Want to Learn a Language While Watching YouTube?

Want to Learn a Language While Watching YouTube?
Photo Credit: 路透社 / 達志影像

What you need to know

A new app developed in Taiwan allows language learners to tap on the characters and words in YouTube video subtitles.

Woodpecker Watch is a new language learning app, developed in Taiwan, which combines online videos and dictionaries.

The app, launched this month, currently helps Mandarin and English learners and new languages are set to be added in the coming months.

Gijs Slijpen, co-founder and head of engineering of Woodpecker, told The News Lens International that while there are many non-native Mandarin speakers, very few are truly fluent.

Slijpen, who speaks very fluent Mandarin himself, is Dutch and came to Taiwan three years ago to complete his engineering master’s thesis and learn Mandarin.

Before learning Mandarin, Slijpen said he struggled to become fluent in English, but found it efficient to watch English-language videos online.

“I watched videos from the Discovery Channel and my fluency improved quite fast,” he says.

However, he always wanted to pause the video and note down the words he didn’t understand. When co-founder and longtime Taiwan expat Peter Sutton suggested developing a video app for Mandarin learners last November, Slijpen was in full support.

A key feature of the app is that users can simultaneously see subtitles from their mother language and the target language. “This way, users can know the meaning immediately and compare that with the language they’re learning,” Slijpen says.

The subtitles are linked to several existing dictionary apps. This means users can access a database of characters, words and phrases, by pausing and clicking on subtitles as they watch.

“Being able to watch a movie, touch on characters in the subtitles and have the definition pop up immediately could save so much time and frustration,” Slijpen writes on the company’s blog.

Also, the dictionary apps already have a number of users.

“By linking dictionary apps with our app, users’ can be merged and that adds up to a larger number,” Slijpen says.

Encouraging, instead of teaching

Statistics show that about 40 million people worldwide are currently learning Mandarin. A lack of video resources is a common frustration among learners - a problem compounded because China blocks YouTube and other U.S. social media platforms. More than 1 billion are estimated to be currently learning English.

Slijpen said that Woodpecker Watch doesn’t want to teach the users, but encourage them.

“Unlike other language learning apps, we don’t expect them to know the language only; we push them further to speak fluently just as native speakers. And we try to achieve this goal by selecting local content.”

Videos are sourced from YouTube; translated subtitles are provided by voluntary translators online. For Mandarin learners, the app currently has more than 4,800 videos from 27 channels including The News Lens and TEDxTaipei with Mandarin audio and subtitles. For English learners, there are more than 400 channels with over 67,000 videos from YouTube that have English audio and subtitles.

Taiwanese talk show channels are also accessible in the app. “We found it popular for foreigners to watch talk shows,” Slijpen says.

Local advantages

Woodpecker Watch is available from the App Store, and the company says it will be available on Google Play in August.

Woodpecker, which now employs 10 people, is expanding, and Japanese and other language selections will be provided in the near future.

Slijpen says Taiwan had advantages as a location for tech developers.

“There are lots of technology universities in Taiwan, so many students are fond of coding. I think it’s an advantage to start a company here.”

The company wouldn’t disclose the current number of users, or the cost of developing the app, citing commercial sensitivity.

The company also believes its app will help expand the reach of video content providers.

“We’ll definitely cooperate with video providers and show them how the app operates,” said Slijpen. “This way, their content can be seen more and we can get our sources.”

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang