Learn English with TV and films: the complete guide

In this article you’ll find all of the information, advice and resources that you need to learn English by watching TV series, films and other types of television.

Can you really improve your English with TV and films?

Yes! Watching television and films in English can be a powerful way to improve your listening, speaking and grammar skills in English. You can transform your English with the help of television and film. But it needs to be done in the right way and in the right quantity. You can’t simply watch a bit of television every now and again. You have to watch hours and hours of it. Every day. Always. Neither can you watch television and films passively without applying an effective method that includes active techniques.

Later in this article I’ll briefly describe what techniques and strategies you can use to make the most of television programs and films.

Remember, learning television by watching television and films might not always be easy but it should be enjoyable.

Different types of TV for different levels

Not all television is the same. The various genres contain different levels of difficulty and they can be about different topics. There are soap operas, television series, documentaries, news programs, films and many more genres. There are also many types of television series including comedies, fantasy and science-fiction.

There are certain things that can make a television program more difficult to understand. The speed of the dialogue. The complexity of the vocabulary used (i.e. are they common words or strange, infrequent words?). Characters speaking with strong regional accents that you’re not familiar with. The use of slang or technical jargon. Actors who mutter and don’t pronounce the words clearly. Dialogue that includes invented words, perhaps for comical effect. Cultural references that might be specific to the US, the UK or other Anglophone countries.

Every television program and film will have a unique level of difficulty. But there are some categories of television that correspond quite well to the various levels.

Soap opera for English learners = Beginners

There are some soap operas that have been created especially for English learners. This is a good place to start for beginners and elementary level students.

An example is [email protected] English

As you can see. There’s not a lot of choice for beginners in terms of television and film. What you can do is apply some Moxon Games while you watch more difficult games. For more information see the section on Moxon Games.

Soap operas in English = Pre-intermediate

Soap operas in English are great for pre-intermediate speakers. Really they’re great for higher levels as well. The language used is everyday and relatively simple. The plots are also everyday stories of work, romance and family life. Also there are normally episodes every single day with hundreds or thousands of past episodes to watch and learn from.

How is a soap opera in English different from other television series? Soap operas are broadcast almost every single day, the stories are normally cliched and the production quality is normally lower. Some of us (myself included) can be snobs about watching soap operas, we prefer arthouse movies or the latest blockbuster television series. But they really are a valuable resource for learning English.

Some famous U.S. soaps are:

Days of our lives (NBC)

Bold and Beautiful (CBS)

The Young and the Restless (CBS)

And Australian soap operas are great as well. For example:

Neighbours

Home and Away

UK soap operas are usually much more difficult. Soaps such as Eastenders and Coronation Street are fast and have a lot of slang or strong accents. But I can recommend:

Hollyoaks

BBC Doctors

BBC Holby City

BBC Casualty

TV series in English = Intermediate

Most television series are higher quality than soap operas and have fewer episodes (although many will still have around 100 episodes). At the same time the language may be less everyday and more complicated. It really depends on the series you choose.

On youtube.com you’ll find lots of short clips of these television series. Watch some short videos of the different television series and find one which is enjoyable but also of the right level for you. Not too easy and not too difficult. Ideally you should understand 60-70% of what is happening after watching it 2 or 3 times. Yes, you should be watching episodes not once, but twice or three times at least.

Some of these have been made for kids and teenagers. Even if you’re not a kid these can be really useful for improving your English.

Here are some of my suggestions.

Ugly Betty

H2O Just add water

Mako Islands of Secrets

The Haunted Hathaways

Life Unexpected

Charmed

Richie Rich (TV series)

Heartland

Mr Young

Dance Academy

Some Assembly Required

Lightening Point

Pretty Little Liars

Awkward

Switched at Birth

Gilmore Girls

TV series in English = Upper-intermediate

The selection of television series that I suggest for improving your English are a little bit more difficult than those suggest for intermediate students. The topics of the language are a little less everyday and there is some slang, fast speech and regional accents. There is also more word play and the speech is more intelligence and sophisticated.

You’ll also notice that these television series in English are more well-known and higher quality than those suggested for the intermediate level – and certainly more so than the soap operas suggested for pre-intermediate levels.

