5 contemporary TV shows to help improve your English

It’s the 21st century, and we don’t learn English by simply memorizing grammar books in the bathtub while playing the violin anymore.

Like movies and Gymglish’s language courses, TV series are designed to entertain, but often provide learning material along the way.  Since the arrival of streaming media platforms, it’s easier than ever to binge-watch “content” day in and day out: comedies, dramas, thrillers, adventure movies… there’s something for everybody and for all levels at your fingertips.

Not only will watching TV series in English improve your oral comprehension (and reading comprehension if you add subtitles), but you’ll also add new vocabulary and expressions to your bag as well as improve your pronunciation. 

Gymglish has put together a list of solid series from the recent past to improve your English effortlessly!

1)  Friends (1994 – 2004)

Friends, NBC

Have you been “on a break” from popular culture? Friends has been a favorite globally since 1994. The 236 episodes follow the friendships of six iconic white characters and their mysteriously high incomes over ten years. You should be able to get by without subtitles, but throw them in there if you want to better understand the masterful scripting of this overrated sitcom.

Language level: American accents are heard throughout all ten seasons. This is undoubtedly a very accessible series for learning English, since the friends use language you’ll hear in everyday life. Pay attention to the many expressions and idioms used by the characters.

2) The Simpsons (1989 – ongoing)

Created by Matt Groening and first broadcast in 1989, this sitcom, often associated with Homer and his penchant for donuts, is an excellent stereotypical representation of a middle-class American family. A true satire of the cultural and political context of the United States over 30 years, with more than 650 episodes, The Simpsons provides 30+ seasons of satire, with about 15 of them being extremely sharp and funny. 

Language level: characters speak at a relatively fast pace, but that won’t stop you from following the daily lives of the residents of Springfield. The series is a great pick for those interested particularly in American slang and coarse language.

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3) Desperate Housewives (2004 – 2012)

First airing in 2004, Desperate Housewives follows neighborhood life for the residents of Wisteria Lane, many of whom boast strong personalities. Secrets, lies, murders, hostage-taking… These housewives’ lives are far from ordinary. The show’s six seasons are ideal for improving your English, especially for mastering good intonation and pronunciation, as well as learning new vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.

Language level: each episode is narrated by Marie-Alice Young (played by Brenda Strong), an iconic character with a clear accent. Throughout the series, the English used is accessible for all levels – ideal for improving your comprehension of spoken language!

4) Downton Abbey (2010 – 2015)

Downton Abbey, Carnival Films

Don’t be defeatist dear; it’s very middle-class”. If you want to develop a posh English accent from the early 20th century, then Downton Abbey is a must-watch. Set in the early 1900s, this drama depicts the life of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, living in the English countryside. You will soon grow to love the characters, like the conservative patriarch Robert Crawley, the mysterious and seductive John Bates or the stern Violet Crawley. 

Language level: by the end of the six seasons, you’ll master an upper-class British accent like a lord or lady of the manor. You’ll progress at lightning speed without even realizing it. The series is noteworthy for the marked contrast between the accents of the noble family (Received Pronunciation) and those of the servants and staff (typical of working-class Yorkshire).

5) Sherlock (2010 – 2017)

Inspired by the popular books of Scottish writer Arthur Conan Doyle (1887 – 1927), this updated take on the quintessentially British detective boasts 4 seasons and 13 episodes. You’re bound to know some of the stories already: the titular Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his grounded sidekick Doctor Watson (Martin Freeman) roam the streets of London cleverly solving complicated crimes and mysteries.

Language level: The elegant upper-class Londonian accent (Holmes), colloquial cockney (Lestrade) and Irish accents (Moriarty) all feature strongly in the series, making it a great point of entry for anglophiles. From a linguistic point of view, the series is ideal for discovering the variety and nuance of British English dialects and accents. Take heed however, Sherlock is more suitable for advanced learners, as the characters sometimes talk fast, and they can be difficult to make out the first time. Subtitles are your friend.

Did you know? You’ll also be able to practice your reading comprehension through the frequent use of on-screen text messages in the show, which puts a modern twist on the centuries-old characters.

Bonus: Black Mirror (2011 – 2019)

One of the most disturbing series of the millennium, Black Mirror is a dystopian anthology series created by British screenwriter and author Charlie Brooker, known for his sharp satirical criticism of media and society.

Unlike most TV shows, Black Mirror isn’t centered on a group of characters, but on a theme: technology, and the negative impact it already has on society. The episodes are dark and cautionary, taking our current relationship with technology and extending it to sometimes extreme conclusions.

Language level: Black Mirror is an Anglo-American production, so you will hear actors with both British and American accents. However, some trickier technological vocabulary might crop up. Subtitles have your back.

TV series should ideally complement your learning, and not serve as the sole method of learning. In addition to watching series to help improve your English, there’s another fun and effective way to learn the language. Why not check out our Gymglish online English course

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