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

  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

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.








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