A language instructor once suggested that I watch Spanish-language movies or TV shows with Spanish closed-captioning turned on, but English subtitles off. “Or,” she said, “if you’re having a hard time understanding, turn them both on.” Yabla is a bit like that. This subscription-based language-learning app helps you practice listening and comprehension skills by watching and interacting with videos. You can turn on closed captioning in the native language, as well as subtitles in English. At the end of each video are interactive exercises for testing you on what you learned from the video. Yabla is only available for Spanish, French, Italian, German, Chinese, and English, and it’s really best for intermediate and advanced learners. It’s quite challenging for beginners, especially if you don’t already know the letters or characters and how to pronounce them.
If you’re starting from square one with a new language, Rosetta Stone and Duolingo are excellent options. They help you build a base vocabulary and understanding, and they’re our Editors’ Choices for paid and free language-learning software. Once you’ve maxed out on either of those programs, however, give Yabla a try.
When you sign up for Yabla, you must choose one of its language programs. The options are Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish, plus English for Spanish speakers. Six languages—or five if you already speak English, and I assume you do if you’re reading this—isn’t an extensive selection. At least it covers some of the most popular languages that English speakers want to learn and practice.
If you need a language that isn’t included, Duolingo has more than 35 languages and Rosetta Stone has 23, not counting English.
If you need to learn a hard-to-find language, you’re best off looking at Pimsleur, Transparent Language Online, or Mango Languages. Pimsleur is almost entirely audio-based, and it’s excellent if you don’t mind learning by listening. Transparent is more interactive and is best for people who are self-directed learners. Mango is my least favorite of the bunch, but if you can’t find a language elsewhere, Mango might just have it.
A membership to Yabla costs $12.95 per month, $54.95 for six months, or $99.95 per year. When you buy a membership, you only get access to one language. For Spanish, you get both Latin American and Castilian content in the same program. If you want to try Yabla before you join, there’s a 15-day free trial.
Yabla’s price is competitive. The monthly price has gone up a little, but we’ve seen a similar increase in the fees of other subscription-based language learning apps, too. It’s the same cost as a monthly subscription to Duolingo Plus, for example.
It’s worth mentioning that some language-learning apps and programs let you access all the languages whenever you want, rather than pinning you to just one. Duolingo lets you switch between languages at any time. Rosetta Stone now also sells a Lifetime membership that includes access to all its languages for $299 (often discounted to $199).
That said, you might already have access to some of the same content that you can get from Yabla: foreign-language movies with closed captioning and subtitle options. Netflix has plenty of content in Spanish in particular, and there’s no limit to what you can find on YouTube for most languages. With Yabla, you get a few more tools, however, such as the ability to search by level of difficulty or region, such as French speakers from Canada versus Europe. You also get quizzes and some other built-in tools, which I discuss in a later section.
I’ve tested Yabla before in German, Chinese, and Spanish, and returned to Spanish once again in my latest test runs with it.
Yabla’s main draw is that its videos come with both native closed captioning and subtitles in English. At any time, you can turn on one or both of them. You can also pause a video, go back, and slow it down. You can look up the definition of individual words by clicking on them, although this function is hit-or-miss because it lacks the context of the sentence. At the end of each video, you can optionally play games, which are really just exercises to reinforce some of the words you heard in the video.
The most important thing to know about Yabla, however, is that it’s not a full-scale language-learning program. It doesn’t have any structure. You don’t start on a particular lesson and work sequentially onto the next one. There’s no recommended amount of time you should put into learning each day either. Rather, Yabla is more sandbox-style, letting you explore and practice completely at your own pace.
Yabla does have beginner videos that teach and explain different aspects of the language, and some of them are packaged as a series that you can watch in a specific order. Even so, they aren’t scaffolded into a complete learning path. In my opinion, not having that structure makes even the entry-level videos less effective than they could be. If you’re a new learner who is okay with a highly unstructured environment, you might find it appealing. If you expect guidance and a series of lessons that build on another, you’re not going to get it here.
Once you create a Yabla account, choose a language, and pay for a subscription, you get access to the whole catalog of content for that language.
When you first get started, you see a landing page with videos, which you can filter by level of difficulty, topic, and region. There are three levels—beginner, intermediate, and advanced—but also a 1-5 rating to show difficulty. The topics, or themes, range from animation to the economy and business. The regional divisions depend on the language. As an example, Spanish has filters for Latin America, Mexico, and Spain filters. Below those filters are additional options to choose a particular country, if you’re trying to attune your ear to a more specific accent or word choices.
There’s no correct place to start and no placement test to figure out your level. You choose the videos you want to watch.
I watched a series of videos about health, some about local expressions of Latin America, and others. I enjoyed watching a few episodes of the Colombian version of the television show The Wonder Years, or Los Años Maravillosos. Instead of getting one 25-minute episode, you get a series of parts that are more or less segmented by the show’s scene breaks. A “chapter” is equivalent to one episode, and each scene is called a “part.” Sadly, only a few episodes are included. Just as I was getting into it, the content ran out.
For series that you want to watch in order, Yabla gives you a drop-down menu in the interface that lets you continue watching the next part or chapter without losing your place.
