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Learning English through a TV series

This is a true story I often tell my students.

Quite a long time ago, I went out with an Italian who was relatively new to London. He hardly spoke any English when we met, and we used to have conversations, negotiating meaning in Italian and the little Spanish I knew, with a huge Italian-English dictionary between us. Shortly after we met, I gave him a simple gap-fill exercise that required him to transform the verbs into the past tense, and he spent about 5 minutes understanding the instructions ‘Fill in the gaps with the suitable verbs’, and getting quite frustrated. I soon realised that it was quite impossible to teach someone whom I was involved with.

Watching TV together was always quite a challenge and the psychological block he had grew as he struggled to understand what he was hearing. Finally, I suggested that we watch DVDs of the American series 24 together and assured him that we would have English subtitles on, and that he should feel free to pause at any point and I could either try and explain what was happening, or we could check the dictionary together. Very reluctantly, he agreed and these subconscious English lessons began.

The first 5 episodes took us ages to get through as he would yell ‘stop’ every other second. But as the general plot and the characters of the series became clearer, it became easier for him to deduce meaning from the background information he now had. And as the storyline developed, he became more interested in what was going to happen, and was happier to deal with the ambiguity of certain words. He found himself not wanting to pause the DVD when he could grasp the gist of each scene, especially when it would interrupt the flow of the action on screen.

One day, as I was watching TV, he walked into the room and started watching the TV programme with me. About five minutes later, he exclaimed, ‘There are no subtitles on!’ I was quite amused as I had thought it was something he would have noticed immediately, but instead he said, ‘I understood everything! And I didn’t even realise the subtitles weren’t there!’

We went through 3 seasons of 24 in 3 months (that’s about 72 hours of TV) and a couple of months after that, he proceeded to take the Cambridge First Certificate in English. Bear in mind that he had not had any formal English instruction up to this point, and had not really spent much time reading or writing in English (aside from text messages to me). To my surprise, he not only passed the exam, but had an ‘Exceptional’ in his reading paper and an ‘Excellent’ in his writing!

So here’s why I strongly recommend watching TV series with subtitles to any student.

  1.  You don’t have to keep getting to know new characters and new plotlines as it is with films. The background knowledge of the story helps you deduce meaning from context more easily.
  2. Words, phrases and grammatical structures often repeat themselves in a TV series. We looked up the Italian translation of the word ‘to threaten’ and ‘threat’ about 5 times when watching the first 2 episodes of 24, but by the 25 time, he not only understood what it meant but also how it was used.
  3. Reading subtitles does help one’s listening skills. One is able to not only hear the words and phrases but also make the connection between how it’s said and how it’s written. After some time, the brain starts to associate the way things are pronounced and the individual words that actually make up the utterance.
  4. We often use prediction stages when providing receptive skills practice in the classroom mainly because the very act of predicting helps better understanding of the text, regardless of whether our predictions are right or wrong. We predict the end of the story as we read the beginning of it. We predict the end of a sentence before we finish it. We predict the other half of a collocation before seeing it. And this is a skill that everyone uses subconsciously in our L1. We often try to help our learners transfer those skills when reading/listening in an L2, but when watching a fast-paced TV series like 24, the learner starts to use those innate prediction skills automatically as they get more involved in the plot.
  5. There’s nothing like getting addicted to a good series. You will soon forget that you’re doing it to improve your English and become genuinely interested in the storyline. This interest motivates you and propels you to watch one episode after another as the excitement builds. Before you know it, you’ll have had hundreds of hours of listening/reading practice, alongside being exposed to hundreds of lexicogrammatical structures. That’s more exposure than any English course can provide.

So what TV series would you get your teeth sunk into?

Here are my top 3 criteria when picking a TV series.

  1. Go for something that doesn’t feature too many social or romantic scenarios because they tend to be heavily laden with phrasal verbs, colloquialisms and slang. (Sex in the City is out then…)
  2. If you want to go for a comedy series, ensure that the comedy doesn’t depend too heavily on witticisms, plays on words or cultural references. (that immediately excludes The Thick of It and Yes, Minister).
  3. More important than the first 2 criteria is this: Ensure it’s a genre you love. Motivation rules.

So, what would you watch? Here are 20 suggestions I often give my students.

