Learning tools

How to use automatic captions to improve your listening skills

If you have been a Facebook or Twitter user for any length of time, you have probably been sent links to hundreds of video clips stored on YouTube that your friends have found cute, funny, interesting, shocking, or worth sharing for some reason. But who has time to watch them all, right?  If you’re like me you probably ignore a lot of them.

But if you are a language learner, have you considered turning the otherwise time-wasting activity of viewing all your friends videos into a method for improving your listening comprehension skills?

There are many ways of using video clips to improve listening skills:

  • Watching without subtitles for « gist » or general comprehension.
  • Watching with subtitles in your own language for fun, or just generally tuning your ear to the sounds of the language.
  • Watching with subtitles in the original language (the language of the video) to work on both receptive skills simultaneously (listening and reading), which aids in retaining vocabulary.

The problem is that many YouTube clips do not come with their own subtitles.  Enter the YouTube « automatic captions » function, currently available in ten different languages (English, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese, Russian and Dutch).  Automatic captions uses voice recognition algorithms to create subtitles, but as you might expect, the technology is not perfect, and this can lead to some quite hilarious errors. These imperfections give advanced learners a great opportunity for improving intensive listening skills, through correcting the captions.

For this exercise, short videos are best (two minutes or less).  To give an example, we’ll look at a short video from The Economist entitled Personal Technology, a short look at how mobile devices are overshadowing the personal computer.

1. Watch the whole video for general comprehension.

Focus questions:

  • What did Steve Jobs mean by the phrase « a post-PC era »?
  • The video predicts an explosion of mobile data by the end of the decade. What form will most of this data be in?

Focus vocabulary:

The clip contains several verbs to describe statistics and change.  Do you know and use these words?  How are they used in the video?  Copy any new words with their context sentences into your vocabulary notebook.

  • grow (strongly)
  • outstrip
  • outnumber
  • catch up
  • soar
  • account for
  • leap
  • rise

2. Access the captions in one of two ways:

Note that to access the captions function you will have to view the video on YouTube.com.

  1. Select « automatic captions available », and highlight the language in the menu.
  2. Select « transcript » for the full text.  Notice that this option allows you to jump to specific points in the video, by clicking on the sentence you want to focus on.

YouTube screenshot

3. Watch the video a second time while viewing the captions.

As you watch, write a corrected version of the transcript.  A great tool for doing this is Videonot.es.

At present there doesn’t appear to be a way of uploading a corrected transcript to benefit the YouTube community.  However, you might be able to persuade a friendly native speaker to review and comment on your work.

Note that it is possible to upload transcripts with videos that you upload yourself.  To do this, you need to create your own Google account if you don’t already have one, and upload your first video.  You then select from your personal menu (top right of your YouTube screen) the option « video manager », select « captions » from the « edit » menu beside the video you want to transcribe, and then « add captions », which opens a field where you can type your text.  Once you have uploaded the text, YouTube will automatically adjust the timings in order to synchronise the text with the dialogue.

How have you used YouTube as a language-learning tool? Let us know in the comments.








5 news sites for authentic language-learning

There is no end to language-learning possibilities that are available to us through the Internet news media.  Things might be getting dire for newspaper companies, but the general appetite for current affairs continues to encourage the launching of news sites of every flavour.  Here are five you might like to try, as a teacher or a learner, each with a practical suggestion for a learning activity.  The focus is on learning English, but the same ideas can be applied to other languages.


1. Google News Timeline is still fairly new and has loads of potential for language learning to be discovered.  It’s very configurable.  You can set it up for whatever newspapers, magazines, blogs etc. you prefer to focus on.  Specific search queries are also possible.  Type in the query « Ford » for example, and you can trace back articles and events related to the carmaker for as many years as you care to go.

Idea. For a  self-access activity, have learners research the main headlines on the day of their birth, the day of their parents’ birth, their grandparents’ etc. (if they know it).  Interesting conversations ensue about what was happening in the world the day they arrived, leading into how things have changed since. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

We have also looked at how to set up Google News for language-learning.

2. BBC Learning English has a bbc-words-in-the-news1vast range of English-learning tools that are so well known that they hardly need mentioning here.  Although have you come across the BBC World Service « Words in the News »?  It’s primarily set up for listening and vocabulary activities, but each report contains a link to a corresponding print article that is different to the audio report.  This provides a wealth of possibilities for integrating reading and listening: predictive activities, gap fills, writing summaries.  They put the prescribed vocabulary to be studied in bold – not ideal as it doesn’t allow much latitude for tailoring to your learners’ particular needs.  Some adaptation is usually required.

