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660. Using TV Series & Films to Improve Your English

Lots of practical advice and comments about how you can use films and TV series to work on your English. This episode is a recap of some advice in episode 523 with Cara Leopold. Transcript available below.

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Have you heard the last episode of this podcast (#659)? I spoke to Cara Leopold about being stuck indoors during the lockdown. Cara is an English teacher who likes to help her students to improve their English with TV series and films and we know that because of the lockdown, loads of people at the moment are watching more TV and films on platforms like Netflix and are probably thinking about how to use those things to learn English. 

Cara and I talked about that a bit near the end of the last episode, and we also did a whole episode about it a couple of years ago. That was episode 523, called Tips for Learning English with Films & TV Shows.

I mentioned before that I would sum up the main bits of advice that Cara and I gave in that episode. 

So here we are, that’s what I’m going to do now – I’m going to consolidate some advice for learning English with TV series and films. 

Then, when I’ve done that I’ll give you some personal recommendations for British TV shows and films that you can watch on Netflix. 

Learning English with Films & TV – Summary of Advice Given in Ep.523 + more comments

Time and time again we have heard this advice – “Want to improve your English? Just watch TV series and films in English with English subtitles!” 

It seems that people assume that you should just watch TV series in English with English subtitles and you’ll learn English magically as a consequence. People say it all the time, and I do think there is some truth in this. Watching lots of content in English is definitely a good idea, although of course that might not be enough on its own. There are plenty of other things you need to do, including regular speaking practice, writing, plenty of reading, using a systematic approach to learning vocabulary, taking time to understand how grammar works.

I suppose the thing is, there are two approaches that seem to be important in learning a language. One approach involves absorbing loads of English just through reading and listening. This is exposure, or immersion or comprehensible input – whatever you want to call it. You have to see and hear the language a lot if you want to be able to use it properly. 

This is input. It is really important to get loads of English into your everyday life. You must regularly connect with English, get exposure to English and immerse yourself in English and binging on TV series is probably a pretty good and usually fun way to do that. 

Personally I would say that podcasts are the best way, but whatever floats your boat. Ultimately it’s about finding the thing you really want to do. Obviously if you are a regular listener to my podcast then you might agree with me. But if TV shows and films are your thing then go for it. 

The point there is you can get loads of English input from TV series and films in English and there are so many amazing shows and films available to us now. It’s amazing. We are spoiled for choice. Anyway – input is important.

Added to that is the importance of using the language regularly in order to communicate. This is output. So this means doing loads of speaking practice and writing practice in order to develop your ability to express yourself, find your voice, develop genuine fluency without just translating everything in your head. So, plenty of input and output. 

I’m being quite general here but anyway, the point is → you’ve got to spend lots of time with the language in both receptive and productive ways.

Then the other approach is to be more systematic and disciplined – examining the language in some way, understanding how the English language is structured both in terms of grammar but also in terms of pronunciation so that you know how English is not only written but also produced orally, how it sounds when people actually speak it which helps you understand native speakers and also how to speak fluently yourself. It also involves using monolingual dictionaries to expand your vocab and investigate words, doing controlled practice for grammar and pronunciation and finding ways to remember vocabulary.

And throughout all of that you need to maintain your motivation, because enjoying the whole process is vital. If you’re motivated, you’re likely to do more, spend more time on the language, remember more things and generally get into a more positive and confident frame of mind about your relationship with English.

Using TV and films seems to fulfil the first category to some extent (input) because it allows you to immerse yourself in English, spend lots of time absorbing the language and it should be motivating because watching TV and films should be enjoyable. 

It’s also worth stating that learning English doesn’t have to be a chore. It doesn’t have to be a boring thing that you’re forced to do by other people, like teachers or parents. I suppose people often say “Just watch Netflix in English with English subtitles” and this feels like good news because it means “this doesn’t have to be boring homework! It can be enjoyable if you give it a chance”. So, getting addicted to a TV show in English is a good thing for your English. 

