How to use YouTube to Learn English – 5 Steps to Success

Can you study and improve your English language skills through YouTube? Yes, you can. However, YouTube is only a tool, and it’s a tool that can waste hours and hours of your life if you’re not careful. Yes, YouTube can be a distraction, but if you use it wisely, it can be beneficial to your language studies. The key is knowing how to use it.

Today, I’d like to share with you a strategy for using YouTube as a way to help your efforts to learn English. If you use YouTube thoughtfully and deliberately, it can be an amazing tool.

1) Find YouTube videos in English.

Since YouTube can be very distracting, if you want to succeed at using YouTube for learning English, you must avoid aimless watching (or watching without a goal). My first recommendation, then, is to decide what video content you want to watch before you get to the YouTube homepage.

If you already know exactly what you want to watch, it’s easy: just type the name of the video or channel into YouTube or Google, and use the link to take you to your desired video.

If you haven’t thought of a specific video to watch, however, it’s a little more difficult to stay focused. You’ll probably have to click around YouTube before you find what you need. This is risky because there will be many distracting videos you’ll want to click. It happens to everyone – me too!

One way to find videos is to change your YouTube settings to a country where English is the main language spoken. Your YouTube homepage will then show you popular and trending videos in that country, in English.

Another way to find videos or channels that are good for English language learners is to visit an English language learning forum (or online community) – maybe one in your native language? You can ask English language learners and native speakers in the forum if they can recommend any videos or channels. There are usually several YouTubers who are popular among learners. After you get a recommendation, you can visit the channel or video to see if it’s appropriate for you.

Now, there are many YouTube channels out there that focus on offering you English lessons. These can be useful, but they are not really the type of videos I recommend for improving your listening skills and expanding your vocabulary. My personal recommendation is to watch videos about a topic you’re interested in through English. That’s not hard to do. The challenge is finding content-focused videos that are appropriate for your level of English. There are a few channels I recommend, and I’ll provide details below in the description box. But just remember that you should choose videos are really interesting to you – videos that you would want to watch in your native language. These can include topics like cooking, exercise, makeup, fashion, current events or news, culture, movies or movie reviews, politics, travel, and so on.

2) Choose videos that are right for you.

Whether you get video recommendations from other learners, or search for videos by yourself, you’ll probably still have a big problem. What’s that problem? The problem is the huge volume (or huge amount) of videos to choose from. Having too many choices means you’ll get tired very quickly. That’s why you’ll need a way to find an appropriate video very quickly.

To find a good video for your English language studies fast, make sure it has the following four features, rules, or criteria:

  1. It must be a topic that YOU think is interesting.
  2. It must have comprehensible language. That means language that’s at your level or only a little bit more difficult than your level.
  3. It must be short. Now, depending on your level, short means anywhere between 3 to 10 minutes.
  4. It must have closed-captions in English. Ideally, it should also have support in your native language, especially if your English is at a lower level.

These four rules are great, because they will help you quickly narrow down (or decide) your options. If you find a video that doesn’t match all four of these criteria, then ignore it – it will not be useful for you. If it has two or three features, then you might decide to save it or bookmark it for later. If it has all four features, then you should add it to your English language learning YouTube playlist right away!

A playlist, by the way, is a list of videos about a particular topic. You must be logged into your YouTube account to create one. And yes, of course, I do recommend that you create your own YouTube account. You don’t need to make your own videos to have one, and all you need is a Gmail account. And of course, you can subscribe to my channel.

OK, let me give you some information on closed captions. Closed captions (or CC) are an exact transcript (or words) of a video. In this video, for example, you can click the CC button at the bottom of the video, and the words I’m saying will appear. YouTube does this automatically for videos, but if the YouTuber inputs them, then they are better, of course. Open captions are when the words I say appear on the screen and you cannot turn them off. Subtitles, on the other hand, refer to translations into another language, either closed (when you have to click to open them) or open. However, for many people the words “subtitles” and “captions” are the same.

3) Get ready to watch.

Now it’s time to sit down and focus on the video you want to learn from it. This may sound simple, but it’s not. If you want to actually learn from your video watching experience, you need to watch it very differently from the way you would normally watch a video in your native language.

First, you should sit at a table or desk, ready with your pencil and paper and your computer or laptop. Don’t lie down in bed or casually watch on your smartphone while on public transportation. You need to create a good study environment.