Idea. Use the prescribed vocabulary list as a predictive lead-in activity. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)

3. Breaking News English
is a language-learning site, not a news site.  It has been a great standby for teachers on those days where all the best intentions of preparing a super lesson go out the window and you need something ready-made.   Breaking News English takes interesting news articles from a variety of sources and subjects, adds language points, discussion ideas and other activities, and puts them all together in an easily downloadable and copiable format.  Just what you were looking for, right?

Idea. Running out of time to prepare lessons is hard to predict, but if you can see ahead of time that you’re going to be running, E-mail the article you choose to your learners before the session.  It avoids the problem of extended reading in class feeling like « down time », and encourages learners to read in their own time for pleasure.  This saves time, gives the learners confidence and allows you to get more juice out of the article during the session. (Level: Pre-intermediate and above)
4. Disinformation. Claims to have access to « hidden information that seldom slips through the cracks of the corporate-owned media conglomerates. »  You’ll find the fringe, the bizarre, the extreme and the intriguing mixed with more mainstream articles sourced from all over the Internet news.  Suited for more advanced students.

Idea. For an extensive reading activity, to practice fast-reading for gist, choose a provocative article.  It works best with stories that are not too obscure, and that give a new slant on a known news headline.  Set the learners the task of  searching the Internet for two other articles, preferably originating in different countries, which give alternative views or explanations of the stories.  As a follow-up speaking activity the learner could present the different points of view in the article and then discuss which arguments seem the most plausible.  A good lead in for a debate activity, as long as it’s a subject learners have opinions about. (Level: Upper Int., Advanced)

5. Euronews. One of the unique features of Euronews is that it is a truly multilingual newspaper, with the same headline articles in 7 European languages (English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian) and Arabic.  It almost seems to be designed with learners in mind, with it’s very succint articles supported with video footage.  If you’re looking for in-depth reporting, this isn’t your site.  However, it opens up a number  of possibilities for activities where comparing L1 and L2 can be advantageous.

Idea. For learners needing to improve translation skills into their L1,  select 4-5 articles (they are generally short, 120 words or so) which deal with a particular lexical area needing work (there’s a good tabbed menu enabling easy navigation of the different categories of article so not too much hunting involved).  Compare the articles in the L1 and L2 and study how the key words in the chosen field are translated.   The discussion the follows could include which words were translated differently in different articles, which was the most unexpected translation, which words could have been translated alternatively, why did the translator choose a particular word etc. (Level: Intermediate )

Grammarman Comic – activities for young learners


I just came across Grammarman, the world’s first and only grammar superhero.

Grammarman is the invention of « creative guy », Brian Boyd, an English teacher in Thailand. What started out as a conversation between teachers wondering how to stop students reading mangas in class became the brilliant idea of Grammarman, a superhero defending « Verbo City » from the enemies of grammar, with help from sidekicks Alpha-bot and Syntax. Boyd’s comic strips are now published in newspapers and magazines in Malaysia, Argentina, Thailand and China.

grammarman-2How to use Grammarman

As a learner: click on the « Free Stuff » link for a number of self-study activities designed for young learners (mostly for lower levels).

As a teacher: I’m always hunting for ideas to meaningfully use a spare ten minutes at the end of a class. Each of the comic strips contain built-in error correction exercises – great for reinforcement.

Grammarman Comic.

How to improve your reading skills with Google News

Some people are addicted to news and current affairs.  If you are a language learner who is also a « news junky » – who enjoys following the latest news, here’s a great idea for improving your reading skills and increasing your vocabulary.

It is true that the language of newspapers is often very complex.  It is estimated that to read an English language newspaper fluently you need about 4,000 words.  This can be overwhelming for some learners.  And then there’s the question, with so many newspapers, where do I start?  Few of us have the time in a day to search the Internet for the articles that we find interesting.

Enter Google News.  When I first looked at Google News, the thing I liked about it was that it brings all the breaking news from a variety of the world’s newspapers and puts them all together in one place.  But I didn’t realise that it can do a lot more.

google-news-1-2One of the best motivations for improving reading skills is reading things we are interested in.  This sounds so basic, but perhaps you remember doing reading comprehension exercises in school which you found really difficult, mainly because the subject matter was so boring!  What do you like to read about?