But is it just a case of just sitting back and watching all the episodes of Peaky Blinders or any other show that you’re into? What about the other things I just mentioned like speaking practice, writing, pronunciation, studying grammar and vocabulary? Well, it is possible to use TV and films in a more active way in order to achieve some of those things too if you’re willing to do more than just sit back and watch.

So here are some bits of advice which did come up in my conversation with Cara in episode 529 but given again and with a few other comments from me. 

  • Watching to learn English and watching just for pleasure are two different things. Watching in order to learn English might involve thinking outside the box and doing things a bit differently.
  • Using TV and films for learning English is not just a simple or easy way to learn, despite what people say “Just watch stuff in English and bingo you’ll be a native speaker!” It’s not that simple. 
  • In your first language you might just switch on a film or show and then kind of veg out while watching it – without really concentrating. This probably won’t work in English. Be prepared to focus and perhaps be more active while watching, often that mainly involves using the English subtitles, which are a real advantage.
  • I do recommend choosing content that gives you the option to have English subtitles. Watching with subtitles in your language can be useful because you can see how things are being translated and you can compare your language with the English you’re hearing, but generally speaking it’s best to operate only in English so I’d recommend that you forget about subtitles in your language, or watching something in your language with English subtitles. Do everything in English. So, put the audio in English and the subtitles in English too.
  • “So, should I always watch with the English subtitles on?” There are no hard and fast rules about using subtitles. There are advantages and disadvantages to both options.
  • Using English subtitles can help you understand what you’re hearing, especially when you realise that spoken English and written English can be very different. Subtitles can help bridge the gap between how words and sentences sound, and how they are written. You might hear something and then read the subtitles and kind of go “Ooooh that’s what she said! Ahhhh! That’s it then!” which is a great moment in language learning → that kind of “Oh it’s THAT?” moment when you realise something. But watch out because sometimes the subtitles are slightly different to the speech you’re hearing, because they might have to use fewer words than were spoken in order to actually fit them on the screen. But that only happens occasionally. So, an advantage of subtitles is that they help you bridge the gap between what language sounds like and what it looks like. When you listen without subtitles, you will no-doubt miss a lot of what is being said, without realising you’re missing it. 
  • But be aware that if you only ever watch with subtitles you might not develop real listening skills, because you’re basically just reading while you watch and as we know, in the real world, you don’t get subtitles appearing in the air when people speak, unfortunately (well, yet. I expect eventually you’ll be able to get augmented reality glasses or perhaps some kind of biotech which lets you see simultaneous automatic subtitles when people talk, but not yet… that does sound like something out of an episode of Black Mirror…) Anyway, the point is, there are pros and cons of subtitles and no subtitles so you should have both. Experiment with switching the subtitles on and off while you are watching in order to try to get the best of both worlds.
  • Watch stuff more than once. You can watch a film or show several times, especially if you enjoy it or already know it. Some films improve with multiple viewings. So, try watching certain films several times, perhaps first with subtitles in your language, then subtitles in English and then in English with no subtitles at all. You will be surprised at how much more you notice, understand and remember after watching things numerous times. You will probably appreciate the show or film on a new level too, if you do this. There’s nothing wrong or weird about watching more than once. Like I said – think outside the box a bit. 
  • If you’re watching a TV show you can alternate between watching episodes with and without subtitles. Perhaps do one episode with subtitles, then the next one without. If you just can’t understand episodes without subtitles, try watching the episode with subtitles first then watch again without subtitles. Again, don’t worry, that’s not a weird thing to do, it’s fine – because I say so. And anyway, like I said before if it is a genuinely good show, you might appreciate it even more the second time you watch it and this can actually raise the quality of your listening practice. There are no rules here. Watching episodes several times is normal and useful.
  • So, we’ve talked about watching films several times, watching episodes several times, but you don’t have to watch the entire thing again from the start. You could just do it with certain scenes. Watch certain scenes several times, with and without the subtitles.
  • Test yourself on what you heard and check with the subtitles. You could try watching a scene, then trying to explain what just happened, and what people said. Then watch again with the subtitles in order to check. When you explain what you saw, you can do it out loud, with a friend, or just in writing. 
  • You could keep a sort of viewing diary for films or series. Write down little summaries of scenes, episodes or perhaps whole films (although it’s probably best to do it in smaller chunks) then review the scene you’ve written about by checking with subtitles, and re-write your summary if necessary. This is a good way to flip listening practise into productive practise. Remember, it is worth writing in English even if nobody else reads it. It’s just a good idea to practise producing English regularly. Of course it would be better if you had a language partner, coach or teacher who could check your writing and correct errors. Consider finding one on italki – www.teacherluke.co.uk/talk – but doing it on your own is still a good idea.
  • Search for certain new bits of vocabulary when they come up – using monolingual dictionaries. I recommend using online dictionaries like collinsdictionary.com macmillandicionary.com dictionary.cambridge.org Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online www.ldoceonline.com/ or www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/ They’re all decent dictionaries and you can check words and phrases, see examples and crucially hear how the words are pronounced. It’s worth taking a bit of time to get familiar with how these online dictionaries present information to you. It can pay off massively in your learning. Please resist the temptation to just use google translate to get quick translations into your language. It might be a super-fast solution, but it’s not a healthy thing to do for your English long term. Monolingual dictionaries are amazing and can really help you. So use them.
