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.

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