  • 24 (of course)
  • Dexter 
  • Prison Break
  • The Office (UK or US version)
  • Lost
  • Desperate Housewives
  • Six Feet Under
  • Ally McBeal
  • The West Wing
  • Heroes
  • House
  • Modern Family
  • Lie to Me
  • CSI
  • Fringe 
  • Supernatural
  • The X Files
  • True Blood 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • The Killing (new US version)

Are there any you would add to this list? I’d like to know what works for you.

About chiasuanchong

I am a teacher and teacher trainer in the EFL industry, and have been teaching General English, Business English and exam classes for the last 9 years. I am interested in teaching approaches and methodologies, especially in Dogme and coursebook-less classrooms, and Sociolinguistics, and am fascinated with the interplay between culture, communication, language and thought.

45 responses »

  1. I suspect 1) he had an extremely good motive for learning, and 2) you were an excellent teacher ;)
    But, yes, I do agree about subtitles, and motivation works wonders. Remember your story about a teenager learning Japanese…? ;) That’ll have to go on another interview!
    Have a good Sunday!

    Reply
    • That teenager was me, Chiew! ; )
      I learnt Japanese from listening to Japanese pop music and watching lots and lots of music variety programmes and talkshows featuring my favourite pop group when I was a teenager…heh heh…

      Reply
  2. Hi! I fing this a very interesting way to approach teaching a new language but what about the productive skills? With videos you are fostering receptive skills. What’s the next step after watching those series in a formal classroom environment?

    Reply
    • Thanks Denise for your comment. Of course, this is only one aspect of the learning. The learner will have to get some genuine interaction going in order to use the language he has learnt. I wouldn’t promote throwing the baby out with the bathwater… But a lot of my learners who come all the way to London to learn English simply spend about 3-5 hours a day in the English language classroom and hardly have much to do with the English language outside the classroom. Encouraging them to watch a TV series outside the classroom for example is one way of increasing their exposure to the language alongside improving their receptive skills. But I don’t really screen any TV series in the formal classroom as it’s more about the extensive periods of time the learner spends watching the TV series in their own time. What I might do to encourage them is to show some trailers of the show to arouse their interest.

      Reply
      • Great! I agree with you. Most of what is taught in a formal classroom situation is normally not useful when the student has to face a real life situation. I was just asking about the other skills since I’m planning to teach English to my husband who doesn’t like Enlgish at all. So, watching a TV series is a great way to motivate him being watching television or watching films his fav free time activity :)

        Reply
    • I’ve shown TV episodes in class (Friends, Modern Family, Fawlty Towers, etc) and used them to help develop speaking or writing too. One way is below:

      Before watching, you can lead in with a picture or still of the programme or characters. Get students to discuss in small groups – eg – Have you seen it before? What kind of show do you think it is? Do you usually watch that kind of show? Why/why not? etc. If some have seen it, let them tell a little about the characters, etc.

      Watch part of the show, with a task that doesn’t involve too much writing yet. When you stop, give students time to complete the task, then discuss the task and what they saw with their partner. Feedback, then get the predicting about what will happen next.

      Watch more to check their predictions. Then get them discussing: – What happened, their response to what they saw, what might happen in the next episode, etc.
      You can also have relevant thematic follow-up questions – what is a show you love from your country? / Do you believe in vampires, ghosts, etc? depending on what the show was.

      Homework, write a summary of the episode, a personal response text, introduce a show they like and reasons etc.
      And talk to a friend, classmate, neighbour about the show you saw today.

      That’s just one style – there are so many other ways to bring in productive skills. Hope this helps.

      PS – Great post CHIASUANCHONG – thanks a lot.

      Reply
  3. Great post. Motivation is 99% of it. And that’s Chomsky speaking! (or I think he said 95%). As you suggest, the underlying “scenario” really provides context as you get to know the people/characters. That’s key. But I do think you need corrective feedback and to be producing the language you hear in the tv shows – somewhere along the line. it isn’t all input. However good that input.

    Good reminder for sure. I hope you don’t mind if I mention parts of this on the EnglishCentral blog. It fits well with what we are doing – using authentic media to get students learning, happily learning English.

    cheers,

    David

    Reply
    • Hi David and Mrs Khan. Thanks for your comments. With regards to the issue of corrective feedback and fluency, I’m going to quote a comment I made earlier on on this post…
      ‘Of course, this is only one aspect of the learning. The learner will have to get some genuine interaction going in order to use the language he has learnt. I wouldn’t promote throwing the baby out with the bathwater… But a lot of my learners who come all the way to London to learn English simply spend about 3-5 hours a day in the English language classroom and hardly have much to do with the English language outside the classroom. Encouraging them to watch a TV series outside the classroom for example is one way of increasing their exposure to the language alongside improving their receptive skills. But I don’t really screen any TV series in the formal classroom as it’s more about the extensive periods of time the learner spends watching the TV series in their own time. What I might do to encourage them is to show some trailers of the show to arouse their interest.’