  • Don’t worry too much about certain specific cultural details. Sometimes characters will talk about stuff that you just don’t know about. For example when I watch some American shows they refer to places, people, sports or events which I don’t know about and it does mean I get a bit lost sometimes. It’s normal. You could google those things of course if you really need to and learn as you go, or just don’t worry about them too much. It’s worth remembering that it might not be your listening skills that prevent you from understanding. It could be your general knowledge too. 
  • Try transcribing certain scenes – especially if you thought it contained really cool dialogue. Then watch again with the subtitles to check your transcription. (I made that suggestion earlier, but there it is again)
  • It’s not just a case of what you’re doing while you’re watching. Think about doing things both before and after you watch too. In fact, doing some preparation before you start watching can really help you.
  • Before you watch a film or TV show, check online reviews or summaries to help prepare yourself. Being prepared can help. If you know the general storyline or tone of the thing you’re watching, it can help to prevent you getting lost. Watch out for spoilers though. Maybe you can search for a spoiler-free review of the thing you’re going to see, this can really help put you in the right place before you actually click PLAY. 
  • Similarly, after you’ve watched you can read online reviews of what you’ve watched. That way you can add some extra reading practice to your listening, and you will be a lot more engaged and invested in what you’re reading. Personally I like to read reviews or re-caps of episodes of shows I’ve watched. It helps me understand what I’ve seen and also I like to read other people’s opinions on episodes. Websites like Den of Geek, Vulture, The Independent or The Guardian often do episode recaps of the big TV shows. Read them! It can also help you to appreciate subtle details that you’ve missed and you’ll pick up bits of English from the articles you’ll read. Go the extra mile. It will pay off for your English later. If you find those online newspaper reviews to be a bit “wordy” and opinionated then consider reading IMDB or Wikipedia plot summaries instead as they are often written in slightly more plain English.
  • I’d also recommend finding YouTube reviews of the films or series you’ve watched. Just go to YouTube and search for the title of the episode or film you’ve seen plus the word review and see what you get. You’ll find this is a great way to get more effective listening input because you’ll be fully engaged in what you’re listening to. You’ll be on the same page as the person speaking because you will understand all their reference points and you’ll be interacting with their opinions and thoughts a lot more. This is an important part of turning listening input into intake → language that is more likely to stick with you.
  • Be a little selective in your viewing choices – pick stuff that you’d normally enjoy, and remember that films and TV shows can contain very “mumbly” dialogue, and even just “grunting” during long fight scenes. Try to pick films that are pretty simple and perhaps comedies that focus on the dialogue. Also, as Cara mentioned before, some content is in a certain kind of register that might not be applicable to the English you need to use. Documentaries, for example, feature a different style of English than conversational English that you might hear in content with natural dialogue between people.
  • Pronunciation & Speaking → There’s the concept of shadowing, which works for a lot of people. This involves basically repeating what you hear. It can be a good way to essentially transcribe orally. I mean, you’re attempting to identify word for word what is being said and to replicate speech patterns. You should also check those useful subtitles to help you identify what you’re getting right and wrong. When you come across words and phrases you don’t know, those are opportunities to expand your vocabulary.
  • It’s hard to practise your speaking on your own. You can essentially do what you’re doing with writing (like keep a diary, summarise things you’ve seen, give your opinions about what you’ve seen and so on) but just do it with your mouth rather than with your fingers, but speaking works best when you’re speaking to another person. So, you could talk to the person you’re living with if they’re up for it. Otherwise, consider italki again.
  • I want to mention motivation again, and the importance of enjoying what you’re watching or listening to. If you’re not enjoying something you’re watching you definitely have permission to stop and choose something else instead. It might take a little while to find the right show for you. But don’t force yourself to watch something you don’t like.
  • Also, I’ve mentioned various things in this episode, like watching scenes or episodes several times, writing things down and then comparing with subtitles, shadowing, writing reviews,  and all that stuff. I do think it will help, but I know from experience that most people out there probably won’t bother to do it. That’s up to you. If you don’t take initiative and do some of those things, or at least try them a bit, I suppose you’ll never know how they can help you. If you don’t do anything more than just watch, then fine. Don’t feel bad about it.
  • Understanding films and TV can be really hard! Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand 100%. Even in our first languages we don’t always understand what’s going on in films. So, don’t beat yourself up if you’re not able to understand it all.
  • Of course you can always listen to LEP or whatever other listening resource you have that you can mostly understand, but it’s worth pushing yourself sometimes. Hopefully you get that from my episodes because they feature a mix of me speaking on my own which is probably easier to understand, with me speaking to guests which is harder. But hopefully you’ll find that you understand my content enough for language acquisition to happen. What’s my point here? I suppose it’s that you’ve always got episodes of my podcast to listen to, but you should also explore films and TV shows too, and try to do more than just sit back on the sofa in comfort while doing it. Try to be a bit more active if you can.