So, here are my suggestions:

Friends

Grey’s Anatomy

The Good Wife

24

White Collar

Downton Abbey

Outnumbered

Sex and the city

Castle

Supergirl

Desperate Housewives

Modern Family

Elementary

The Middle

Under the dome

TV series in English = Advanced

These television series are even more advanced and can be a real challenge even for advanced English speakers. In order to enjoy these programs you’ll have to have a very wide vocabulary and often a good understanding of certain cultural references.

Dr. House

Breaking Bad

Homeland

House of Cards

Suits

Big Ban Theory

How I Met Your Mother

Orange is the New Black

Seinfeld

Mad Men

Lie To Me

Glee

True Detective

ER

The Sopranos

Films in English = Proficiency

What about films? Are there films for beginners, pre-intermediate and other levels? Generally speaking I would avoid watching films until you have acquired an Advanced level of English listening and comprehension.

Films in English often involve dialogue which is fast, with slang, clever word play and idiosyncratic phrases that are entertaining but not particularly representative of everyday language. It’s also true that most films aren’t that dialogue intensive, obviously depends on the particular film, but there tend to be lots of silences, music and scenes designed to play with your emotions without the use of speech. The other disadvantage of films is that you only have 90-120 minutes whereas television series usually have hundreds of episodes.

Subtitles: yes or no? English or your native language?

Subtitles in English (and even in your native language) can sometimes really help you to develop your vocabulary and listening skills. But they can also help you to become more aware of grammatical structures and idioms.

You don’t need to be rigid with subtitles. You can even watch the same episode several times and change whether you watch with subtitles and in what language.

Let’s look at each of the situations in turn.

Subtitles in your native language. You can start with subtitles in your native language if you’re right at the beginning of your English-learning journey. You can use them to get the general meaning of the television program or film in order to get oriented. But don’t rely on them for too long. As soon as you can go on to watching television with subtitles in English.

Subtitles in English. This will undoubtedly help with your understanding of the film. It will also help you the match the sounds of English with the written word. You may notice that the subtitles aren’t always 100% identical to the speech you hear. Noticing these little differences will help you to appreciate how you can say the same thing in two different ways.

No subtitles. Once you’re confident or familiar with a particular television episode you can try watching it without subtitles of any kind. Concentrating on the English sounds and trying to translate them into ‘mental subtitles’. You might not be able to do this throughout the whole television episode, but at times you should try to picture the sounds you hear as words. This is a great exercise in trying to build up your listening muscle and your skills of ‘phonetic decodification’. Phonetic decodification means being able to translate sounds into strings of letters and words.

How to watch TV and films in English

It’s really important to get hold of lots and lots of television episodes or films. Don’t put yourself in the situation of running out of material to watch. Furthermore the material should be where you are. If you like watching films at your desk then load your laptop up. If you spend lots of time on the train then prepare yourself with your smartphone or smartphone. A smart TV or set-top box is best for the living room. If you’re not comfortable with technology or your internet isn’t fast then DVDs are a great option.

DVDs

DVDs are a great place to start. Amazon has some great deals for box sets. Box sets include all seasons of a particular television and usually the price is cheap compared to buying the seasons individually. Before buying the DVD I recommend that you test the level by watching some clips on youtube.com or on the site of the television series producer.

Obviously you’ll need to buy a DVD player.

When you’re choosing the DVD make sure that you choose the correct version for your region. You can find out more about DVD regions here.

If you prefer you can buy the Blu Ray version but there’s certainly no advantage in terms of English learning. Blu Rays also have regions which you should check before buying them.

Taking your DVDs on the move

Watching and buying DVDs in English doesn’t mean that you’re limited to watching them in your living room.

How can you go mobile with DVDs? One way is to buy a mobile DVD player. However the disadvantage is the size and the limited battery life. Another option is to convert your DVDs into files that you can then watch on your laptop, smartphone or tablet, including iphones and ipads. This is called ripping. Ripping is normally permitted as long as you’re using the files for your own use.

So how does ripping work? You’ll need a DVD drive on your computer. You’ll then need some software to ‘rip’ the DVD or in other words to save the television series or film as a file on your computer.

Ripping with Windows 7 / 8 / 10. If you have a standard Windows PC you can use a program like DVD Ripper. There is a free version which should be fine or you can upgrade to the premium version if you want more features.

Ripping with Apple Mac. If you have a Mac then you can DVD Ripper’s the sister product.

Ripping DVDs can sometimes get complicated. Different DVDs use different encoding in order to combat piracy which means that some might be easier to rip than others. You’ll have to explore the different software options and see whether you need to invest in premium versions.

Once you have ripped the files you might want to convert the movie into an alternative format. You can use a program like Handbrake.

A quick warning about subtitles. Sometimes ripping DVDs and converting files can do strange things to the subtitles. Beaware of this issue and experiment to find the best way to rip DVDs while keeping all of the subtitle options.

Unofficial streaming sites for films and TV in English

This is another way of watching television and films in English. When I say ‘unofficial’ it’s probably clear what I mean. These are sites which have questionable respect for copyright and are often full of advertising and horrible popups. The quality can also be quite low. While I’ll make a couple of suggestions you should know that these sites are often closed down or change names.

The best way to find them is by searching on Google by type the name of the show plus a keyword like ‘streaming’. For example if you wanted to watch Superman you would type ‘superman streaming’. You’ll probably have to click through quite a lot of links to find something decent.

My advice is to not bother with these sites. But it’s completely up to you. Just make sure you’re ready to deal with aggressive advertising and that your anti-virus software is up-to-date. Also, you won’t always find subtitles in English and your connection might be less reliable than paid streaming solutions.

Films from Cineblog

TV and films from ITV Movie

TV and films from Rainiertamayo.com

Legal streaming sites for films and TV in English

Recently there has been an explosion in high quality streaming sites. Streaming can be very convenient because it’s instant. You don’t have to wait for the television episode or film to download. And if you make the right choice subtitles should be available for pretty much all of the titles. Of course, most of these sites have mainly television series and films in English.

Unfortunately not all streaming services are available in all countries. The best choice is in the USA and in other English speaking countries such as the UK. In other countries the availability is less.

To be able to access the widest range of streaming services you can use a Virtual Private Network or VPN. A VPN is a sort of private version of the internet and you can choose which country to be in at any time. There are free VPNs and paid VPNs. For more details see the section on VPNs.

Netflix

Perhaps the most famous streaming service is Netflix.com. It’s an American service but is also available in the UK, Australia, France, Italy and 40 other countries. You can find a full list of countries here.

At the moment Netflix is the best choice for a streaming service that works well in lots of countries and in combination with a VPN.

The films and television programs available in English differ from country to country and can change over time. There are many different types of genres for adults, families and kids. The offer includes series such as House of Cards or Orange is the New Black which have been produced directly by Netflix. The cost of the service varies between 5 and 15 dollars depending on what country you live in.

As I said. Each country has it’s unique combination of programs (and availability of subtitles and languages). For example at the moment Big Bang Theory (one of my favourites) is available in France but not in Italy or the UK. No problem! The beauty of Netflix is that you can use it in combination with a VPN (see the section of VPNs) in order to access the Netflix of any country. And you don’t have to pay any extra. This is great for Italians, for example, because it means they can access UK and USA Netflix with all the extra content and subtitles.

You can access Netflix in the following ways:

– Windows PC, Apple Mac or other laptop
– Android smartphone
– Android tablet
– iphone
– ipad
– smart televisions
– smart Blu-Ray players
– certain set-top boxes
– certain HDMI dongles
– video consoles like Wii, Sony Playstation, Xbox and Nintendo 3DS

Amazon Instant Video

Amazon has created a paid video streaming service to watch television series and films in English. It’s available in the United States, the UK, Germany, Austria and Japan (coming soon to India). You can either buy or rent titles. Certain titles are included if you have an Amazon Prime account in that country.

If you’re not in a country where Amazon Instant Video is available then you can access it using a VPN. See the VPN section for more details.

You can watch Amazon Instant Video on many devices including your smartphones, tablets, iphone, ipad, set-top boxes such as Roku, smart TVs, smart Blu-Ray players. Like Netflix, Amazon is working on developing original programs such as Bosch and Hand of God. Famous shows included in the UK Amazon Prime package include Grey’s Anatomy, Downton Abbey, Castle, Parks and Recreation, Awkward, Suits, Mad Men and Doctor Who. Some shows like Big Bang Theory or Homeland are not included in the UK Amazon Prime package and can be bought separately. Packages will vary from country to country and over time.

Hulu

Hulu is a streaming service similar to Netflix but with a difference. There is a free version and a premium version. The free version is more limited and is supported by adverts. The premium version gives you full access without adverts.

Hulu is only available in the USA and Japan. It is possible to use a VPN but Hulu is increasingly closing access even to VPNs. Some VPNs work and others have been blocked by Hulu. You also need a US credit card to purchase the premium access so it is quite limited unless you live in the US.

Popular shows in English include Seinfeld, Modern Family, Elementary, Parks and Recreation, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, Castle and Ugly Betty.

If you’re in the USA you can access Hulu on various devices. See here.

HBO Now

HBO is the television production company behind TV series (in English) like The Sopranos, Sex and the City, True Detective and Game of Thrones. This service is restricted to the US and while using a VPN might work HBO is apparently active in closing accounts that access their service outside the USA.

BBC iplayer

BBC iplayer is the streaming service provided by the BBC. It has some great television series in English and even some films. It is normally only available in the UK but you can use a VPN to access it. Unfortunately the BBC has recently started to block some VPN providers. If I discover any solutions for this I’ll update this article.

Google Play

Google Play allows you to buy and rent various films to watch on your PC, Android phone or Android tablet. Unfortunately not all countries have the options of English audio and English subtitles. You can check before you buy by clicking on the ‘Read More’ label in the description of the film.

Android smartphones and tablets

If you already have television series and films in English on your PC or on a hard drive you can transfer them onto your Android smartphone or tablet and watch them on the go (on the train, on the bus or wherever you want). Normally the best way to transfer the files is to connect your device to your PC with a USB cable. You then need to copy the files from the PC to the Android device. You should see the Android device appear as a hard drive, much as you would a USB pendrive or external hard disk. Your phone or tablet should already have an app that can play these files. If not you could try MX Player or VLC for Android

itunes, Apple TV, iphones and ipad

itunes, Apple TV, iphones and ipads are all part of the Apple ecosystem. The best thing is to use the same ID Apple account in ensure you can access films and television series that you’ve bought on multiple devices attached to that account.

You can rent films and television series and normally the language options are before you buy them so you can watch in English. For more information see here.

For more information about how to change audio tracks and subtitles to English see this article.

Apple TV is a set-top box that you plug into your HDMI television. More about that in the section on set-top boxes.

Watching on your television

Some people prefer watching television and films in their sitting room on a normal television, rather than on a smartphone, tablet or laptop. There are various ways you can do this.

Connect your laptop to your television

One way is to connect your laptop to your computer. You can do this in various ways but with most modern laptops and television it shouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps you can do it with a HDMI cable or perhaps you need to do it with a VGA cable. Another possibility is with USB using a converter.

Smart TVs

A smart TV is a normal television with a difference. The difference is that it can be connected to the internet by Wifi or an ethernet cable. This means it receives traditional digital terrestrial television but can also access services like Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, BBC iplayer and other streaming services. Obviously you can only access these services if you live in the right country. You can use a VPN in combination with a smart TV but it is quite complicated – see the section on flashing your router. Services like BBC iplayer and Hulu are also being increasingly strict about access from VPN.

Some Smart TV makes include:

– Hisense
– LG
– Panasonic
– PHILIIPS
– Samsung
– Sharp
– Sony
– Toshiba

Personally speaking I see no advantage of using a smart TV compared to a normal digital television in combination with a set-top box or HDMI dongle. But if you already have one or you like the idea Samsung is a good brand to start with.

Set top boxes

Set-top boxes are a way of making your normal digital television into a smart television. Basically there are little black boxes that connect both to the internet (through wifi or an ethernet cable) and to your television usually through a HDMI cable. These boxes rely on the content streamed by services such as Amazon, Netflix and Apple. Let’s look at a couple of choices.

Apple TV

This is a box made by Apple TV to access Apple services. It comes with a remote and you can watch films and television series that you buy or rent. You should be able to change subtitles and language options.

Amazon Fire TV

This box is produced by Amazon and so the main service is Amazon Instant Video and Amazon Prime. However you can also access other services such as Netflix, Hulu, HBONow and YouTube.com. Obviously you need to be in certain countries to access some of these services (or successfully use a VPN in combination with your router).

Roku

The Roku 3 and the more recent Roku 4 are boxes that allow you to access many of the many streaming services. You can access channels like Netflix, NBC, HBONow, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Showtime, BBC iplayer and many others. If you want a set-top box that includes many, many channels without being tied to the service provider (like Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV) then this is the option for you.

TV dongles

A dongle is a little ‘key’ that connects directly to the HDMI slot on your television. It’s similar to a set-top box only that it’s more compact and only connected via wifi (not ethernet cable). It might or might not have it’s own power supply so might need to be powered by a USB port.

Amazon Fire Stick

This is basically a lower-end version of Amazon Fire TV but most of the television watching function is identical.

Google Chromecast

This is a dongle that allows you to stream content from apps on your Android phone or tablet. This means you must have a smartphone or tablet in order to use this dongle. Apps like Netflix, Hulu, BBC iplayer are available but not Apple and not Amazon.

EFL streaming sites

All of the services and devices described in the other sections are not specifically designed for learners of English. They are for general consumption. Now let’s look at a very interesting option that has been produced in Russia just for learners of English.

Ororo TV

Ororo.TV is a Russian service that specializes in providing the latest television series and films especially for English students. Many of the programs listed in this article are available. You can watch an episode per day for free or pay around 5 euros per month for unlimited access. As with other services access to Ororo.TV will vary depending on where you live. For example in Italy and Russia it is available. In the UK it isn’t available. Again, a VPN can help you to access it from countries where it’s not available.

Titles include Seinfeld, Friends, Awkward, [email protected] English (just for English students!), Orange is the New Black and many, many others.

The added feature is that you can pause the film and click on any of the words to translate them into your own language! You can even add the words into a personalized wordlist.

It’s best to watch on your laptop but it does work on smartphones and tablets as well.

VPN. What is it and how can it help?

A VPN is a sort of private version of the internet. You can use a VPN to access the internet of different countries. This is useful because some streaming and download services are only available in certain countries. There are some free solutions and some paid solutions. Remember, that the free solutions may be free but there may be aggressive advertising and they might be making money from your data. I personally use a paid solution.

How does it work? Basically when you access the internet you do it through an IP address. Each IP address is associated with a country. When you use a VPN you simply access the internet through another IP address in another country.

You might use a VPN to access the Netflix catalogue of a different country. Or perhaps to access television streaming services that are not available in your country, for example you live in France but want to watch BBC iplayer.

Free VPNs

Hotspot Shield provides a VPN that gives you access to the US, the UK and Australia. It includes adverts. There is a version for PC and one for Apple Mac.

Spotflux has a free and a paid service. It includes access on Android and iOS.

Hola Chrome Extension. If you want to watch films and television in English in Chrome browser then this extension for Chrome might be for you. There is also an Android app and for Apple iOS (iphone and ipad)

Betternet is another Chrome Extension that is similar to Hola. It also has apps for iOS and Android.

Premium VPNs

Premium VPNs will cost a few dollars per month but offer limitless locations and better service. Here are some suggestions. They should all work on PC, Mac and smartphone.

Overplay

Golden Frog Vypr Vpn

Hide My Ass

Here’s some more information about watching television through VPNs.

VPN on your router

Warning. Using a VPN on your router is a little bit more technical.

Usually you’ll use a VPN to change country on an individual device like a PC, a Mac, an Android or an iOS device (iphone, ipad). On some occasions you might want to change the country on the router. This might be because you have lots of devices in your home and you want them all to access the internet through a VPN. Or it could be because you want to use a set-top box or dongle or other device that isn’t compatible with VPN software.

If you want to use a VPN directly on your router there are two possibilities. Both require a certain amount of technical skill. The second method should only be used by experts (unless you want to break your router). For both of these methods you’ll still need a premium VPN subscription.

1. Using certain ASUS routers. Certain ASUS routers such as the ASUS RT-N16 and the ASUS N66U have the a ‘VPN Client’ feature. This means you can access the settings of the router and enter the address of the VPN, the username and the password.