First select the country of your choice for your Google News page.  The default setting is for the US (why am I not surprised?)  This will give you a standard layout like this:
You might decide that you are interested in sport, but not interested in entertainment.  You can move the sports section up the page, and delete the entertainment section.  You can also easily add news headlines from several different countries by selecting « Add a standard section« .  Let’s say you are studying French.  It is possible to add news from France, French-speaking Canada and Belgium to give you a more international perspective.

google-news-4Let’s say you are particularly interested in Finance, or perhaps you are learning English vocabulary for an exam like the TOEIC, and you need to work on your financial words.  Google News allows you to create your own personalised content.  You select « Add a custom section« , and then « advanced options« .   Let’s say the words you are revising are banking, finance, interest, loan and credit.  Type in these key words, then give the section a label, « Finance » for example.  Once you have saved these options you will see that a selection of Finance articles, each containing your chosen key words, is waiting for you.  You can move it up or down the page to suit you.
You can change your content as often as you like.  The best way to revise vocabulary is according to theme.  This week it might be finance, next week transportation.  You could create a new section for transportation with related key words to replace the one on finance.  The point is that the best way for revising vocabulary you know, and for learning vocabulary that is new, is in the context of real everyday language.  Memorising lists of words is not usually an effective way of increasing your vocabulary.

Google News is a great addition to your language learning toolbox.  Do you use it already?  Have you found it useful?  How do you like to use Google News?  Join the conversation in the comments.

Trick yourself into learning with online flash cards

cards« Learning without studying » is the strapline of a new language learning application called Popling.  I think the idea that you can learn anything without working for it is a bit unrealistic, but I do think that the creators of Popling are on to a good thing.

The idea is to help you by « tricking » your brain into learning while you are doing other things.  It works on a classic pedagogical tool which every language learner has used at some time or other: the flashcard.

popling-2So what’s new?  Flashcards have been around forever.  Popling is flashcard software which works especially well for second language learners who spend a big part of their day in front of a computer.  Every few minutes as you work, Popling will display a question or a prompt in a small online flash card window.  It is very easily configurable for vocabulary in the language you are learning, so that if you are trying to learn French kitchen vocabulary for example, you might get the prompt « dishwasher ».  If you have learnt the word, you will type in « lave-vaisselle ».  If you haven’t learnt it, you can take a peek at the word and try to memorise it for next time.

You also have the choice of ignoring the flashcard if it arrives at a bad moment, and it will just go away.  Apparently it’s « learning with no motivation required ».  I doubt that it is really possible to learn anything without motivation, but in spite of the blah blah, it is a very good tool.

You can either subscribe to an existing set of flashcards in the language you are learning, or create your own.  It takes a bit of work writing your own flashcards, but it’s part of the learning process and that way you can be sure to learn the vocabulary you need.

It requires the installation of a lightweight Adobe Air desktop application.  Have you tried it?  Found any other interesting uses for it?  Have your say in the comments.

For more information on online flash card systems, see Building vocabulary through spaced repetition.

Language learning strategies with Google Reader

One of the problems using the Internet to improve language learning is « where do you start? » You can easily be overwhelmed with the number of language-learning tools and sites available.

Google has a number of tools that can help you get just the information you need for second language learning, and we will be posting some ideas of how to set up these tools to help your language learning.

I use Google Reader as a web page that I can personalise to bring the specific information I need for teaching and language-learning directly to me, without having to surf the web to look for it.

Google Reader Start
Let’s say you are a business English student trying to improve your language skills to get a better job. The first thing to do is to create your own Google Reader site. If you don’t have a Google account you will need to create one.

RssYou have probably seen a little orange icon on many websites, often accompanied with the label ‘RSS’ which stands for ‘real simple syndication’ but you don’t need to know that (unless you want to impress someone in Trivial Pursuit!). This is the link that will allow you to subscribe to the content of a website or blog in an ‘rss feed reader’ such as Google Reader. The ‘feed’ is simply a data format used to provide users with content that is frequently updated.

Feedburner Subscription
Try it out with this blog. Click on the « subscribe » tab above and see what happens. You should land on a page that looks something like this. You can see that Google Reader is not the only option, so experiment to find one that suits you best. They all function in similar ways. If you select Google, it will return you to your Google Reader page, and Englishonthe.net should appear in your list of subscriptions:

Google Reader Subscriptions

What tends to happen with a feedreader is that it gets so filled up with subscriptions that information overload soon sets in. One way to avoid this is to organise your subscriptions into folders. As you study Business English you may discover some great podcast sites to help you with listening comprehension. A good example is Business English Pod. You could just bookmark the site for future reference, but then you have to check the site regularly to make sure you don’t miss any good new content, and this is time-consuming. So, subscribe to the feed in Google Reader following the instructions above. You can organise your study time better by separating your subscriptions into folders. You do this by selecting « manage subscriptions » at the bottom of your list of subscriptions. The following screen should apear :

Reader 3

Selecting « Change folders » will enable you to create an appropriate folder for your different feeds. For Business English Pod you may choose the title « Podcasts ». Select categories that correspond to your learning needs, and use them to organise a powerful weekly study programme, where you can select different areas to focus on each day (listening, reading, grammar, writing, vocabulary etc.)

