How to use Virtual Assistants to make your own foreign language materials

Foreign language textbooks or language learning software don’t usually have you on the edge of your seat in excitement. Not surprising. Textbook writers have a tough job, having to make their products interesting while also teaching you about relative pronouns.

Wouldn’t it be great if, when you sit down to study, you’re presented not with a page of verb conjugations and gap fill exercises, or a dry text about Mrs Li ordering food in a restaurant, but with this:


Or this:


Well you can! In this post I’m going to show you how I used virtual assistants (VAs) to create my own Cantonese language learning materials from scratch based on my own interests and reignited my motivation in the process!

What’s wrong with foreign language textbooks?

Nothing – we need them for certain things, especially to learn the basics. But there comes a stage when we start to get tired of formulaically learning new things and we want to use our new language for something more interesting.

As pretty much anyone who writes about language learning will tell you, you need to be motivated, and the best way to do that is by engaging with topics that interest you. As I wrote about in detail in this post on, one of the most important things you can do is to get clear in your mind the things that excite you in the target language. Movies? Books? Art?  It’s to these things you can turn when you’re in need of motivation.

With these materials you start to get some advantages emerging:

So what better way to approach your studies than by using things you like as your main source of material?

What exactly am I  talking about?

For about a month now, whenever I sit down to study Cantonese, I don’t open my textbook. Instead, I fire up one of my favourite Hong Kong dramas – The Seventh Day (最美麗的第七天). I watch one episode of the drama only, but I don’t follow the English subtitles. Instead, I follow it through with the script, which I had specially transcribed for me by a virtual assistant for the bargain price of US $15.

cantonese foreign language learning material

I do a little bit every day, usually just focusing on one scene or one conversation. As I’m low level in Cantonese, I don’t worry too much about understanding every word – I know it’s important not to ask too much of myself when I’m dealing with native-speaker material.

Rather, I listen over and over, just letting the sounds of the language sink in, and looking out for certain words and phrases that start to emerge. I’m aiming for exposure. Lots of exposure over time. I know that although I don’t understand much yet, the only way to start to understand is by spending a lot of time in the language.

So why bother with the transcription? Why not just watch the drama over and over?

Because, like most people, I’m curious, and a little impatient! Sometimes I get interested in a passage and I want to know what they’re saying, or what a certain word means.

If I come across a difficult or interesting passage, I copy and paste bits and pieces into an online dictionary to figure out what’s being said (it would be difficult to do that if I didn’t have the Chinese written down for me).

I’ll then click a few buttons and export useful words and phrases from the text into a specially created deck in my SRS flashcard app, to take away with me and review later on my phone when I have a few spare minutes.

How to make your own foreign language learning material

IELANCE-NEW-LOGOf this sounds like something you could benefit from, here’s how to do it:

1.  Head over to and sign up for an account
2.  Post a job under “writing and translation”. This is where you say what you want done, and where people will name their price for doing the work.
3.  In the subject line, put the target language as the first word, in order to catch the attention of the right people. Mine was: “Cantonese – transcribe one Hong Kong drama episode!”
4.  Write the text of the job, being very specific about what you’re looking for. Here’s the exact text that I used:

This is very simple, and could be fun!
I'm learning Cantonese and I'd like you to transcribe one episode of a popular Hong Kong drama for me.
The episode is 45 minutes long, broken into 3 parts. Here are the links:

I need the entire audio transcribed using  Microsoft Excel, with one sentence of audio per row. For each sentence:

– Row 1: Chinese characters (traditional)

– Row 2: Jyutping transliteration

– Row 3: English

Please mark the time at regular 1-minute intervals so I can find the relevant place in the video.

Please send me a sample of the first 30 seconds of the transcription so I can check the formatting, and please let me know if you have any questions

Please submit your proposed price for the complete job.

5.  Post the job and leave it a few days for bids to come in

6.  Look at the proposals you’ve received, and choose someone for the job based on the thoroughness of their proposal and their job history (which is visible on their profile).

7.  Be clear about asking them to submit a sample of their work after 1 hour or so of work so you can pre-empt any problems. Also set a clear submission date and make sure they know they can ask you any questions they want.

How to exploit the material

language listening skillsYou’re going to want to use this material differently depending on your level. If you’re more advanced, you probably have your own ways of working with language, but for lower levels it’s important to remember a few things.

Front of card:


Back of card:


Enjoy the ride

What I’ve tried to show with this example is that there are a world of possibilities out there for language learning materials, and there’s no need to be stuck to textbooks.

Think about what excites you, use these ideas to get the materials that you need, spend the money where necessary (it’s so worth it!) and get stuck in! Here are two questions to help you take action:

1: What's the best TV show/movie you've watched in your target language recently?

2: How much would it be worth to you to have the entire transcript in front of you?

Enjoy this post? Before you go, please…

1) Like this post on Facebook using the buttons to your left!

2) Sign up to get future articles delivered straight to your inbox

3) Leave me a comment with how you might use the ideas in this post!

Image 1: deviantart; Image 2: comicvine; Image 3: elance; Image 4: deviantart

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