2. Flashing your router. This is a high-risk strategy unless you know what you’re doing. This basically overwrites your router firmware and replaces it with open source firmware (like DD-WRT or Tomato) that allows you to connect to a VPN (similarly to the process with ASUS routers that already have this functionality). I repeat my warning that this is only for the highly technical and there is the risk of permanently breaking or ‘bricking’ your device. I can’t help you with this (I’m not an expert) and I can’t take responsibility for damaged devices!

Downloading (unofficial)

I know some people still download films and television programs in English. Let’s call this the ‘unofficial way’. I personally recommend buying the DVDs from your local Amazon or paying a few dollars a month for a legal subscription service like Netflix or Amazon Instant Video (in combination with a VPN if necessary). You should be aware that many television series and films in English for download are actually pirated.

In any case, here is a short description of how to download films and television series in English.

Most people use a technology called torrents or bittorrents. This is a form of Peer-2-Peer sharing. You’ll need a torrent client, you’ll need to search for a torrent using a special torrent search engine (normally in a browser) then you’ll need to download all of the various ‘bits’ of the file (obviously using the torrent client). Let’s look at each step in turn.

Warning. Remember that if something looks too good to be true then it probably is. Downloading films and television series for free may seem fantastic but the software and sites you need to use may contain aggressive advertising and adware.

1. Torrent client. This is the software that you’ll install to manage the download process. Here are a few choices.

utorrent

Vuze

qBittorent

2. Torrent search engine. Once you’ve installed the torrent client you need to go back to your browser and look for the torrent of the film or television series you’re looking to download. Note that some of these torrent search engines may be blocked in your country. Indeed, the search engines that are available may change quickly. You can always use a VPN in order to access these blocked sites from other countries (such as the Switzerland, Spain or the Netherlands) where the rules are different and more relaxed.

Warning. These sites often change domains and may contain aggressive advertising and unwanted spamware / malware etc.

Pirate Bay

Kick Ass Torrents

Torrentz – this is a meta search engine and will lead to other sites that actually contain the file

Extratorrent

youtube.com

While youtube.com is most famous for its user-generated content it also has lots of films and television series in English. Don’t expect to find the latest films and television programs in English but it does have some older stuff. Try searching for the name of the film or television program in the search bar of youtube.com. You might also find it harder to find material with English subtitles.

Sky

Sky television is a great way to watch television and films in English. Usually you can choose the language and subtitles you prefer, the choice is vast and there are various ‘in demand’ and ‘watch later’ options. Obviously you’re limited by the country of availability. It’s available in some European countries including the UK, Italy, Austria and Germany.

If you’re not in those countries you could try the Sky Europe service.

What to do while you watch TV. Active or passive?

Remember that while you watch television and films in English you shouldn’t do it in a passive, silent way. It needs to active and verbal. Students who manage to learn English through television and films are not special but their strategies and approach are special. You need to copy that approach. The Moxon games and other similar activities will help you to do this.

Moxon games

I’ve invented games to help students get the most out of English television series and films. They include:
– Word safari
– Subtitles game
– Pause and parrot
– Instant flash
– Grammar fishing
– Opposites
– Stream of consciousness

I talked about how you can use these games in great details in my book ‘Keep Calm e Impara L’Inglese’ (Italian only).

Moxon English Principles

Let’s look quickly at how the principles of the Moxon method apply to learning English from TV.

Speaking, speaking, speaking. Watching television should be active. Repeat, speak and echo as much as possible. Use subtitles as an aide.

Zero to hero. Start with something you understand most of and then gradually (very gradually) increase the difficulty level.

Chunkification. Choose television programs with lots and lots (I mean hundreds) of episodes. This way you’ve got material that will last you.

Every day. Integrate television watching into your everyday life.

Pleasure first. Learning English with television won’t be easy but it should always be interesting and pleasurable.

Positivity. Don’t understand anything? Try again a couple of times and listen in different ways or try an easier level. Still feel frustrated? Perhaps you’re not ready for television as an English learning activity.

People. Organize television evenings in English with your friends. Talk to your friends about the television series you’re watching at the moment.

Multi-intelligence. Make sure of as many of your intelligences as possible.

More online resources about TV and films for English learning

Best TV shows for English learners

Learning English with Movies and AJ Hoge

Larry Ferlazzo

Advice from the British Council

Suggestions for American sitcoms