In the next post in this series we will look at how to use Google News to improve your reading skills and increase your vocabulary.

Subscribe to Englishonthe.net for more updates on more language learning strategies with Google tools.

For  fun listening exercise, you could also watch this subtitled video entitled RSS in Plain English.

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More language learning strategies with Evernote

Judging by the large number of visits to last week’s post on More ways to learn language with Evernote, there is a lot of buzz about the many uses for this application that helps you to « remember everything ».  Evernote just won Best Mobile Startup at the Crunchies 2008 Awards.

Here are a few more tips to help you learn language online with Evernote.


I gave up bookmarking to my Firefox toolbar a long time ago and adopted Delicious.  The disadvantage of Delicious is that you can only save the link but not the content, which limits the capacity to search.  In Evernote you can add the content of a webpage to a note in Evernote  directly from your browser with two clicks, although to speed up searching it’s best to add tags.  My Evernote is full of tags to help me find language-learning tools (‘reading’, ‘writing’, ‘listening’, ‘speaking’, ‘vocabulary’, ‘pronunciation’ etc.)  For a better visual presentation of the page in Evernote, you can paste it as a screenshot into the note.  The Firefox plugin screengrab does this well.  You can also type your own notes into the bookmark to help you remember why you saved it.  There is one negative though – clipping websites into Evernote seems to be slower than bookmarking in Delicious, something that should improve in future releases.

evernote-readlaterBecome a better reader

The best way to increase your vocabulary in a foreign language is through reading.    The best way to increase your reading is to find material that you are really interested in.  Doing reading comprehension exercises based on articles or books that don’t interest you at all is a waste of time.  There is a huge amount of reading material on the Internet that matches our interest, but the problem is that the best articles usually turn up when we don’t have time to read them.  So we bookmark them, but never remember to go back to them.

I hardly ever have time to read valuable material the moment I find it, so I have created a « read later » tag in Evernote.  When I find an article that I would like to read, I save it using « read later » and then forget about it.    I then plan « reading time » into my week when I have a spare hour, type « read later » into the search, and all my articles are there waiting for me.  When I’ve finished reading I simply delete the tag.

evernote-chatRecord your social networking conversations

In the post How to improve your language outside the classroom we talked about using social networks for language-learning.  Sites like Ning Networks, EnglishForum and many others use Instant Messaging for live communication with your language-learning contacts.  IM or chat is very effective for language-learning, especially if you combine it with Evernote.  Copy and paste your IM chats into Evernote and make time later to study the conversation to revise the language that you learned from your language helper, and to see how you can improve and correct your own language.  In the desktop version of Evernote you can use the Edit/Spelling and Grammar tool to help you.

Using Evernote is as easy as writing all your notes on post-its and throwing them into a drawer.  Even when the drawer is overflowing with notes, you can still easily find the note you are looking for.  In addition to the text search and tags, you can also filter notes based on when they were created or modified, what kind of media they contain, or the tool you used to capture them (web, mobile, desktop, etc.).

More ways to learn language with Evernote

evernote-logoAfter reading our post on Building an external brain with Evernote, have you tried it yet?  As promised, today we have three more ideas for how to use Evernote to become a more efficient language-learner, and there will be three more next week.

I’m what you call a « late adopter ».  With any new technology  it takes me a long time to make a new application part of my daily life.  I think that the reason I put it off is that I know I will have to invest time in learning how to use it.  At the beginning it feels like you are playing with a new toy, and I would rather reserve my « play » time for my children.

Evernote was like that for me, but I am finding new ways of using it that are making it part of my routine.

Turn your language notebook into a personal dictionary and grammar reference
You can’t learn a language effectively without having a way to record your learning.  One of the best ways is to have a vocabulary notebook that you carry with you everywhere, and write notes of everything you are learning.  Even the best technology will never fully replace paper and pencil.

evernote-snapshotHowever, there are problems with notebooks.  It’s difficult to record notes in a logical order, sometimes you can’t read your handwriting, they fill up and you have to keep adding new notebooks, and most of all, when you have several notebooks it is sometimes impossible to find what you are looking for.

Enter Evernote.  Using webcam, digital camera or scanner, you can paste an image of handwritten notes into Evernote.  Even handwriting can be searched effectively so you will never have trouble finding your notes.

