How I watch Youtube videos to accumulate vocabulary

I covered how I learn vocabulary with my textbook but I also wanted to show you how I watch Youtube videos to both improve my listening skills and my vocabulary at the same time. As with the previous article, this works with any level. I actually used to do something very similar with videos in Russian when I was around the intermediate level (I cannot remember which channels I used). Feel free to try out my approach as well.

Step 1: Find a Youtube channel you will watch regularly

Before I get to the learning part, we have to do some preparatory work.

Since I advocate keeping the list of resources you use short, you first have to find an appropriate channel. This channel needs to have the following properties:

  • It needs to be interesting enough so you can watch it on a regular basis: you’ll watch (almost) every video that’s being published. No point in finding a channel that you watch two or three videos of but get bored of afterwards. Think of your hobbies or what topics you find interesting, put that into the Youtube search and start from there. Another option would be to ask your teacher, that’s how I found the Visualpolitik channel that I am watching. I told him a few of my interests and he suggested the channel and I immediately liked it. It doesn’t really matter if it’s for language learners or authentic content. If you’re intermediate or lower, you’ll have to watch something that’s for learners, above that level you should use authentic content.
  • They need to publish once or twice a week but not more: I watch almost every video the Visualpolitik channel publishes. But there’s only so much time that I have and if they were publishing every day, I wouldn’t have the time to watch them all. So you’re looking for a channel that has a regular stream of content but something that you can keep up with. That also gives you the opportunity to change up the type of exercise you’re using when learning your language. One day you do this, the next day you work with a book, then you work with a teacher and so on. There is, of course, always the option of watching old videos if you need more content.
  • The length of the videos is not more than 20mins, ideally less: I don’t use every video for deliberate practice. Sometimes, I just don’t feel like it and watch one without doing the work, purely for entertainment. But when I do watch it for deliberate practice, you can plan with 3x – 4x the runtime of the video as study time, depending on your level and the amount of re-runs you do. Therefore, the video should be maximum 20 minutes long but ideally shorter. A 10-minute clip that’s difficult for you will take you 40 minutes to work through to the degree where you can understand the video at the end.
  • It’s slightly above your level: the Visualpolitik channel that I watch probably already doesn’t fit the bill here for me. I can understand about 90% of the video on the first try, watching it without subtitles. When I first started, I still had to watch it with subtitles because they were speaking too fast and there was too much unknown vocabulary. This is the sweet spot that you are looking for. Something that you can still follow but that is difficult enough to challenge you. When you can follow the video without paying attention to it, it’s become too easy and you need to change to something else.

Once you’ve taken all these tips into account, try out a few channels and watch some of their videos. If you get lucky like I did, you find something that you like on the first try. That doesn’t have to be done in a day. I was watching my channel for a few days or weeks before I decided to incorporate it into my learning routine.

Step 2: Watch the video once to get the content

Ok, we’ve come to the point where you actually want to learn. This step is easy: you simply watch the video like you always do, without paying any particular attention to language that you do not understand. As you’ll know by now, when we consume a piece of content, the first time we do so, we want to get the general idea. You won’t even notice some words that fly over your head because your brain is focused on understanding what’s going on.

One point that needs to be addressed is subtitles. I personally watch the videos without subtitles now, though there is a good chance that if I changed to something more difficult, I’d have to switch them on. In my opinion, there is no right or wrong approach here. Work with the option that feels more comfortable to you and that feels like you’re getting more out of the material.

Step 3: Watch it for a second time (with subtitles) and take notes

After the first run, the real work starts. I go through the video for a second time while jotting down the unknown expressions that I notice. At this point you will want to switch on subtitles if you didn’t already do so, unless you can actually hear the unknown word but just don’t understand it.

The way I do it is that I start the video and when I come across a word I don’t understand (and that I probably didn’t even notice the first time around), I pause the video and look up the meaning in Wordreference. Then I write down that word in the exact context I’ve heard it in and note the translation or a synonym next to it. This is how this looks like:

Spanish notes

I do that for the entire video. Like I said, the less you understand, the more start-and-stop this process will be. For the 20-minute video I watched today, it took me a good 30 minutes to go through the re-run. That’s why you don’t want a 20-minute video where you have to look up every second word. It will frustrate you very quickly.

My goal here isn’t so much to get these words into my long-term memory, but to enlarge my passive vocabulary. I cannot distinguish which words are important enough for me to learn, so I don’t even bother with putting them into something like Anki. Instead, I just keep notes of them and look at these notes every once in a while. I want to be able to recognize the words the next time I hear them and ideally understand them immediately. Over time, the most important ones will come up often enough and those will shift to my active vocabulary naturally.

However, do put the most important words into something like Anki if you are not at intermediate yet.

You will have to eyeball it in terms of their importance. Something like dishwasher probably doesn’t merit its own flashcard, but to decide definitely does.

Step 4 (optional): Watch it for a third time (without subtitles)

This step is optional and its focus is to improve your listening comprehension. If you found the video rather hard to understand the first time, you’ll find that you understand almost everything when you can watch it for the third time. I recommend turning off the subtitles at this point and just using your notes, if necessary.

I don’t do this step, at least not with my Youtube channel. However, I follow a very similar approach when practising listening with audios from my textbook. For audios that I find difficult to understand, I do three runs as well. One to get the gist as much as possible, one with transcript to fill the gaps and the third time to hear the audio with the knowledge I acquired.


This method works very well for me because it balances fun and learning very well. You could also do this with other material, for example a TV series, but those tend to be a bit too long and that would stretch your learning sessions quite a bit. Though that’s only applicable for upper-intermediate and advanced learners anyway. Beginners will find that they make very fast progress with their listening comprehension by listening to the same source material for a few times.

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