As an English learner myself, I could never thank TV series enough for teaching me all they have taught me and I know for sure that, hadn’t it been for American TV shows, I wouldn’t be where I am today, doing what I do. So, if you started reading this post wondering if you can really learn English using TV series, the answer is YES! A thousand times YES!
Should I watch TV series with subtitles?
Nearly every time I bring up watching TV series with my students, they ask whether they should keep the subtitles on or not. For some reason, people have gotten the idea that if you watch a video with subtitles, in a way, it’s as if you were cheating and that you’re not going to learn much… but nothing could be further from the truth!
Subtitles, especially when watching something in English (a language whose phonetic rules are a bit all over the place), are a wonderful tool to train our listening skills as well as to help us memorize new vocabulary faster.
And, let me make something clear, to this day, even after achieving the level of fluency I’ve achieved, I always, ALWAYS keep the subtitles on when watching a show or a movie.
Pros and cons of using TV series to learn English
Learning English just by watching TV series is easier said than done, however, every bit of work that you put into it will surely pay off at some point, so let’s go over the advantages and disadvantages of using TV shows to learn English.
They’re short and funny - let’s be honest here, how likely are you to watch The Lord of the Rings three times in the span of three days? Unless you’re a weirdo like me, not very likely, right? On the other hand, watching a 20 or 30-minute episode multiple times won’t necessarily feel like a chore, especially if it’s funny! And since repetition is the key to memorization, the more we watch a given episode, the more words we’ll remember.
They contain plenty of idioms - watching a documentary, listening to the BBC or CNN can help you learn plenty of useful formal expressions but not necessarily the language you may need in your everyday life. Shows are great because they teach you and model for you expressions that are used daily and in a number of different contexts, from the least to the most formal.
They speak really fast - you may have given it a go, turned on your computer, found a show you thought you might like on Netflix and then realized you just couldn’t keep up, got discouraged and quit. There’s no shame in that, in many TV shows the actors speak incredibly fast and their pronunciation or accent may be hard to understand.
They contain a lot of idioms - yeah, sure, like we said before, this is great but it’s also a double-edged sword. Too many idioms in a sentence may prevent you from following the story and fully enjoying the show.
The top 5 TV series to learn English
Despite presenting a few challenges (but then again, if they didn’t, you wouldn’t be learning), TV shows are one of the greatest and most economical tools to improve your English. Here are some of my personal favorites.
Disclaimer: This list is pretty limited and it’s solely based on my personal taste but it could be a great place to start.
This 90’s classic is an evergreen, even after nearly 30 years since its first episode came out, it’s still going strong. While some of the jokes are a bit outdated, I still find it smart and funny. The actors speak clearly and not extremely fast.
How I met your mother aka HIMYM
Honestly, this isn’t one of my favorite shows and while I did watch all of its 9 seasons, I never really understood what people saw in it. However, the show is so popular and it’s liked by so many that I could not NOT add it to the list.
It’s probably one of the easiest shows to follow - the story line is incredibly simple (too simple for my taste) and the pace at which the actors talk make it one of the most easily intelligible.
The Big Bang Theory
It took me a while to like this show, but after a few seasons, it finally started to grow on me. Its quirky characters make it fun to watch but be warned, some of the actors (like Jim Parsons and Simon Helberg) tend to speak quite fast. It’s a great show for advanced learners.
I have to say, I may be a bit biased here as I consider this to be one of the funniest shows of all time. The show, however, is fast-paced and because of the slightly neurotic personality of some of its characters, sometimes you’ll have to be really focused if you don’t want to miss anything.
Probably the most popular show in history and soon to become the longest-running, with a whopping 30 seasons and over 600 episodes, it is a gold mine of idioms and everyday vocabulary.
How to use TV shows to learn English
Make no mistake, learning and memorizing new words takes time and patience, so if you think you just need to watch a two-minute clip a couple of times to see major results, think again.
When I was still learning English, these were the steps I’d follow:
Watch the episode one time, leave the subtitles on and try to follow the story line.
Watch the episode again, this time look up the expressions you don’t know, make a note of them (possibly using a monolingual dictionary).
Study the expressions over the course of one or two days.
Watch the episode again (with or without subtitles) - by this point you should understand everything!
I understand this process may not sound all that exciting, but remember this: at the end of the day, if you really want to become fluent in English, repetition is what’s going to do the trick - if you’re exposed to 1 word 10 times, you’re more likely to use it than if you hear 10 different words only 1 time.
What do you think? Have you tried using TV series to improve your English? How did it go?
all over the place: not following specific rules
to this day: even now
easier said than done: more complicated than you would think
pay off: bring good results
go over: consider
weirdo: someone who behaves strangely
feel like a chore: feel like something unpleasant and boring to do
give something a go: try to do something
keep up: follow
double-edged sword: used to say when something can have both positive and negative effects
evergreen: always remaining popular
outdated: too old for its time
aka: also known as
intelligible: easy to understand
grow on me: I gradually like it more and more
quirky: unusual, in an interesting way
biased: showing an unreasonable like or dislike for something based on personal opinions
neurotic: behaving strangely or in an anxious way
it's a gold mine of...: it's full of...
do the trick: bring the desired result