Who says TV is a waste of time?
You can actually learn English with TV series—as long as you have the right shows and the right learning techniques.
Not sure you believe me?
Then just look at the research!
There are lots of language studies that have found unique, effective ways to improve the language learning process that you can apply while watching your favorite TV shows or movies.
Whether it is reviewing a show’s vocabulary at regular intervals or simply turning on the subtitles, you can supercharge your viewing sessions with science-backed learning methods.
So grab the remote and start learning English on TV!
What Types of TV Series Should English Learners Watch?
TV can help English students improve various skills, including listening comprehension, vocabulary building and even conversing.
When you watch a movie, for example, you practice listening to words and phrases in context. The visual elements provide clues to help you understand unfamiliar vocabulary and expressions. As your vocabulary increases and you get more exposure to native speech, you can level up your own verbal abilities, too.
Another great thing about TV is that there is a wide range of engaging material for you to learn from. Here are just a few examples of the different series, movies and genres you can explore:
- Sitcoms: These popular comedies will make you laugh while you learn English. Here are the 10 best ’90s sitcoms for English learners and 10 great modern American sitcoms. You will also find some sitcoms in this list of six great TV shows for listening comprehension practice.
- News programs: Here are nine essential news sources for learning English, plus a guide to learning English through the news.
- Movies: Check out these 10 modern American classic movies for language learning, as well as these seven blockbusters (very popular/successful movies) English learners will enjoy.
5 Science-backed Methods to Learn English with TV Series
Here is what the research says about how to learn English by watching TV!
1. Use the Spaced Repetition Technique with Your Favorite TV Series
Research on language acquisition like this study in the Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior supports a popular language learning technique called “spaced repetition.”
In a nutshell (just a few words), spaced repetition involves reviewing new material (like a vocabulary list, for example) at regular intervals over a period of time. Typically, the intervals between reviews get longer and longer each time.
And in fact, the study above found that language learning is directly tied to both repetitive practice and the space between repetitions. More space between repetitions led to better retention (remembering) of the language concepts.
So instead of cramming (memorizing all at once) 100 new words every day, learners should space out their training sessions across a week or even a month.
For example, if you see a phrase you do not know today, look it up in the dictionary and make a flashcard to review again at the end of the day. Afterwards, you should review the phrase within the following three days, six days, etc. As the above-mentioned research indicates, this process helps to embed (fix) the phrase into your long-term memory, which means you learn more efficiently.
How to watch TV with the spaced repetition technique:
Step 1: Pick an episode (or a scene) in your favorite show.
Step 2: Watch it once and write down new words or expressions.
Step 3: Watch it again after one day, three days and six days, until the new phrases and their sounds stick. It is best to have the subtitles on each time, so you see the words in repetition while recalling their sounds.
Ready to try it?
If you are looking to take your spaced repetition viewing to the next level, try out FluentU. Available as a website or mobile app, FluentU transforms authentic English content, such as TV shows and movie trailers, into personalized language learning experiences.
There are interactive captions that provide in-context definitions, so you can boost your vocabulary while getting exposure to real-world, entertaining TV and videos. Then, with FluentU’s “learn mode” feature, you can practice what you learned through activities and quizzes.
FluentU makes spaced repetition easier by reminding you when it’s time to review vocabulary from the videos. It also organizes the videos you have already watched to make it easy for you to find and re-watch them.
FluentU remembers what you have learned and suggests new, relevant clips, creating a truly personalized learning experience. It is like watching English TV with super learning powers.
2. Schedule English Listening Practice with TV Before Bedtime or Naps
Research carried out at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that an hour nap can significantly boost and restore brain power.
The research involved two groups of people who were given a difficult learning task. One of the groups was permitted to take an hour nap in the middle of the day; the other group had no nap. Researchers found that people in the nap group did much better on the learning task and actually improved their ability to learn.
These results support the hypothesis (idea or guess) that sleep helps clear our short-term memory storage to make room for new information.
The implication of this study goes beyond the advice that we should get enough sleep at night and take naps during the day. English learners can actually adjust their studying habits to be more efficient based on this study. Specifically, you can schedule listening practice with English TV around your bedtime or naps.
How to schedule your TV learning:
Step 1: Half an hour before you plan to go to bed or take a nap, turn on an English-language TV show that you find interesting.
Step 2: Listen actively, taking notes or repeating what you hear out loud.
Step 3: Write a brief summary of the content as well as new things you have learned in English.
Step 4: Set the note aside and get to sleep. Let sleep work its magic.
Step 5: Review your notes the next day. Pay attention to your ability to recall new words. Keep a record of the new information you successfully recall and make flashcards or notes for the information you do not remember.
Best TV series for this English learning method:
Programs created for English learners work especially well with this method, since it is designed to help you retain information. Try watching BBC Learning English before you go to sleep or take a nap. You will wake up with their helpful English language lessons locked in your memory!