      Reply
  4. Thanks for this. I teach ESOL and Skills for Life in the UK, so much of what is covered in the classroom is directly relevant to the students. However, it doesn’t always develop fluency and I’ve often thought of using a mix of literature (short stories) and a TV prog to help them, but have shied away from doing so through a combination of mainly lack of time and worries of what would be ‘suitable’ (and bit of cowardice too!). I had the old TV series Bewitched in mind – it was fairly straightforward, funny and innocent – but one teacher I know has used the movie Green Card successfully (familiar themes of immigration etc). Either way, I can see the potential for developing knowledge of idioms to straightforward recounting to prediction, summary and discussion skills. Thanks again – I think you might have helped spur me on to try this when we start again in September!

    Reply
  5. Hello, I am Dallas Degenhardt and I am an ESL Instructor. I am most impressed by the info provided by the author. Great work!!!

    And I would like to take the privilege to inform my fellow ESL instructor that a great opportunity waiting for them at Guangdong Peizheng College in Guangzhou, China.
    So best wishes to all, Dallas Degenhardt.
    Just check out the link below for any further details:

    http://www.teachergig.com/1711/china-teachers-needed/

    Reply
  6. Hey Chia,

    Great post! That relationship sounds tough…communication barriers like that tend to be very hard to overcome, even with Jack Bauer!

    I started learning English by watching Monty Python’s Flying Circus with subs on because 1) it was (is and always will be) hilarious and 2) because back then it was the only thing English on Swiss TV that wasn’t dubbed. To this day, I still sound slightly British (and have a rather query sense of humour).

    Watching something in English with subtitles is enlightening also because it shows you how different written and spoken English are. If you come from an L1-background with a phonetic writing system (like German or Japanese), it is very frustrating to encounter words like ‘minute’ or tough/though/thou/trough. Learning that things are written differently than they’re said is a huge eye-opener.

    It doesn’t work for everyone, though. A friend’s Japanese wife has been living in Australia for more than three years and she’s learning English the Subtitle Way. The problem is, she is now so dependent on them that she refuses to watch anything without subtitles! At first it didn’t bother me and I thought that she just needed time but for some people, it just doesn’t work. The training wheels need to come off at some point! Any tips on how we could wean her off them? She works in a Japanese restaurant and her (Australian) husband only speaks Japanese with her, so she’s living in this little J-bubble and is wondering why her English isn’t getting any better…

    Cheers,

    Guido

    Reply
  7. I’m italian I was searching exactly for this, someone that suggest me some tv series. I’ve seen the trailer of first season of 24, they talk so quickly. I hope to manage that oneday…

    Reply
  8. Even though I am a big fan of 24 (like you, Chia) I’ve never tried using it with my students. If I do, I’ll probably focus on the following lexical chunks:

    1. Set up a perimeter
    2. Reposition the satellite
    3. (smb/smth) remains an active protocol
    4. Open up a sub-socket
    5. Call him on a dry channel

    LEO :)

    P.S. If you liked 24 you’ll love Homeland. Is it out in the UK yet?

    Reply
    • Hi Leo,
      Hahaha…I love those chunks!
      Would like to add two more of my favourite though…

      6. You can run point for me.
      7. We are a go!

      Chia

      PS: No, I haven’t seen Homeland, although, yes, it’s out and some of my friends like it…
      PPS: More than 24, I’m a HUGE fan of Dexter! I think it’s the best drama series ever!

      Reply
      • Hi Chiasuanchong,
        I’m also a great fan of Dexter and I agree with you that’s the best series ever.
        However, about learning English with tv series and subtitles, I have a little doubt. I mean that It’s more easy for someone who’s living in London and with a English friend to improve his/her skill after 3 months. But what about someone living in other country where English is not spoken ?
        Did you already experienced someone who improved his learning in this way ?

        Reply
  9. what about the Mentalist?

    Reply
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  11. Hi,Im a boy from IRAN & good to find this place for introducing tv shows…
    Im a learner and trying to learn with many strategies,one of them is “Watch a TV-series”

    I wanna to add “EXTR@” to your list babe,because its very useful for me…

    What do you think about that?

