Why I No Longer Bother With 'Progress Videos' For Language Missions

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Why I No Longer Bother With 'Progress Videos' For Language Missions

I mentioned recently that we should be viewing this extended lockdown nonsense as an opportunity to learn languages at home.

It’s both a healthy challenge and a positive distraction.

Well, I’ve taken my own advice on this to learn a brand new language myself this year with a travel goal (if we’re ever allowed out again).

I’ll share more on this new language mission soon.

Greek aside, it’s been quite a while since I’ve taken up a modern language challenge with a goal of conversational fluency, so I’m really eager to do something completely new (social).

With that, I’ve started to think seriously about accountability.

I talked in the past about how useful and important public accountability is for language learning – telling everyone that you’re learning a language and letting them constantly remind you to keep you on your game.

The fear of losing face or letting people down is powerful.

As a blogger with a massive audience, this has been a driving force for me to produce results through public updates over the years.

With languages like Arabic, Korean, Irish, Georgian, Italian and Russian, I’ve shared detailed accounts of my travels, progress and even failures.

And a big part of this was through the use of progress videos – soliloquy style (“talking to the camera”) – at various stages of my learning.

Browsing through YouTube these days, you can find hundreds – perhaps thousands – of “Language X Progress Update” videos.

I stopped doing this a long time ago for a number of reasons which I’ll share below.

Carefully timed, prepared and edited videos do not truthfully reflect the reality of your current skill level

Most of these videos are utterly deceptive.

When you’re sitting by yourself in your home, you are in a completely controlled and non-threatening environment.

You have the ability to stop your camera, rehearse lines, and try again all day till you get it right.

Your viewers have no idea how many hours of preparation went into the production of your 5 minute “spontaneous” progress update.

Am I saying that all progress updates are guilty of this?


But nearly all of them are.

The same is true (albeit less so) for scripted conversations or interviews.

You still have the benefit of preparation and a degree of control, and you’re also able to ask prepared questions and deflect to native speakers when you have no idea what they’re saying.

On the contrary, an off-camera conversation in the real world offers you nothing but unpredictability and a lack of control.

Your day-to-day is illusory for your viewers who have no idea what your life is actually like

This is true for all online influencers.

You ever see those travel photographers on Instagram with millions of followers who have picture-perfect posts every day that make you extremely envious of their incredible lives?

What does their day-to-day actually look like?

I can assure you that most language learners you see on camera getting hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube have unremarkable lives – day-to-day struggles learning a language aren’t entertaining or impressive.

Learning a language is a slow slog.

And for some of the really impressive progress video creators, they probably spend more time with Adobe Premiere than they do with any native speakers of the language they’re learning.

The truth about my year in South Korea and my Korean mission

It’s been about 7 years since I left Korea.

How time has flown! 🙂

I blogged consistently during my time there and shared regular updates both in posts and on YouTube about learning Korean. It was an amazing experience and I fell in love with the Korean culture and language.

I have a special place in my heart for Korean after my time living there.

But the reality is (I have alluded to this in the past): my year in South Korea was literally one of the most hellish years of my life.

I mean, it destroyed me emotionally.

This had nothing to do with Korean either.

The first few months living there were great – I made a bunch of Korean friends in the small town I moved to, and was sailing in my Korean every day.

But then I lost two family members suddenly: the woman who raised me to aggressive, out-of-nowhere cancer and my uncle (who I spent my childhood years with) to suicide.

To top that off, my long-term relationship of several years came to a sudden and bitter end (she lived in Seoul but I refused to live around expats so moved several hours away to a small town).

What’s ironic is that I actually chose to live in a small town with no expats so I could drastically improve my Korean, which meant that when I hit rock bottom emotionally, I had nobody to turn to.

My Korean was nowhere near good enough to open up to my new Korean friends about what was happening.

So I ended up in a prison of my own making.

The entire rest of my year in Korea really just felt like survival at that point.

When I finally got home at the end of my one year contract, I was supposed to fly back to Korea on a second contract but I literally pulled the plug at the airport and backed out. My luggage was on the plane and I was getting ready to board to return to South Korea but it had left such a damaging emotional toll on me that I couldn’t bring myself to go back.

