When I first met my wife she already was quite fluent in English and after asking how she achieved this whilst living in a non-English speaking country she said she learned a lot by watching the TV show Friends. Since then, I’ve met a few more people who have been able to improve their English by watching movies and TV shows. To be fair, my wife has a certain talent for learning languages and at the time she was still in school, English was one of her favorite subjects, which is a good motivation for learning anything. She didn’t have a method for learning. She just watched shows and movies she liked and somehow was able to learn. This isn’t going to work for most people, however.
Just sitting down and watching a movie or a TV show in English isn’t going to be enough to improve. Is it possible to learn English by watching something you enjoy? What aspects of language can someone improve by watching English shows? Is there a method for learning as much as possible through movies and TV shows in English? To answer such questions we need to break things down based on learning goals. Watching TV shows and movies to learn English isn’t going to help with all of your skills. Therefore, when you’re using TV shows and movies to study, you need to decide what your aims are and what is the best way to achieve them. English TV shows and movies will help you improve your listening, your vocabulary, your fluency, and your pronunciation and in this article, I’m going to show you how to do each of these.
How to improve your listening comprehension
The most obvious skill you can improve by watching movies and TV shows to learn English is your listening comprehension. It’s not the best method for developing your listening skills but it still has some value because what you’re hearing is supported by things happening on the screen. It’s also great for learning slang and colloquial language because they’re made for native English speakers. The best way to improve your listening comprehension is to watch movies and TV shows with a process.
Before watching, prepare yourself to answer the most important question: what is the movie or TV show about? This question should typically be answered within the first 5-20 minutes of what you’re watching. It’s a simple way to prepare yourself to explore the details. Have a notebook and pen or pencil with you to make some notes as you watch. This will help you check if you’ve answered correctly. Don’t pay attention to words you don’t know. The focus is on your understanding of what is happening in the story. In order to best answer this question, you should break it down into smaller questions:
Who are the main characters?
What is their life like?
Where and when do they live?
What is the problem that they have to deal with?
You should try to answer these questions as best as you can by just watching. If more time has passed and you still can’t answer, then you should go back and watch again. Here’s an example based on the first Harry Potter movie:
Who is the main character: A young boy named Harry Potter.
What is his life like? His parents died and he lives with his uncle and aunt who treat him badly.
Where and when does he live? He lives in Britain during the present time.
What is the problem that he has to deal with? He receives a letter to join a school for wizards called Hogwarts. There, he discovers he is the son of wizards and has the ability to do magic. One day, he must face an evil wizard named Voldemort.
This should be enough information to give you a general idea of what is going on in the story of your chosen English movie or TV show. Once you have these answers, you can move onto exploring the details and how the story progresses.
For listening to the details of a story, you can choose to make any questions you want and make notes to answer them. You will probably want to understand everything but I recommend you limit yourself to a few key questions depending on how good your English is. Here are some examples:
Who are the main characters’ friends and enemies?
What do other characters think of the main characters?
What decisions do the main characters make?
How does the story problem get solved?
These are just a few of the questions you can use. Make sure that you’re focusing on the story and not on small pieces of information. The most important thing to remember is that your English listening won’t become perfect after watching a few movies. You also won’t understand everything, even at a high level sometimes. Set your expectations appropriately and try to enjoy the learning process! You can always use English subtitles if you find yourself struggling.
How to improve your vocabulary
Movies and TV shows are treasure troves of English English words and expressions. You can use them to learn lots of English slang, colloquialisms, and idioms that are regularly used by native speakers. The exercise I’m about to share with you is called “vocabulary mining”. If you’re already at a high level, you can do this exercise immediately if you want. If your English level is intermediate or low, I recommend doing this after you do the listening comprehension exercise in the previous section of this article.
Mining for vocabulary is like it sounds: you’re “digging” through a movie or TV show by watching and note down any “gems” that you find interesting. These “gems” can be anything from words to expressions. You can do this in an open way, where you can pick out any kind of words you want, or you can limit yourself to a particular type of vocabulary:
I typically recommend to students that they choose a specific category because it helps keep them focused and avoid confusion. Think of it as setting a learning goal, which is an important aspect of learning English. Also, try to aim for no more than 5-10 words depending on your level. It’s easy to overwhelm yourself with too many words which can have a negative effect on your English learning. Once you have a list of words, there are a few ways to study them.
First, you can try to guess the meaning from the context. If I were to say to you “I enjoy apples. I eat them every day.” you would probably guess that that “enjoy” is a similar word to “like” because I’m telling you that I’m eating them a lot. There is, of course, a more specific meaning to “enjoy” which you can find out by checking a learner’s dictionary, like dictionary.com or you can buy the best learner’s dictionary. This way you will discover that the word “enjoy” means to do something that is pleasant or gives you a happy feeling. Another way to understand the meaning of new words is to compare different sentences. You can search online for example sentences and compare the use of the word in those sentences with the way it’s used in the movie or TV show. This is a repetition type of method that will take some time to get used to but once you try a few times, you can start using it more often for learning English.
So, now you’ve learned a synonym for the word and its meaning. Your next step is to try making some example sentences and testing your new knowledge with other people. Try using the new words in your next English class. Even if you’re not sure how to use new words you’ve learned this way, the best way to improve is to use them even if you’re wrong because being wrong is an opportunity to learn.
How to improve your fluency
We’ve discussed in past articles about what fluency means. We’ve also discussed some methods for achieving fluency when learning English. In short, fluency is being able to clearly and accurately speak in English without needing to think. Movies and TV shows are great for helping you do this because they allow you to do one thing that you can’t do with real people: you can imitate them. As a child learning how to speak your own language, you spent a lot of time copying what your parents and other people around you were saying. It was adorable doing when you were so young but now that you’re older it would be annoying. The actors in movies and TV shows, though, won’t be annoyed by you so it’s a perfect opportunity to imitate in English what they say and how they say it.
To use imitation for fluency improvement of your English, you need to copy whole sentences or even longer strings of speech if you’re advanced. The best way to start is to identify sentences that contain words you know. Listen to the actor say the sentence a few times then try to copy them. After a few practices, try recording yourself and then comparing what you said with what the actor said. Your goal is to try to match their rhythm as much as possible. Be careful here. Rhythm isn’t the same as speed. You don’t need to be fast; you just need to follow the actor’s intonation. Pay attention to where they have short gaps, when they are making louder noises and when they’re softer. Doing this as much as possible on a regular basis when learning English will not only help your fluency but also your confidence in your speaking.
How to improve your pronunciation
Improving your pronunciation through movies and TV shows is similar to how we learned to improve our fluency. The difference here is that we’re focusing on individual words or short phrases instead of sentences. You should also pay attention to individual sounds as those are often different between languages when compared to English. An example is the way English speakers say the word “culture” in comparison to the French, Spanish and Italians. One recommendation I’ll give you is to focus on words that have sounds you often find difficult or that you often mispronounce. You can even go a step further and find words that might be minimal pairs to add even more detail to your practice. The important step is to always record yourself and compare to the way the actors in the movie or TV show you’re watching are saying the words you’re learning. Essentially, you need to treat the movie or TV show like a model that you want to sound like. It will feel silly at first but as you get used to it, you’ll find that your improvement will be more evident with time.
Learning English by watching movies and TV shows is quite possible as you can see. We looked at some interesting techniques we can use to take advantage of the free resources the actors can provide us. What’s most important is that you need to stick to the method and not get discouraged when you don’t do very well at first.
There you have it! I hope this has been useful. If so, share this article with someone who wants to learn English, follow us on Instagram and try making some examples in the comments below!
See you in the next lesson!