Most videos you find will probably not already be translated with open or closed captions in your native language. Before you watch, I recommend you download a tool to help you translate YouTube subtitles. This will allow you to more quickly understand what’s going on in each video. You won’t have to waste time using a bilingual dictionary. One app you can try using is for Google Chrome, and it’s an extension called Wisesub. There are probably similar plugins for other browsers, however.

4) Watch and re-watch, making use of captions.

If you want to learn from an English language YouTube video, watching once is not enough. You need a process with many steps to help you learn a little at a time and review the video content. This will help you get a better and better understanding of the language and content each time you watch it. When you watch a video in English, I recommend following 5 steps, repeating each step as often as you like. Each time you listen, you’ll get new ideas about the video content and a deeper general understanding.

So number one is watch the video with no captions. Try to guess what’s going on. Two: Watch the video with English captions. Three: If possible, watch the video with subtitles in your first language. Four: Watch the video with English captions again and take notes on new and/or difficult words and phrases. You’ll probably have to pause or rewind a few times. And step five: Watch the video once without any captions. Focus on visual elements and body language.

So, those are the 5 main steps to follow during one study session, but actually, you need to add some spaced repetition by repeating this study session – maybe a week later or a few days later… it’s up to you. At this time, you should review your notes, and repeat the process for the same video.

This whole process includes a lot of repetition. So, why is repetition important? Well, repetition, just by itself, helps you learn. Each time you repeat the video, using subtitles in different ways, you’re mentally processing the content in different ways as well. This also helps with your learning. Spaced repetition is important because it allow you to put information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory.

Why are closed captions important? Well, watching with English language closed captions helps you make a connection between spoken and written language. This means you can improve your English language listening and reading skills at the same time. Watching with subtitles in your native language (or 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 English language closed captions allows you to match the knowledge you gained from the English closed captions in the previous step to the target language as it appears in the video.

Watching while taking notes will help you to think critically about the video content. It will help you to figure out (or determine) the relationships between words and ideas. It also helps you properly learn new words. Watching without closed captions and while focusing on visual information will help you to understand the body language and facial expressions used by English speakers.

So, while you are watching and re-watching your video, remember that you can also change the speed of the video. Depending on your level of English, native speakers talking at normal speed can seem too fast. Don’t feel bad if you cannot understand everything yet. Once you have taken notes and reviewed them, you’ll be better able to understand when you watch again. Gradually, over time and with practice, you’ll become better at understanding the English spoken by native speakers.

On my MAC laptop, if I press the SHIFT key plus arrow-to-the-left or arrow-to-the-right key, I can speed up or slow down the speed. This is a Japanese keyboard. If you have an English keyboard or if you have changed your settings, this might not be true for you. You can also click the “cog” symbol in the lower right corner of the video to open the settings, then you can click “speed”.

Now maybe you understand why it’s important not to choose long videos! You will be watching many, many times. If you want to watch a longer video, you’ll need to break it up into parts.

5) Write down what you learn from every video and review your notes later

One great thing about using YouTube videos to learn English is that every video can teach you many different things about both the English language and its many cultures. However, you cannot watch one YouTube video just a few times to understand and learn all that. You won’t remember it. If you really want to learn it, you’ll need to write down useful information and review it later. Note-taking takes time, but it is an important part of video-watching if your goal is to learn.

Of course, after you create YouTube video notes, you should keep them organized in a place where you can easily access them later to review them. Keeping a notebook in a bookshelf is probably the simplest example. While you watch a video, you can write your notes directly into a section of your notebook. You could also write them on a paper and copy them into your notebook later. Or, you could just type your notes into your computer using services like Google docs or Evernote to keep your notes safe in the Cloud.

Just the action of taking notes helps you to learn. However, do make sure you make the time to review your notes several times in the future. Remember – repetition through review is essential to learning! If you want more information on taking notes, check out my series on note-taking (coming soon!).

5 Step Summary

  • Step 1: Find YouTube videos in English.
  • Step 2: Choose videos that are right for you.
  • Step 3: Get ready to watch.
  • Step 4: Watch and re-watch, making use of subtitles.
  • Step 5: Write down what you learn from every video and review your notes later.

YouTube can be so distracting. You can waste many hours clicking from one video to the other. However, if you use some self-control and follow my steps, YouTube videos can be valuable for your English language studies. Instead of wasting time, you can spend your valuable time learning and reviewing English.

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