I had the stewardess remove my bags and my Korean mission was officially over.

I went to Russia instead (and you know the rest of the story).

By the way, there is a positive to that story – I was sitting on a beach in Busan totally down in the dumps over everything, and I met a girl in passing who I stayed in contact with for years.

She’s now my wife. 🙂

There are always backstories you don’t know about that have major impacts on language progress

There’s a point I’m trying to make by sharing all that.

The results of my Korean mission were frankly unremarkable.

People (mostly trolls) still bring this up from time to time on social media to attack me even after 6 years – that my Korean wasn’t amazing after a year of immersion.

And I agree with them.

Although given the circumstances, I pressed on and did what I could to make the year worthwhile and come away with something so the fact that I was at least conversational in Korean despite hardship counts for something.

Progress videos say nothing on the circumstances and pressure I was under.

I could have done what some polyglots do and faked the results to impress my followers.

But I’m too honest for that. 🙂

Or I could have just abandoned Korean early on but then everything would have felt like a waste.

Anyway, the whole experience was the turning point for me in stopping progress videos.

Provide value to language learners – not entertainment

Perhaps I’m too much of a cultural contrarian. 🙂

Something about “YouTube culture” in 2020 just irritates me to no end.

There’s very little substance to anything anymore and I think I can count on one hand how many language influencers actually continue to provide unique, substantive, well-researched value to their subscribers.

Creators rack up millions of views on their vacuous talking head nonsense but I’ve just never understood the appeal of this personally.

The same is true with language product reviews – it’s very hard to find actual research or substance anywhere.

Does anybody research anything or have a unique opinion anymore?

The problem with language progress videos is that they don’t really serve any purpose other than to provide entertainment.

They’re really not instructional.

Like Instagram, it’s about getting casual viewers to say, “Wow. That’s amazing. Subscribed.” <– to what end?

If the purpose is to show your actual, current language level then show an official test result. 🙂

Agree or disagree?

Comment below.

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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This is one of the reasons I don’t edit any of my video’s. Apart from saving a lot of time, it’s also way more authentic.

I’ve found that people appreciate it if you’re honest, make mistakes and don’t completely streamline the entire video.

I do focus on choosing my topics and what I’m going to say wisely, to make it as interesting as possible for viewers.

Every channel should try to have an ‘end goal’ (product, course, service) that helps people.

Otherwise people need to start chasing views in order to make some meaningful side income. And that’s when people lose authenticity.

Anyways, I highly recommend you keep making progress videos. They’re great practice and people give valuable feedback.



Hello from a Filipino living in NSW, sir.

I have been casually reading your blog for some time now (I don’t remember when I started but possibly from a few months ago or even around 2 years ago).

As for your opinion about language progress videos, I have never made one but I think that although they are a form of entertainment, I do think they could be valuable if native speakers who watch them could provide feedback. Native speakers could even nitpick learners’ language learning progress from them. Though this would probably not be that effective for evaluating fluency (due to being scripted) but perhaps acquisition of correct grammar structures and usage of words could still be evaluated.

Actually, I was thinking that it would be informative if the method you use (I think it was the chunking method... what I remember well though is that it avoids the many grammar explanations of traditional lessons) could possibly be tested with such a video. I am just wondering how well learners can pick up small nuances using the chunking method. Perhaps such a progress video could be made more “realistic” if it showed the learner talking with a native speaker friend.

I think that the chunking method would work well but I think it may be more effective with some grammar study (but not too much) if the learner doesn’t have enough material to be exposed to the language enough. I do find though that languages are so complex in nuances that explaining every single grammar point to cover those nuances may be impractical and so learning by just picking them up may be better.

Y. Russ ;)

Y. Russ ;)

Hi Donovan,

great post! What I commend you most for, however, is using a compelling collocation for the word ‘lockdown’, which is, of course, ‘nonsense’!

How humanity can allow a highly corrupt organization like the WHO to determine what constitutes a ‘pandemic’ is completely beyond me ... Here where I am, far more people were dying of the flu in 2018 than are (supposedly) dying of Covid-911. Sad world we’re living in.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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