english skills

How can I learn English from TV shows? Or even build English skills?

No one can deny that television shows are one of the best resources for learning another language.  Every episode consists of multiple scenes embedded with informal speech patterns and formal dialogues.  At the click of a button, viewers have the ability to pause, to play, or to rewind these scenes if they do not comprehend the plot or if they miss a critical detail.  Moreover, viewers have the ability to control the video speed and to add subtitles when characters speak too fast or when characters speak with unfamiliar accents.  This is all fine and dandy; however, you want to know how can I learn English from TV shows, right?  There are two approaches: the passive learning approach and the active learning approach.

Passive Learning vs. Active Learning

The passive learning approach, to be succinct, is a mode of learning where you receive and where you process the information on your own.  In terms of watching TV as a foreigner to the English language, passive learners will try to connect context clues such as body language, tone of voice, and background settings with foreign words or foreign phrases to guess what is going on. These are normally the people who will say, “I heard that in a Hollywood series before,” or “Some guy wrote this in a funny skit.”

The active learning approach, on the other hand, is a mode of learning where viewers engage with incoming information.  As far as watching TV in English as a foreign language, active learners will reenact scenes with friends in a showboating manner.  Interestingly enough, they repeat the words from the script, without knowing what the script even means, so much that something in their minds clicks on cognitively.  These are normally the people who learn English quickly by accumulating routine phrases from everyday interactions and music.

Viewers can use one approach or both approaches, but the quality of the English in the show will determine how much you improve.  Just think about it!  If the TV show is full of slang and local expressions, how can you really improve your English capability?  As far as English quality, not all TV shows are created the equal, right? So, if you ever thought “Does watching TV shows improve English?”, then the answer is yes; however, these TV shows must have a high percentage of formal dialogues.

Unlike most of my colleagues in Second-Language Acquisition and Linguistics, who believe that TV shows with repetitive plots are best, I think that shows with different plots and a seamless backstory improves English skills the most.  The top candidates are normally legal dramas, medical dramas, and crime thrillers. Let’s check out some examples.

What are the best TV series to improve English skills?

  1. Law & Order, which has more than twenty seasons beyond three franchises, is a legal drama that swings the pendulum from guilty to innocent among characters who are associated with ethical dilemmas, dark impulses, and deviant behaviors. Each episode has a unique plot that is inspired by real-life events and each episode is weaved together by a common backstory that makes viewers question the integrity of the cast altogether.  Within this TV series, English learners are exposed to formal use through court proceedings, skillful interrogations, and ongoing investigations.  Other TV series, which fall in this genre, include Suits and The Good Wife.  This is great for Legal English and Business English.
  2. The medical drama, The Good Doctor, is a rebroadcasted show that explores the difficulties of a gifted doctor named Shawn Murphy who has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Due to this condition, the script is written technically because Dr. Murphy can neither understand social cues nor recognize the meaning of figurative expressions.  This opens the door for language learners to understand comparatively how intended messages can be misconstrued and how messages are communicated properly without confusion.  Other TV series, which fall in this genre, include House and Grey’s Anatomy.  This is great for Medical English.
  3. For students, who love conspiracies, The Blacklist is a crime thriller that is enriched with the neutral English accent and the English syntax. As a native English teacher, who encourages prescriptive grammar, I am impressed at how the actors and the actresses push themselves to follow a highly formal script in their pursuit of high-profile criminals every episode.  Many students normally want teachers to illustrate what quality English is and this show provides countless examples.  Once again, The Blacklist has a seamless backstory that glues all of the episodes together.  Another TV series, which falls in this genre, is Homeland.  This is great for Comprehensive English.

As mentioned before, your ability to learn English and to improve your English skills is directly proportional to the quality of English used in the TV series and the type of learning approach – passive learning, active learning, or both.  My recommended shows above will be more than sufficient to help you reach a new level.

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