Learn English from TV (A complete guide)

Learn English from TV shows

You can learn a lot of English words and expressions from TV shows. In an earlier post, I showed you 4 key ways to improve your English. One of those keys is to improve your English listening. Watching English TV shows is a great way to do this.
In this post you will get my best tips for learning English with foreign TV programs. Learn what to watch, how to watch it and where to find these shows.

We will start with the most common question…

Should I use subtitles for studying?

Some students ask me – “Should I use subtitles for studying?” They want to know:

Are subtitles good for study? Will they help me with my listening and understanding?
OR 
Are subtitles bad for study? Will reading subtitles will make it too difficult to focus on the audio?

Different teachers and students have different ideas. The truth is..

Subtitles are not GOOD or BAD. The way we use subtitles is what is really important. They can be used in a way that is helpful or used in a way that is not helpful. Let me explain.

Good use of subtitles

Subtitles in your native language

Subtitles in your native language can be useful as you start watching a new TV show, but I would only use them once, the first time you watch an episode.

Language comprehension is important. 

The noun comprehension means – the ability to understand
Comprehension comes from the verb comprehend which means – to understand something fully 

The first time you watch a show it’s good if you understand the theme. It can be frustrating if you don’t know what is happening. Some language can be understood by the actions of the actors in the show, but some cannot. Use the subtitles in your native language one time.

Subtitles in English

Learn English with TV English subtitles

You can use English subtitles to understand the meaning of a situation or a new word or phrase.

You may want to pause your show and turn on the subtitles while the program is stopped. This way you can check out a new word or phrase.

Understand what is being said and then listen again, and again! After that listen a few more times 🙂

Bad use of subtitles

Subtitles can also be a distraction. They can take you away from listening to the English audio.

After the first time, I would not use subtitles in your own language. Reading subtitles can take your focus away from the audio, this is not helpful. 

The same is true for English subtitles. Once you understand the meaning of the audio, turn the subtitles off.
You want to eventually build the habit of watching the show with only English audio.

Think of subtitles as a step that can help you up to the next level. There are times in your study when they are helpful. You also want to recognize when to stop using subtitles to bring your English to the next level.

There is a subtitle service for learning a language that is available on the Chrome browser for the streaming service Netflix. (You can find more info on that below.)

My ideas about subtitles and learning language from TV shows are based on:

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  • Feedback from private English students
  • My own study of Japanese
  • Research of other English teachers
  • My experience as a consultant for Japanese subtitles made for American TV and movies

Learn English from TV – Student feedback

One of my first very students in Japan was an IT manager for a company in Tokyo. He lived in Canada for a year to study English and he had an interesting strategy for learning English from a TV show. He had a DVD set of a TV show called “Friends.” He liked the show because it had lots of conversations about regular topics. Here was his strategy:

  1. Watch 1 episode (or part of an episode) with Japanese subtitles.
    • Use subtitles in your own language to help understand and enjoy the show.
  2. Watch the same episode again with English subtitles.
    • This helps to understand English words if they were spoken very fast.
  3. Watch the same episode again with no subtitles. 
    • English audio only. 100% listening practice.

My student was very happy with his results! I used this part of this technique with my own Japanese study. (more on that below) Here are some tips to help you use this strategy yourself.

Tip #1 – Choose a small piece of video.

To enjoy a TV show or movie you should watch the whole episode or movie with subtitles. BUT when you are studying and you watch to improve your English listening, I strongly recommend watching small bits at a time. 

Choose a conversation or a smaller piece of the episode. 1 or 2 sentences of dialogue is a good place to start. Use smaller pieces and take the time to look up any words or phrases that are new for you.

You can start using longer parts of the video as your listening skills improve. 

A DVD episode of most comedy programs will be around 20 minutes. During those 20 minutes, there will not be 20 minutes of conversation. ~ There are naturally times in the show when no one is talking. Review the conversations that are about a situation from the show. These will be easier for you to understand and easier to use later in your own conversations.

Tip #2 – Watch a show in order. Watch from beginning to end

Start at the beginning of the episode and continue with the episode until the end. If you watch different parts at different times, it may make the story confusing. Especially for non-native speakers.

Watching the episode in the correct order will make it easier to follow the story. Do this and you will progress more smoothly. 

You can review a challenging part many times. (I really recommend this! English review is awesome!) You can go back and review after you have watched the whole episode or stay on one part of the show until you feel comfortable with the meaning.

Tip #3 – Don’t rely on subtitles

I wouldn’t use the English subtitles unless you want to check new vocabulary. For me as a student, when I watch a Japanese TV show with Japanese subtitles, I focus too much on the text and not enough on the audio. Plus the subtitles (or Closed Captions) are not always exactly the same as the words the actor or actress is speaking. 

I sometimes work as a consultant for a student/client who makes Japanese subtitles for English movies. I’ll explain why subtitles are not always the same as the spoken words in the section below. [My work as a subtitle consultant]

Are Closed Captions [CC] the same as subtitles?