When you watch a video, you see two transcriptions at the bottom of the screen, one in the language of the video and one in English (or English and Spanish for the English learning program). You can hide either one or both of them if you want. If you click on a word in the foreign language, its translation and other dictionary information appear at right. Any word you click also goes to your flashcard bank, which I explain later.
At the bottom of the video player window are small boxes that allow you to navigate the video more easily. They’re helpful for when you want to land on a particular segment of dialogue. If you want to back up to a line you hear, you simply click on boxes until you find it.
Naturally Spoken Language, Real Videos
Much of the content in the intermediate and advanced levels come from real television shows, music videos, and commercials, so the actors speak at a conversational pace. Beginner-level videos are scripted to be slower and more enunciated, which is appropriate for new learners. You won’t find many idioms or highly poetic phrasing in beginner-level content, either.
The quality of the videos is all over the map. I regrettably watched a few political ads from an election in Mexico, and the audio was blaring, like it was coming through a loudspeaker at a bus depot. Some of the beginner videos are over-scripted and use actors who seem inexperienced. It’s cringe-worthy to see two people standing unnaturally close to another, staring into the other’s eyes while speaking and then awkwardly turn toward the camera and speak to it instead. Yabla has been making some original content, which is getting better little by little, but isn’t the main attraction to this app. The value is in the videos that contain natural language, different accents, and conversational pacing.
Additionally, if you’re used to watching videos in high-def or you care about that sort of thing, many of Yabla’s videos will be disappointing. Perhaps the quality is lower to keep streaming and downloading speeds reasonable. Whatever the case, it’s noticeable.
Games and Drills
At the end of a video, you can play so-called games to reinforce what you watched in the video. They’re really more like exercises. Some of them are quite challenging, but in a good way.
The easiest game is multiple-choice. Yabla replays a segment of the video you just watched with the transcription below and one word missing. You have to choose the missing word based on what you hear or what you can figure out from context.
Another game is the same but it uses a fill-in-the-blank method rather than multiple-choice, so it’s harder.
More difficult still is the Scribe game. Segments of the video replay and you have to type the entire line in the foreign language. You can replay the segment as many times as you need, and you can even slow it down to 75 or 50 percent. If you get stuck, you can reveal the English translation or see individual letters and words if you get stumped.
The fourth and final game is a vocabulary review. Here, you review a handful of words from the video by identifying them by meaning from a group of words or by typing them when shown their translation.
After you play a set of games, you see a summary of how well you did. You also get clear progress markers to show which games you’ve completed and which ones you haven’t.
Flashcards and Lessons
Beyond videos, Yabla has two more sections that you access from the main menu options at the top of the screen: Flashcards and Lessons.
The Flashcards section contains all the words you clicked while watching videos when you wanted to see their dictionary definitions. You can optionally disable the function that creates these cards when you click on words. The vocabulary that you save ends up on flashcards that you can drill through at your own pace. You see one of your words in the foreign language, and below it, two buttons for indicating whether you think you know the meaning or you don’t. When you reveal the word, you self-assess whether you got it right. Additionally, you see a quick summary of the video where you encountered the word and even the line where you saw it. I like having this context because it helps you not only remember the word, but also figure out its context, and from there, you can determine whether the translation that’s provided is correct. Sometimes it’s not, or you have to dig through multiple meanings before you find it.
The Flashcard game continues in this way, adding in more words as you master those you’ve already seen.
The Lessons portion of Yabla contains written text. You find here some explainer pieces that might help you work through some of the tougher aspects of learning a new language. For example, in Spanish, there are lessons about the difference between ser and estar. Both words mean “to be,” but there’s a distinction between them. In Spanish, the Lessons had a lot of material on idioms, yet again showing how Yabla is great for experienced speakers who are ready to tackle these more advanced topics. Lessons also show you videos that are related to the matter at hand, with a handy option to bookmark them to watch later.
Downloads and Transcriptions
Many of the videos on Yabla are available to download, which is great if you want to take your learning offline. Exactly what you can download depends on the video, and you don’t know what your options will be until you hit the download button. Sometimes the only option is an MP4 file that has no description. Sometimes you do see descriptions of different files, such as a video file with Spanish and English transcriptions. And sometimes, one of the options (or the only option) is an MP3 audio file. It’s helpful to have these materials but a little unprofessional seeming that there’s no consistency.
When you download a file, it’s yours to do with as you wish. You can also download just the transcriptions if you want to practice with written material instead.
For people who have experience with a foreign language and need to keep it sharp or fine-tune their ear, Yabla is one of the best online language programs. Its videos cover a wide range of topics to keep you interested. I’m genuinely excited to watch more of the Colombian version of The Wonder Years. And some of the exercises that go with the videos are challenging. That said, I do not recommend Yabla to anyone who’s picking up a language they’ve never spoken before.
If you’re starting from scratch, try Duolingo for its free exercises, which can help you become more familiar with simple words, phrases, and structures. Rosetta Stone is also a good option for the same purpose. Both Duolingo and Rosetta Stone have a lot of bonus content (such as podcasts, streaming sessions, and stories) that not everyone knows about, especially if you’re studying one of the most popular languages. If you’ve tried Rosetta Stone before and it’s just not for you, take a look at Fluenz, which has a lot of similarities, but a very different style.
|No. of Languages Offered (Not Incl. English)||5|
|Live Tutoring Included With Package Reviewed||No|