    Reply
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  13. Although I started my avalanche of TV series addictions with “Gossip Girl”, I would add “How I Met Your Mother” and “Doctor Who” to that list – they’re useful, I guess, especially for those who have some “basic” knowledge of English but want to improve it :)

    Reply
  14. The list is great but “House” is a little hard to understand, especially for the very beginner learners … What about “Friends” ?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment. I suppose most of these dramas would be difficult to understand for very beginner learners…but of course, the action ones have that to help the learners along.
      Friends is great, but I’m a little careful with comedy and the play on words and the sense of humour could be hard for some students to understand. But my students seem to love Friends.
      C

      Reply
  15. Am realy like watching 24 series, it intresting and feel me improving my english but is it quite difficult to understand whole contex some times because they are speaking very fast, and some times you get lost.. but i hope one day i will grasp all the info,,thanks the Author,

    Reply
  16. Hello. I am in 11 class and i want to improve my english by watching tv series with english subtitles. I am focusing on british english language because I am going to hold IELTS exam and I want to study in UK (Scotland) after graduating 12class. So my question is: if i want to improve British English language, should I only watch British English TV series or i can watch American English TV series too?

    Reply
    • Hi Domas,
      I think that you should try and expose yourself to the English language as much as possible. And try and watch a TV series that you would be interested in – something you would enjoy. At this stage of your learning, it doesn’t really matter if the series is in British English or American English. The series will help improve your overall range of vocabulary and help you with your sentence structures, but ultimately, you have to make the English your own. Good luck with the IELTS exam and all the best for your studies in the future!

      Yours,
      Chia

      Reply
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  18. Where can I find tv shows with eng sub?
    Best Regards
    Isabel

    Reply
  19. Hi Chia.
    Thank you for sharing your experience with your Italian friend. I do the same to improve my English. The only problem is that all of the series I watch are in American English and what I need to practice for my Cambridge Exam is British English. For this reason I started to watch The Apprentice UK but I’d prefer something more “everyday”-like.
    Do you happen to know of any “useful” UK series?
    Thanks and best regards.
    Matia

    Reply
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  22. I was writing lists of TV seris for Russians so often that I finally made one at IMDB.com:

    http://www.imdb.com/list/mkiEwur_r8w/

    The most important criterion is “addictability”, i.e. the ability of a TV series to hook you and keep you coming back. The next most important criterion is quality–as long as you are going to spend your time watching TV, watch something good! In my many years of dealing with languages, TV series offer the best ROI; I know a couple Russian guys who learned *perfect* American English without ever having visited an English-speaking country, largely (in later stages) by watching good TV series (not just to practice English, but because they enjoyed the show).

    Reply
  23. I want to do this, except I am english and would like to learn Italian. Can you recommend any tv shows that are of the same quality as these that are originally italian? I like all the shows in your list so anything similar would be great. I dont want to watched dubbed programmes because I think there is always something missing in translation.

    Reply
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  26. What do you think about Mad Man, my job is graphic designer, and I think that to watched this series is best for me.

    Reply
  27. I’d like to add another series – “Firefly”.

    Reply
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  29. Aditya Jagadeesan

    Really good post. I’m learning Japanese right now through anime and taling to other people. I want to know your opinion on learning to write in other languge what might help to accelerate the process. I’m currently in the US, but interact with people from different places all the time. also could you point me in the direction of what kind of material you used for your learning of japanese?

    Reply
  30. Hi, I have been teaching English for some time now, and Im coming to a dead end in my resources and motivation. I have not watched ANY TV for 20 years. I hate it. But recently, I have started watching Lie to me and found myself investing time, energy and concentration on that. At a certain point I realized I was learining a lot of new words, expressions, slang (Im not a native speaker) and things from watching the series. It was then that I thought I could bring some chapters of that series to the classroom. Now Im preparing my classes for next term based on some chapters of Lie to me (1st season), Alphas and Life (Sir David Attemborough´s fascinating series). Your post gave me extra motivation and renewed my fuel to continue on my plans for next term at my school. Ill be back to you and let you know how it evolves. Thanks a million.

    Reply
  31. I always thought that movies or shows can help improve a person usage of foreign language. Your story is a clearer justification.

    Reply
  32. Watch TV Series to learn english works perfectly to me. I also like to watch documentaries and read the newspaper. The newspaper is the most interesting in my opinion, because we can learn everyday.

    Reply

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