Closed Captions are a service for people who can’t hear well. They include the dialogue (people talking) and also any sounds that are important to the show. (Like a phone ringing or a knock on the door.)

Closed Captions

Having captions for the sounds of the show is the only difference between the two. Some languages even use the same word for both meanings.

I live in Japan. My wife and I will watch American TV shows on Japanese television together sometimes. We use Closed Captions for Japanese translation. We can choose English audio or Japanese audio for Western TV shows but there is no subtitle option. Most programs will have closed captions so this is a helpful option. No English captions on Japanese TV though!

If we copy an episode to watch later, my wife can watch the same show with Closed Captions as many times as she likes. This is a great way to review new words and phrases. The next step is to watch them many times with only the English audio. As always choose a small part of a conversation to learn, listen to and review.

TV shows that are good for studying English

What shows are good to learn from?

From my experience and from student feedback I have always thought Friends is a good show to learn English from. I did some research on which shows are good for learning English and I found Friends was also listed on many websites. This is my first recommended TV show. The show Friends has a few benefits. 

  1. It’s a funny show. This show was very popular so they made lots of episodes. (See #2!)
  2. It has 10 seasons. There are 236 episodes to watch. You have many episode choices to learn from.
  3. The vocabulary is natural and common idioms and English slang are often used in the show.
  4. The show was very popular so DVDs and Blu-rays are available in many languages.

Learn English from TV – Example from YouTube

Here is a short clip of an episode of Friends. I have selected an idiom from this show to teach you as an example of how you can learn English from TV.

Read FIRST – Watch SECOND

In this clip, the 6 stars of the show are playing football in the park. A cute Dutch girl is sitting on a bench and watching the game. 2 of the characters, Joey and Chandler, like her and are trying to get her attention.

0:06 Monica says to Joey: 
“Alright look, if I take Chandler out of the running will you be able to focus?”

out of the running. Removed or eliminated from a competition or having no chance of victory.

[I think this expression comes from someone being taken out of a race, they are no longer running] The Free Dictionary

Monica’s plan is to embarrass Chandler in front of the Dutch girl. If he looks bad in front of the girl, she will not be interested in him. Chandler will have no chance with the girl and he will not be competing with Joey. He will be out of the running.

0:26 Monica says to the Dutch girl:
“Whoa, whoa! Tackled by a girl! Betcha (I bet you) don’t see that every day do ya?”

You can keep watching the clip and learn some more English! There is a Closed Caption [CC] button on the YouTube player, but be careful! Those captions are made by a machine and often have mistakes.

Other shows

It’s good to watch a show that you enjoy. If you like the show it’s easy to keep watching. My friends and students have all watched the following shows to help with their English study. 

  • Ally McBeal – Follows the personal and professional life of lawyer Ally.

 Comedy, Drama, Fantasy – 1997 ~ 2002 – 112 episodes (45 minutes)

  • Ugly Betty – Smart but wholesome Betty embraces her unique appearance and independent attitude in the cutthroat world of New York fashion.

Comedy, Drama, Romance – 2006 ~ 2010 – 85 episodes (1 hour)

  • The Big Bang Theory – A woman who moves into an apartment across the hall from two brilliant but socially awkward physicists shows them how little they know about life outside of the laboratory.

Comedy, Romance – 2007 ~ 2019 – 281 episodes (22 minutes)

How to watch these shows (and others)

RENT – Check whatever DVD rental stores are in your local area. Renting a DVD is less expensive than buying. Make sure to rent a TV show when you have time to watch it a few times! Rented DVDs will probably have subtitles in your native language as well as English subtitles.

YouTube – You can find short pieces of TV shows on YouTube. These small clips are helpful to practice some new words or a new expression. You can even find whole episodes of some older shows.

BUY – One benefit to buying a DVD or Blu-ray is that you can watch the same episode many times. This is recommended! You can watch even if you are some place with no Internet connection. These copies of TV shows usually contain subtitles. If the DVD or Blu-ray is from your own country there will probably be subtitles in your native language for you to choose. You can find English subtitles too and possibly more.

If you bought an entire season you can also easily watch from the beginning until the end in order, which can help with comprehension and enjoyment.

*If your DVD or Blu-ray came from and English speaking country you may not have an option to choose subtitles in your own language.

Where to buy DVDs/Blu-rays

Like with renting, check the stores in your local area. Some rental services also sell past copies of DVDs or Blu-rays so you may find a good deal.

Amazon has lots of American TV show DVDs and Blu-rays for sale. They also have service in 129 countries. You may be able to find copies of shows with your native language audio or subtitles. Of course, you will have to check!

Here is a list of countries that can order products from Amazon.
Amazon Global

STREAMING VIDEO – Of the streaming services that I looked at, Netflix seems to be the biggest player. Netflix is available in over 190 countries according to Finder.com

This site also has a page that tells you which streaming services have subtitles. https://www.finder.com.au/best-internet-tv-closed-captions

Learn English from TV – One more option!