There is probably a lot of other advice that could be given. If you have other things to add, why not share them in the comment section.

Some Netflix Recommendations for British English

There are loads of great shows in American English of course, but I’m trying to narrow my focus to British English stuff here.

Here are some shows and films in British English which are on Netflix, which I have seen and can recommend.

I’ll mention the title, then talk about the show/film a little bit.

These things are all available on Netflix where I am (France) at the time of recording this (April 2020). You can probably find a lot of them elsewhere too, including on DVD.

Some of these shows you will have seen before, others will be new to you.

I’ll try to mention what kind of English you can hear in these shows, including accents.

TV Series

  • Black Mirror
  • Sherlock
  • The Crown
  • After Life
  • Bodyguard

Films

  • Shaun of the Dead
  • Hot Fuzz
  • Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels
  • Snatch
  • Remains of the Day
  • Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  • Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” 
  • Wallace & Gromit – The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Stand up Comedy

  • James Acaster – Repertoire
  • Greg Davies – You Magnificent Beast
  • Jimmy Carr – The Best of Ultimate Gold Greatest Hits

Plus plenty of others – just use the search bar.

OpenCulture.com –> Lots of free TV, films and documentaries

Also, check out www.OpenCulture.com and spend some time looking through the long list of free documentaries, TV shows and films there. For example, I found a documentary about Pink Floyd which was really fascinating.

Song

Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Suede – Lyrics and chords here tabs.ultimate-guitar.com/tab/blue-swede/hooked-on-a-feeling-chords-753575