Rebecca Wagoner: Learning English Through Pop Culture

The most common question I’m asked by ESL learners when we first meet is, “How can I become fluent in English?” The answer to this is tricky, because it truly depends on the individual and a number of factors, such as agreeing on what fluency even means. It’s my job to help people become fluent, so I like to give them some real advice that I’ve learned from observing people who speak English as a second language. The learners I’ve met who emit the most confidence with their abilities in English are those who also happen to be well-versed in pop culture.

A learner’s ultimate goal in achieving fluency should be to feel comfortable speaking and writing in a foreign language. Part of that fluency means easily understanding other people, and eventually laughing at jokes and understanding sarcasm. The challenge in achieving this is that the material available in a typical foreign language class tends to cover more formal language skills and grammar, which might fall short when it comes to making friends or developing an identity within a second language. Spoken language is much more nuanced than a textbook can explain.

So how can students learn the depths of real, “natural” English without being fully immersed in it? In short, by watching TV series, movies and online videos. It seems that the next best thing to living abroad is watching people abroad. The type of language in pop culture has a raw edge that is chock-full of different accents, dialects, slang and even mistakes or deliberately incorrect words like “ain’t.” The students I meet who talk with me about the latest episodes of “House of Cards” and “Stranger Things,” for example, are the students who are speaking much more naturally and comfortably about their daily lives.

It has been my experience that being able to grasp the idiosyncrasies in conversations on the big screen translates to a better understanding of the dialogues and quirks of real life. When people watch movies in another language, they absorb phrases they’re more likely to use themselves and they learn a certain level of social expectations within that culture. This familiarity and repetition pulled from pop-culture references helps establish an internal system of acquired language that is especially helpful when it comes to speaking fluently.

So all those reruns of “Friends” might not actually be a waste of time after all. The movies and shows you watch could be helping you form the very language you use to speak.

I suggest finding a show that resonates with your interests and watching it with English subtitles. Choose a show that’s well-paced for your level of understanding—you should be able to tell if it’s a good fit within the first episode. As a basic rule of thumb, if you’re able to follow the storyline of the first episode and you enjoy it, then it’s a good fit. If watching the show frustrates you and you miss half of the dialogue, try watching something with simpler subject material that you can understand with less effort.

For those who don’t have enough free time to start a new series or watch an entire movie, YouTube and Vimeo have a lot of short films that may work better for you. Simply type in “short films” in the search box of the site you prefer, and you’ll find a long list of shorts that range from one to 45 minutes long. I recommend these for someone who’s looking for entertainment without committing to a schedule. Remember to choose a category you’re interested in, whether it’s comedy, horror, drama, animation, or whatever you’re in the mood for.

If you prefer to watch more practical content, I recommend checking out TED.com. TED talks are relatively short speeches designed to share an idea, and the topics cover a wide range: science, education, technology, health, diversity, art, music, humor, business—and the list goes on. These are great for a quick, informative and inspirational listening session. When you go to TED.com, click “Watch” on the top panel, then “TED talks.” Next, you can browse through interesting topics, select English as the language and choose a duration. There are plenty of talks under 15 minutes that are perfect for English learners. These are especially helpful for people studying English for professional reasons or who plan to attend college in English, because they help prepare learners for lectures and presentations.

Ultimately, the goal in watching TV, movies and videos in English is to help learners feel more comfortable understanding their second language. This comfort and familiarity will build a base on which learners gain confidence in speaking with native speakers. Consider this listening practice a form of entertainment while your brain is working hard undercover to achieve the fluency you’re aiming for.

Let us know what you’re watching in the comments below!

Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.
Rebecca Wagoner is a Voxy tutor.

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