I came across an interesting service during my research for this post. This is a Google Chrome extension called Language Learning with Netflix – From their website:

“LLN is a Chrome extension that gives you superpowers over Netflix. It makes studying languages with films/series more effective and enjoyable.”

http://languagelearningwithnetflix.com/

You can read subtitles in English plus the language you choose. You can match the words as you watch. There is a short video on the website.

It lists subtitles for the following languages:
Deutsch, English, Français, Türkçe, Español, Italiano, Magyar, Polski, pPortuguês (Brasil), Српски, русский, हिन्दी, ไทย, 中文 (简体), 中文 (繁體), 日本語, 한국어

*Note* I think this service is quite new. I have not used it but it looks helpful, and it has a free version to try.

Learn English from TV – MY Research

I’m Canadian so my choices here are all TV shows from North America. American movies and TV shows are exported and watched around the world so their idioms and slang get used everywhere.

The slang and idioms used in TV shows from the UK and Australia can be quite different.

I don’t have much experience with TV shows from these places but I did a little research for you and I found a few shows recommended from other sources. I tried to include shows that I have seen myself at least once.

UK

If you have a work, study or travel opportunity that takes you to England, these shows might be helpful for you.

The Great British Bake Off – Bakers attempt three challenges each week trying to impress the judges enough to go through to the next round and eventually are crowned Britain’s best amateur baker.
*This show is on TV in Japan sometimes – the focus is baking but people are talking naturally in the show.

Reality TV – 2010 ~ – 131 episodes (1 hour)

The Office – The story of an office that faces closure when the company decides to downsize its branches. A documentary film crew follow staff and the manager David Brent as they continue their daily lives.
*This show is very funny! I watched these on DVD in Canada and I enjoyed it.

Comedy, Drama – 2001 ~ 2003 – 14 episodes (30 minutes)

Australia

Australian slang and idioms are quite unique and not so common in other English speaking countries. 

If you have a work, study or travel opportunity that takes you to Australia, this might be a helpful show for you.

Neighbours – Australian soap opera exploring the lives and relationships of the residents of Ramsay Street in Erinsborough.
*You can find episodes on YouTube.

Drama, Romance – 1985 ~ – 8911 episodes (22 minutes)

Remember that good shows for learning English will have regular people having conversations. 

Learn English from TV – Dave the student

Learn language from TV

Certain shows in Japan can be helpful to learn a phrase or common idiom, but other Japanese shows are not helpful at all!

I found two classic animation programs that are good for learning Japanese. I watch current episodes, but I call the shows “classic” because they have been on TV in Japan for a long time! The shows I watch are Chibi Maruko Chan and Sazae San.

From Wikipedia:
“On September 5, 2013, Sazae-san was awarded the Guinness World Record for the longest running animated television series in the world. As of November 2015, there have been 7332 episodes aired.”

Below are some guidelines for you to choose your own English shows to learn from.

Good Shows

I learned from my Japanese friends and students that these shows use natural Japanese. The characters in the show have real conversations. As I mentioned in the last sections:

  • good shows for learning English will have regular people having natural conversations. 

For both of the Japanese shows I watch, I will take one phrase, sentence or very short conversation, and focus on that. If I was watching it on TV I would write the expression down so I could read it and repeat it many times. (It wasn’t a recorded copy so I couldn’t repeat it) 

If I was watching a copied episode or an episode I found on YouTube I would repeat the audio many times. *These are classic shows so I could find full episodes on YouTube.

Shows that are not good

Japanese TV has many variety shows. These shows are very popular, but they are not helpful for me to learn Japanese! People talk very fast, and sometimes interrupt and talk over each other.

Talk over meaning
Talking over someone means “starting to talk while another person is still talking.” 

If you are trying to study English avoid talk shows, especially talk shows with an audience. The audience reactions can be noisy and make it difficult to hear what the guests are saying sometimes. 

Learn English from TV – Subtitle Consultant

One of my clients makes Japanese subtitles for Western movies. I have helped my client understand idioms and difficult conversations. This way she can choose the correct Japanese to use for audiences in Japan.

I like this work and I have helped create subtitles for many interesting and popular movies. I have learned a lot about how subtitles are created.

Subtitles don’t always write the exact words that are being said. The job of the subtitle writer is to give you the meaning, but not take too much of your focus from the show. This means that the subtitles will leave out some dialogue if the writer thinks it is not necessary. To get the most of your listening practice you need to focus on the audio. If the subtitles are different from the audio, this can be confusing and a distraction.

Blog post recap

  • Find TV shows that use natural English
  • Use subtitles in your native language only once for comprehension – don’t depend on them!
  • Be careful! Sometimes the audio and subtitles won’t be an exact match! Watching with only audio is the goal
  • Use DVDs & Blu-rays, YouTube or a streaming service like Netflix

I hope this post will help you on your mission to improve your listening skills. Leave a comment and tell about your favorite show. Thanks for reading, and click below to sign up for my FREE English newsletter. Have a great day and keep studying!

Check out these other great blog posts!

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