Five documentaries to help you learn English

Tired of fiction? Ready for some real-life stories? Try this top-notch selection of fascinating English-language documentaries that will help to improve your linguistic knowdelegs.

Let’s be realistic, you’ll probably need to turn the subtitles on (in English of course!) to get the most out of these suggestions, but there’s no shame in that… it’s all in the name of progress! So, without further ado, we are pleased to present five documentaries to help you learn English.

1) Bowling for Columbine – Michael Moore (2002)

Today’s clips is also featured in our desserts: an authentic sample of English-speaking culture presented at the bottom of each Gymglish online English course. These include excerpts from cinema, series, songs, and so on.

On 20th April 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold turned up at Columbine High School in Colorado armed with knives, explosives, shotguns and a rifle. This was the beginning of the Columbine shootings, which ended with the deaths of 12 students and the suicides of Eric and Dylan.

Taking this macabre tragedy as a starting point, director Michael Moore meets with politicians, figures in popular culture, corporations… and ordinary people. His mission is to explore the issue of gun control in the United States.

Deliberately provocative and ironic, Moore does not hesitate to highlight the flaws in the system as he tackles a subject that still resonates strongly today. Heavily criticised since its release, Bowling for Columbine was nevertheless awarded an Oscar for best documentary and won the César for Best foreign film in 2003. 

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2) The Blue Planet I and II – BBC (2001 and 2017)

The Blue Planet, BBC, 2001

A series of TV documentaries produced and created by the BBC, The Blue Planet I was first broadcast in the UK in 2001. Sixteen years later, a second series of these sublime films about marine life was made. 

Winner of several Emmy and BAFTA TV Awards, The Blue Planet I and II are essential viewing for nature lovers. And the icing on the cake: the wonderful music for the second series is the result of a collaboration between Hans Zimmer and Radiohead. 

The documentary contains stunning images of ocean life around the world. Narrated by the legendary Sir David Attenborough, we are treated to a captivating, almost intimate view of the flora and fauna observed. His slow delivery and clear accent are the perfect accompaniment on this exceptional voyage of discovery.

3) Real Stories (2015 to present)

A YouTube channel with more than two million subscribers, Real Stories has been showcasing “the world’s best documentaries” for free since 2015. 

Shot around the world, these videos take you into the daily lives of people with extraordinary stories. From unusual events to crimes, family tragedies to medical errors: there is more than enough to satisfy your thirst for documentaries!

Pro tip: if you can’t decide what to watch, go to the Award-Winning Documentaries category for an excellent selection!

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4) Room 237 – Rodney Ascher (2012)

The Shining, inspired by Stephen King’s novel, and now thirty years old, has come to be regarded as one of the great classics of the horror film genre. Over the years, both the novel and the film have generated, and continue to generate, a great deal of discussion. From wild interpretations to meticulous analyses, numerous film buffs have attempted to unravel the mysteries of The Shining

In 2012, Rodney Ascher brought together a former American war reporter, a historian, a writer, a blogger and a conspiracy theorist with a view to dissecting nine theories dreamed up by Shining fans. There is no shortage of interpretations, and one inevitable conclusion: Stanley Kubrick was a genius.

Ready to discover the “Shinologists“?

5) Freakonomics – Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki and Rachel Grady (2012)

The result of a collaboration between the American journalist Stephen Dubner and the economist Steven Levitt, Freakonomics was originally an international bestseller published in 2005. The two men’s goal was to reveal the “hidden face” of the world and decipher social phenomena through economic analysis. 

The documentary is divided into four parts and has various surprising themes: 

  • A Roshanda by any other name” is an investigation into the influence of our names on our personal development and behaviour. 
  • Pure Corruption” immerses the viewer in the world of Sumo wrestling competitions and examines the concept of yaochō (match fixing). 
  • It’s not always a wonderful life” looks at the possible causes of the surprisingly low crime rate in Chicago in the late 1990s. 
  • Finally, “Can you bribe a 9th grader to succeed” examines daily life in an American high school that pays students cash to improve their grades. 

The unusual themes and the directors’ humorous approach make for a fascinating view of the American economy… and that’s a promise!

Want to watch these documentaries without subtitles? Improve your English with Gymglish online English courses!

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