Learning English from 'Friends'


"I learned a lot of English from watching Friends," a Turkish student told me recently. 

"The TV comedy from the 1990s?" I asked, surprised. "Yes, of course," she replied. "I love that series! I have seen every episode."

I did not understand at first. How can you learn English from watching a comedy show from fifteen years ago?

I quickly realized what I was missing. Watching Friends is fun.

English teachers sometimes pay so much attention to teaching language rules -- grammar, vocabulary, syntax, pronunciation -- that we forget that language is not something you simply memorize, like math or science. Language is communication between people.  

What better example can you find of people speaking English -- and having fun -- than good-looking actors and actresses in comedic situations? 

One Taiwanese student of mine was obsessed with Sex and the City; she said she was very similar to Carrie, but she wished she was more like Samantha. She watched every episode several times. A Chilean student told me he had a 'crush' on Cobie Smulders, the actress who played Robin on How I Met Your Mother. An Indian student says he is a big fan of the science fiction TV show Black Mirror. He loves the dark-themed stories and interesting characters. 

In reality, we learn English words and phrases from many sources outside of ESL class. And we learn best when we are enjoying ourselves. 

We all remember our favorite teachers: They made us laugh as well as think during their lessons. Or we look up and remember the meaning of a word or phrase that we read in an adventure story, or heard in a favorite song. 

We watch TV, listen to the radio, read books, attend plays, and see concerts. We seek out performers we like. They make us feel happy.

Whether we realize it or not, we are actually improving your language listening skills when you watch a show like Friends

To understand what is happening in the story, we listen carefully to what each character says. We rewind and watch certain moments over and over to make sure we understand the situation. And we pay greater attention to the words spoken by actors that we like.

On TV and in movies we hear words and phrases and we may not fully understand the meaning. However, if we look at the context of a story, we might understand the meaning. 

For example, if a TV character says, "Look at all this commotion," and the next image is a busy street with lots of traffic and people and noise, you are more likely to understand the meaning of the word "commotion" than simply reading the definition in a dictionary: On TV, you can see what "commotion" actually looks like. 

Movies and TV cannot replace what you learn in English classes. However, watching Rachel and Ross on Friends argue about whether to get back together for the eighth time can be a much more fun way to learn how Americans really talk than studying your TOEFL book. 

Tom Penketh