#313: How to Understand English TV Without Subtitles

Jul 10, 2024 | How To Develop Skills

Ever felt like watching English TV shows on Netflix is like trying to solve a puzzle without all the pieces? Fast dialogues, unfamiliar slang, and tricky accents can turn a relaxing time into a real challenge.

Are you tired of relying on subtitles? Or do you find yourself just giving up?

Don’t worry, there’s a better way. By the end of this lesson, you’ll learn a step-by-step method to follow complex storylines and catch quick dialogues without needing subtitles.

Mastering English through TV isn’t a quick fix—it’s a journey. With the actionable steps we’ll cover today, you’ll be on the right path to enjoying your favorite shows in their original language. You’ll learn to embrace different accents, idioms, and expressions at your own pace.

And if you’re looking for the best TV shows to practice with, check out my recommendations below.


How to Watch & Understand English TV Without Subtitles

Step 1: Choose the Right TV Show

When starting, opt for TV shows that have clear storylines and are easy to follow.

Sitcoms or young adult shows are often best for this. Why? Sitcoms often have simple plots and are generally easier to follow than other TV show genres. The same also applies to shows geared toward a young audience.

In addition, choose a genre that interests you. Do you enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, biopics, comedy, romance, or crime? Look for a show that you feel excited to keep watching.

Finally, determine your listening and comprehension goals.

Step 2: Do Your Research

Before you start watching your selected TV show, take time to read episode summaries or listen to podcasts about the episode you are going to watch.

Here’s why this is important:

  • Contextual Understanding 
  • Vocabulary Preparation
  • Focused Attention
  • Predictive Listening
  • Reduced Cognitive Load

Step 3: Watch in Segments

As with a book, watching TV shows in short segments allows you to commit to daily practice and ease into an episode. If you’re just getting started with using TV shows to boost your English, these segments should be no longer than 10-15 minutes at most.

When you’re ready, turn on the subtitles in your native language. Yep. That’s right. I said start with subtleties, even if they’re in your own language. 

There is nothing wrong with starting here if it’s what you need. This step will help you to grasp the speed and flow of the conversation before you dive into an all-English practice.

Then, watch the same segment with English subtitles. This will help you connect the written words with the spoken words while reinforcing both vocabulary and pronunciation.

When starting with this new practice, focus on getting the gist or the idea of the conversation. In other words, make understanding the conversation and following the plot your priority.

Step 4: Pause & Reflect

As needed, when watching the segment, listen for interesting or new expressions. Hit pause and take notes of new vocabulary or notes on pronunciation. 

I recommend having a dedicated notebook for this so you can keep track of everything in one place.

Step 5: Summarize

Once you’ve hit the 10- or 15-minute mark, stop.

Write down any final notes or thoughts you have. This can include new vocabulary you heard or simply a few notes on the conversation. 

Then, summarize the segment. I recommend you do this by speaking aloud. Here’s why it’s so helpful:

  1. Reinforces Understanding
  2. Tests Your Comprehension
  3. Enhances Vocabulary and Expression
  4. Tracks Your Progress

Once you’ve completed this step, you’ve finished your first watching experience.

If you do this all at the same time, you might have a 30-40 minute practice session:

  • Step 1: Read about the episode (10 minutes)
  • Step 2: Watch 10 minutes with subtitles in your language—if you need it (10 minutes)
  • Step 3: Watch 10 minutes with English subtitles (10 minutes)
  • Step 4: Review notes and summarize (10 minutes)

If you don’t have the time to do all of that, you can do a little bit on different days:

  • Day 1: Read about the episode
  • Day 2: Watch with subtitles
  • Day 3: Review notes and summarize

And then… Rinse & Repeat

Do Steps 3-4 again until you finish the episode. 

Don’t be afraid to rewind and rewatch a segment when it’s confusing or to look up an unfamiliar word.

Step 6: Recap

Once you’ve finished watching the episode in full, recap what you saw and understood from the episode. Just like in Step 4, you can verbalize or write your summary.

Want to go further? Find a friend or an online community—like my Confident Women Community—to discuss the episode with. Talking about it will help you reinforce your learning further.

Step 7: No Subtitles

Watch the entire episode again, without subtitles, and check your understanding. 

And, of course, keep going. Do the same with the other episodes in the show and any other TV shows you choose to watch in the future.

As you follow this process, you’ll find that you need those subtitles less and less often.

Recommended TV Shows:

Ready to get started but not sure what TV show to choose?

Consider these recommendations an choose one that sounds fun or interesting to you. 

  • F.R.I.E.N.D.S: There’s no doubt you already know this show was wildly popular. Centering on the long-term friendships and lives of six New Yorkers, this show is a popular pick for many English-language learners. While the speaking speed and witty dialogue can be challenging, the straightforward plots are easy to follow. This show is fantastic for understanding everyday speech and sentence structures. 
  • The Great British Baking Show: Love reality TV shows and baking? This easygoing and cozy show helps you acquaint yourself with British accents and common phrases with calm. 
  • How I Met Your Mother: A comedic show about a man reminiscing and telling his kids about how he met and fell in love with his mother. The show is great for learning new vocabulary and following a simple storyline to improve comprehension. 
  • This Is Us: A fictional drama series about three siblings growing up together and navigating adulthood after losing their father. The show will help you learn modern language, become acquainted with different accents originating from different parts of the US, and comprehend conversations occurring at different speeds. 
  • Modern Family: A sitcom that follows three related and unconventional American families in the 21st century. The cast is diverse in age and ethnicity, which means everyone has a unique speaking style. This show is perfect for those looking to improve their comprehension of different accents and dialects.
  • Sherlock: Based on the popular books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, this show is a modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes series. This show is perfect for learning more modern vocabulary and phrases, while challenging yourself to keep up with detailed explanations. The conversations move quickly and the plots are complicated. However, if you love detective or crime shows, you may find yourself enjoying the show as you practice your English skills. 
  • Our Planet: A nature documentary about different habitats on Earth. This docuseries is a wonderful pick for training your ears and sharpening pronunciation. David Attenborough narrates each episode with clear and soothing speech. It’s also a great pick for visual learners looking to learn new vocabulary.
  • Gilmore Girls: Known for its fast dialogue, this show offers a wealth of vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, and cultural references. Set in a small town in Connecticut, it provides insights into everyday American life and relationships, making it useful for learners who want to understand rapid speech and witty exchanges.
  • Downtown Abbey: This historical drama is set in the early 20th century and features a range of British accents. It introduces more formal and aristocratic forms of speaking, which can be great for learners interested in the historical context and more structured dialogues.

After you’ve watched the video, I’d love to hear from you.

What shows do you recommend for learning English? Share your recommendation below and tell me why you like that TV series.

You can share with me in the comment section below. Also, I’d love to hear about you practice when you try this approach.

~ Annemarie

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