3. Use Subtitles While Watching TV Series in English
According to this study published in PLOS ONE, watching subtitled English-language content has a positive impact on English listening skills.
In the experiment, a group of intermediate Spanish-speaking English learners watched a one-hour TV drama with subtitles, while another group watched it without subtitles. After watching, they all took a listening test, and the results from the first group were significantly higher than those of the second group.
The study shows the benefits of reading subtitles as a tool to improve listening skills.
Steps to learn English from subtitled TV shows:
Step 1: Find a TV show that is suitable for your English level. If you are a beginner student, start with recorded shows that you can pause and rewind with ease. Choose something that is short with relatively slow speaking or narration. Children’s TV can be particularly useful.
We will give specific recommendations for every English level below.
Step 2: Make sure subtitles are available for the chosen material. The good news is that major American channels like CBS, NBC and ABC typically offer captions of their content.
If you use a streaming service such as Netflix, English subtitles are available for many shows. You just need to go to “options” or “settings” and turn them on.
Step 3: Time to watch the show! Read along with the subtitles even when you think you understand exactly what is being said. Pause the video and take notes when needed.
Step 4: Review your notes. Do this repeatedly and regularly until you commit the new information to your long-term memory.
Best TV series for this English learning method:
As we mentioned above, authentic English shows at your learning level work best.
- Beginners can try a fun kids’ show with slow-paced language, like “Caillou,” available on Amazon Prime Video with English subtitles.
- Intermediate speakers can watch longer programs like a movie or a documentary. “Mercury 13” is an interesting documentary on Netflix with subtitles that would work well.
- As an advanced learner, you can enjoy learning from the news with in-depth reports on a particular topic like the economy or politics. For something a little more entertaining, you can try the fast-talking, slang-filled drama of reality TV. You may already be familiar with some of these shows, like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
4. Watch Educational Content (on Any Subject!)
According to a study published in Cambridge University’s Studies in Second Language Acquisition journal, language students can learn faster when they are learning in the target language, rather than about the target language.
In other words, if you enjoy history, you might learn English faster by taking a history course in English, as opposed to taking a formal English language course.
The study compared two groups of French language students: one group was in a traditional French class and the other was in a non-language course that was taught in French. Researchers found that not only did the second group become much better at speaking French, they also had a much more positive attitude about learning French.
What the research means to you, as an English learner, is that you can improve your speaking abilities faster if you opt to learn a subject in English. I am not saying you should totally abandon traditional study methods—in fact, the research indicates that traditional language courses are crucial for writing skills. However, learning outside subjects in English can be awesome additional practice for your English speech, as well as for your motivation to keep learning.
Consider this the next time you choose something to watch on TV! Putting on educational material in English will get you engaged with the language and boosting your speaking skills without even realizing it.
How to get the most out of educational TV series:
Step 1: Pick an educational TV program that interests you. There are many subjects you can learn from TV, such as natural science, economics, politics, art and more. What matters most is that the show has something to teach that you are interested in learning.
Step 2: Watch and learn! Pay close attention to the vocabulary. Learning the jargon first will help you build the foundation to converse more fluently and understand the content when it gets more complicated.
However, as the above study indicates, the simple act of learning about a new topic in English will help boost your English skills without you even consciously realizing it.
Best TV series for this English learning method:
Again, it can be on any subject, as long as the show itself is in English. If you like cooking, watch “MasterChef.” If you are interested in the outside world and looking for ideas for your next vacation, consider a travel show like “Rick Steves’ Europe.” If you like cars, try “Top Gear.”
5. Turn on the TV as Often as Possible
According to a study by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center and the University of Illinois, you can learn a language more quickly—and think more like a native speaker—through immersion training, rather than classroom exposure.
Researchers invented a small language and tested a group of adults on their ability to speak and understand it. Some learned the language in a classroom and others learned through immersion (constant/informal exposure to a new language).
The group that had undergone immersion training showed a more “native-like processing” of grammar in the brain, compared to the other group that learned the language in the classroom.
The study’s result implies that you do not need to always sit at your desk to learn English. Just surround yourself with the English sound (e.g., turning on the TV).
If the sound of English, be it a report or a song, is always in the background, your brain absorbs it, learns the patterns, rhythms and even words and grammar rules that you do not know. It is just like a child learning to speak their mother tongue in their early years.
So, listen to English as much as possible!
Here is how to do it:
Step 1: Turn on the TV while you are cooking, cleaning, doing laundry or exercising. You do not need to stop what you are doing if you miss a word or some information. Let the sound wash over you while you get on with your chores.
You can also stream online music shows in the background while working or studying other subjects. That helps, too!
No matter what you want to learn and which skills you want to improve, there is a technique for you. Try turning on the subtitles for your favorite film or switch on the TV while cooking. Schedule language sessions before taking a nap and review what you have learned over a span of time. The best thing to do is to try out a new method, keep a record of your progress and draw conclusions about how it works.
Now you’re ready to learn English with TV… just like a scientist!
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