolutely certain you’ve got them down. I personally would have preferred more variety, and even a mix of some other vocabulary words, just to keep things fresh and give learners an opportunity to review a few more things that might have gotten rusty.
To sum up, here are the cons of FluentU:
- Mostly passive learning.
- Very little grammar, and even that isn’t explained in a logical way.
- Quizzes can feel repetitive.
- No basic grammar resources.
How much does FluentU cost?
If FluentU seems like the right platform for you, there are two pricing options.
FluentU costs $30/month if you choose to pay monthly and $20/month ($240/year) if you pay annually.
These can seem a bit costly, but as the site itself points out, they’re much cheaper than paying for monthly French lessons.
Is FluentU the best language learning platform for me?
It depends on what kind of learner you are.
If you like to learn with videos and audio, and prefer very brief written exercises, FluentU is the way to go.
But even if it seems perfect for you, don’t stop there.
French learning resources to use with FluentU
Online learning platforms can provide a great incentive to get you to practice and review French regularly, especially if you’re learning on your own. They’re also a really helpful extra resource that can let you focus on areas that you have particular difficulty with.
FluentU is an excellent way to practice French, but it doesn’t cover all the bases you’ll need to hone all of your skills. No language learning platform that I know of would do that, for that matter. If you decide to use FluentU, you should ideally supplement it with the following:
Reading material (books, online articles, etc.)
These will help you become familiar with French spelling, grammar, and usage, as well as culture. Nowadays, thanks to the internet, it’s incredibly easy to find news articles, blog posts, short stories, and so on, for free online. You can also find inexpensive French books via sites like Amazon. And as we recently covered in an article, there are lots of ways to read French short stories for free (or very cheap).
Cultural and historical insights.
Learning about things like history, customs, and current events, is essential for understanding the Francophone culture you want to get to know better. If you can’t read French at an advanced level, don’t worry – there are lots of websites, books, movies, etc. about French and other Francophone cultures in English or whatever your native language might be.
One resource I’d recommend is the France-focused version of website The Local, which features French news and culture-related articles. Another way to get to know French would be to look up “French History” (or a specific period, event, historical figure, etc.) on Wikipedia. As you explore these topics, you’ll probably hear or read about books, movies, videos, blogs, and other resources that can help you go more in-depth.
Grammar lessons and exercises.
There are so many awesome ways to learn and review French grammar, completely free, online. Just type whatever you’re looking to review into a search engine and see what you find. Part of the reason for this wealth of information is that my fellow language teachers often share lesson plans, worksheets, and general information, and everyone is welcome to use it. Online, you’ll find explanations and examples of grammatical concepts, as well as lots of exercises and worksheets for practice. If you want a more orderly, lesson-based way to study French grammar, search for a textbook on a site like Amazon or at your local library or bookstore.
A French conversation partner.
Watching videos and listening to audio is important for your ear, but when it comes to actually speaking, that’s not going to cut it. That’s why it’s so helpful to find conversation partners in real life or online. Sites like italki help you find a conversation partner for free – well, almost. You have to be a language partner in your native language, as well.
Depending on where you live, you can also find out if any native speakers are around and up for a conversation exchange or even paid conversation time. I did this to keep up my French when I lived in New York, for example. Always make sure you meet in a safe, public place, and be very clear that you are only looking for conversation, of course.
This is probably the hardest thing to do, since you’d ideally need someone to read over and correct your work, not just have it scanned by a grammar bot. This blog post lists some great resources for practicing French writing, including online dictées (dictations) with answer keys.
I would also suggest using a website like this one to find a French pen pal. That might seem like an old-fashioned idea, but it’s an excellent way to truly get to write freeform French and have someone tell you if they understand it, not to mention point out your mistakes.
Of course, always be sure not to give out personal information or send money to them. Maybe watch a few episodes of “Catfish” before getting started. Sorry to put it that way – I’ve had a number of French pen pals over the years and have really learned a lot and never had a problem. It’s just that, there are always those bad apples (or catfish) out there, so it’s good to be careful, but then again, that goes for most areas of life, so please don’t let my warnings hold you back.
If you like a playful approach to language learning, with a focus on listening skills and vocabulary building, FluentU is definitely worth adding to your French learning tools. Now, all you’ll have to do is decide which of its many videos to start with!