How to use TV Shows to Learn English

Daniela Kristeková

TV shows provide an excellent way to improve your English. Immersing yourself in the stories of others while soaking up new words and phrases and improving your comprehension – it sounds amazing, doesn’t it? But if you want to truly get the most out of the time invested, here are some tips on how to pick the best way to do it (specific examples included).

  1. Choose the right level

It sounds obvious, but it’s truly important – if you choose something too easy and perhaps intended for children, you might get bored quickly. If the level is too advanced, you might get confused and stop enjoying what you are watching. When assessing the level of the TV show, take into the account these things: vocabulary (everyday English in Friends and political terms such as ‘impeachment’ in House of Cards); accents (Cajun in True Blood and Scottish in The Thick of It can make understanding quite problematic); period (older TV shows tend to be more difficult to understand – compare episodes of Doctor Who from the sixties with recent ones).


  1. Choose the right topic

Sometimes it is great to experiment and dive into a completely new area, but to begin with, I would suggest that you choose TV shows connected with something you are already interested in. Are you a fan of the 50s and 60s? If so, try Mad Men, The Crown or The Man in the High Castle – all three are set in the past, but each shows British and American society from a very different perspective. Do you love interviews with celebrities or funny sketches? Try The Graham Norton Show or Conan. If you do choose to try something new, I would recommend you look at the ‘Top TV Shows’ lists on websites like IMDb – there’s a lot of popular and quality content to pick from.


  1. Choose the right way to watch

When considering the best way to watch a TV show, there are three things to look at – dubbing, subtitles and repetition. While you will obviously set the spoken language to English, there is no consensus regarding subtitles. I would recommend setting the subtitles to English, so you are not distracted by the Czech words and can fully focus on English. Regarding repetition, some sources recommend watching the show first in your native language and then switching to English. However, sometimes there is no such option. If you want to improve your understanding of the material, it may be better to watch the same scene a few times, until you are sure you fully comprehend what is going on. Repetitive viewing does take a bit of the fun factor away, so try to find the right balance between enjoyment and learning.


  1. Choose the right way to remember (to make the most of your viewing)

By listening to English material, your comprehension gets better almost subconsciously. You might realise with a surprise that after a few episodes you are not struggling so much and actually getting better at understanding. I’d recommend writing down two types of words – core vocabulary from the TV show you are watching, and anything you find interesting. By core vocabulary I mean specific words that are often repeated – for example for Breaking Bad it might be the word ‘lab’, while for Game of Thrones consider words like ‘knights’ and ‘sword’. You can also note down any words that catch your eye – new words, idioms, colloquial expressions or slang words. Don’t forget to write not only the word or phrase, but also the whole sentence or some notes about the situation in which the words are spoken. Learning new words in context makes remembering much easier. And try to use the new vocabulary in your speaking as soon as possible, so you are enriching your active language as well as your passive vocabulary.

There are many ways in which you can use this wonderful resource to improve your level of English. Ultimately, there isn’t one correct way for everyone, but if you consider various options, you can find the one that is right for you. Besides improving your passive vocabulary and listening comprehension, by watching TV shows you can get an insight into the cultures of English-speaking countries and discover a lot of interesting differences between cultures.