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Students often ask what the best way to learn English is. Even though I’m an English teacher, I actually do not recommend learning English in a classroom. You can learn just as much, and maybe more, from home with online resources. Some of the most popular options are watching videos on YouTube, watching Netflix, and listening to podcasts.
Which of those is the best?
Well, there isn’t really a ‘best’ option. Each is good in its own way. The options that will work the best for you probably depends on what your goals are and what you are interested in. And you don’t have to choose just one—you can mix and match them depending on your needs or mood.
But there are some clear advantages and disadvantages to each. Here, I’ll give you a rundown of my view on the pros and cons of YouTube vs. Netflix vs. podcasts to learn English.
There’s a lot of really great things about learning English from Netflix. The content quality is, of course, excellent and the shows can be very entertaining. You’re almost certain to find something that you like watching in the large Netflix library.
Another advantage is that it’s easy to stay engaged. One of my roommates in Brazil knew someone who learned Portuguese entirely by watching Portuguese telenovelas. This person loved novelas so it was easy to stay engaged for long periods of time. We often binge-watch Netflix and that can mean that we end up binge-learning English.
One downside of Netflix is that the level of the language is high—it’s aimed at native English speakers. That’s great if you’re at an advanced level, but if you’re at a lower level, it can make it difficult to understand what’s going on.
Netflix does have good subtitles, which can help if you are at a lower level. Just be careful not to rely too heavily on subtitles. It could be tempting to simply put on subtitles in your own language. But if you do, you may end up just reading the subtitles and not listening to the English. I recommend using only the English subtitles if you can so that you maximize English learning. Try to only use subtitles in your own language if you’re a beginner.
Another downside is that Netflix is not really designed for active learning, which is essential for learning effectively. It is possible to engage with Netflix in an active way; for example, you could pause Netflix when you hear unfamiliar words and look them up, or rewind to double-check you understood what was said. But this isn’t how most people use Netflix.
I know that when I watch Netflix, I almost feel like my brain goes to sleep. That’s supported by research too. Some studies have found that watching lots of TV can lead to declines in verbal ability. That’s the opposite of what we want! So Netflix may not be the best option for active learning. But you are having fun!
Finally, a last downside is the price. Netflix is not expensive, but it is still not free. However, if you’re using it to learn a language then it could be a great investment!
YouTube is another great resource. There is a huge variety of content, so you will certainly be able to find things that interest you or that teach you something.
It is also easier to actively learn with YouTube than it is with Netflix. While there are not always accurate subtitles, it is usually quite easy to watch videos on YouTube at a slower pace or to pause them to take notes. In my own experience, my brain doesn’t feel as dead when I watch YouTube as when I watch Netflix.
Another benefit of YouTube is that it can be more convenient than Netflix. You can pick up a video for 5 minutes at a time rather than having to watch a full 30-minute episode or one-and-a-half hour movie. I find it easier to fit YouTube videos in my day.
YouTube also has a bunch of content created for language learners. That can make it convenient for language learners to find materials aimed directly at them. It’s very easy to find teachers you might like and subscribe to their channel.
A final benefit of YouTube over Netflix: price. YouTube is free (although it can also come with some annoying adverts).
One downside is that lots of the content on YouTube is not that good. I have seen many English teachers (in inverted commas) post English grammar videos that are very confusing, and that sometimes have incorrect information.
As a matter of fact, I do not necessarily recommend watching videos that try to teach you English. Instead, I recommend watching videos that you can mostly understand about things that you’re interested in. In my experience, these work better for English students. TED is a great channel for these kinds of videos and so is How It’s Made. They’ll give you the English practice and do it while explaining something interesting.
The other thing about YouTube is that there tends to be much more content for people at beginner levels and the advanced levels. There is not as much content available for those at an intermediate level.
We’re not shy about our love for podcasts. We really do think they are one of the best ways to learn English, and still not many people know about them.
Alastair, the founder of Leonardo English, has used podcasts to help him learn several languages. They have also been an essential in my journey learning Portuguese as well.
We love them because they are flexible and you can listen to whatever you are interested in. They are also super convenient. You actually have to watch YouTube and Netflix, but if you’re watching, it’s hard to do anything else. With podcasts, I can listen wherever I am—on my commute to work, while I’m making dinner, or while I’m running.
They’re also inexpensive. Like YouTube, most podcasts are free. Even when a company offers a subscription, like we do, it is usually for extra features or bonus content.
One downside is that, with some podcasts, the quality can be variable. Some have poor production quality. Others are simply not that interesting. You can find really great podcasts, but sometimes you have to spend some time looking.
Another downside is that, like YouTube, the majority of podcasts are aimed either at beginners or at advanced English learners. There are relatively few podcasts that are aimed at the intermediate levels.
That is, of course, why we created English Learning for Curious Minds.
Similarly, not all podcasts are designed for active learning. We provide transcripts and key vocabulary for every podcast episode at Leonardo English, but you won’t find these with most podcasts.
A final downside is that podcasts do not have the visual cues that can help you understand meaning. That’s one of the good things about watching video: you can use the images and visual context to help you understand the language. Some podcasts have transcripts to follow along, but many don’t.
This might be a disadvantage, but it also could be a good thing. Doing something a little harder means you’re getting better practice. Learning to understand English without visual cues may be kind of like training a superpower—it’ll make your listening skills really strong. Then when you go back to situations with visual cues, you’ll find it much easier.
Our Summary: YouTube vs. Netflix vs. Podcasts
- Production quality: Netflix has the best quality production. That’s not really a surprise though is it? They spend billions of dollars on their shows. Podcasts and YouTube can have high quality content, but you have to filter through some stuff that isn’t great.
- Active learning: Podcasts and YouTube are probably the best for this, but it varies from piece to piece and whether there are resources to help you. Netflix is not designed for active learning.
- Convenience: Podcasts are the most convenient, followed by YouTube. Netflix is the least convenient.
- Price: YouTube and Podcasts are generally free. Netflix is not free, but it is also not expensive. Each of these is cheaper than taking an English class.
- Interest: You can find content you’re interested in on all three platforms.
- Level: Podcasts and YouTube have content for learners of all levels. Netflix is best for advanced levels.
So which is the best? Well, each of the three can be an effective part of your language learning program.
And it’s not an either/or choice: you can include all three in your English learning routine. You can mix and match them: watch Netflix on the weekend, listen to podcasts on your commute, and watch YouTube on your lunch break. Whatever works for you.
The important thing is that you choose activities at your level that you enjoy, and that you do them consistently. And don’t forget to incorporate speaking, reading, and writing activities into your English learning programme as well.