Create a learning log
Good learners take control of their learning through recording it.  The best textbooks, language-learning software and language courses in the world cannot replace having your own personal record of learning.  In addition to pasting your vocabulary and grammar notes into Evernote, you can create a learning log where each day you type your thoughts about what you are learning into a note, and save it with a tag such as « journal » or « learning log ».  As the notes are date-stamped all your learning is available to you in chronological order.   This is a useful way of managing notes from a language course, for example.  You can also paste images of course materials (handouts etc) into the note.

Turn vocabulary and grammar points into tags.
Adding tags to notes is not essential because Evernote can search the text of your notes efficiently.  However, tags will speed up evernote-tagsyour searches considerably.

It’s frustrating when you need a word or a grammar point that you know you have learnt, but it’s has gone right out of your head.  Turn these learning points from your notes into tags.  This way Evernote becomes your own personalised dictionary and grammar reference.

In the next post in the series we will look at bookmarking, becoming a better reader and learning language from your social networks with Evernote.

How to improve your language outside the classroom

I learned Japanese in school.  You would never know it today because I can hardly speak a word of Japanese.  The classes were interesting, but one of the big problems was that I never had the opportunity to practise what I had learnt outside of class time.  Japanese was just an academic subject with no connection to the real world for me.

logo_online1But that was in the 80s – we had never heard of the Internet.  EVERYTHING has changed!  The role of the teacher has changed – we are now motivators and facilitators, we help learners to help themselves learn.

If you would like help to achieve your English or French learning goals, talk to us at englishonthe.net. Contact us here for a free lesson.

The role of the learner has also changed.  Learners no longer sit passively and listen to information, they go out and find it themselves.

There are so many possibilities for live online language practice with native speakers.  Here are a few links to help you start :

Claims to be the world’s largest EFL/TEFL social network with 50,000 visits a day.   It’s main strength is the forums where learners ask all their questions concerning grammar, vocabulary, idioms, puzzles and games, distance learning, pronunciation, learning software etc.  There is a large number of faithful teachers who give their time freely for advice and support, and generally questions are answered very quickly.  There are also other social networking functions, such as photos & videos, live chat, and special interest forums.  This site is HUGE – you need to go and explore for yourself.

A completely free network for language exchange.  Connect with native speakers of the language you are learning who have similar interests to you.

Ning hosts a large number of social networks related to language learning.  These are just a few:


EFL Classroom 2.0 Definitely the most active Ning network that I use.  Although it seems more directed to teachers, there are also good resources for students (try the « English for Fun and Friendship » group).  4,900+ members
View my page on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0

EFL University

Teachers and students have FUN (Frivolous, Unanticipated, Nonsense) to learn together in English and Spanish (500 members)


L’école hors les murs Teachers and students (from middle school up) from several (mostly European) countries join for educational projects through social networking (900+ members)
Voir ma page au L’Ecole Hors les Murs – School Beyond The Walls

Campus FLE Education
Educational social network for teachers and learners based in the University of Leon Spain – some excellent learning materials on their front page.

Foreigners in Lille also looks very good for French, but unfortunately it seems to be limited to people who live in Lille, France, and although it is based in Lille, France, they are open to members from anywhere.

A fun way to develop listening comprehension

Every language learner has used video at some stage in their journey, and with the explosion of video on the Internet there is a huge amount of material to work with.

But have you ever been on YouTube and found that there are so many videos that you don’t know where to start? Which clips are good for my level?  How do I know that they will be interesting?  What if the sound quality isn’t good and I find it hard to understand?
If you have asked these questions, then there is a site that is specifically designed for you :

Yappr was designed by a guy who found that watching local television in his second language was the most fun and productive way to study.

On Yappr you can view funny or interesting videos uploaded from people all over the world, that are appropriate for language learning.  Yappr members transcribe the videos and add the text, and may even post translations into 7 other languages.

yappr-video1As you watch and listen to the video you can pause it or replay the sentence you just heard as you follow the text.  This exercises your reading and listening skills at the same time, and the video material helps your comprehension.  It is a very low-stress and enjoyable way to learn.  You can even download the full transcription of the video in .pdf format for vocabulary work.

The videos are graded according to their difficulty, and site members can rate the videos so you can see which are most popular.  Learners also add their comments to videos, and can add them to their own favourites.
When you’ve had enough of watching videos, you can move over to the chat page where you can chat with other Yappr users.  There are rooms for three English levels, and 7 other languages.  You can leave messages on a forum, and search for other Yappr fans in your country.

If you are an English learner of any level, you need to have Yappr in your language-learning toolbox.