Yes, sure. You can learn a great deal of new English words and expressions thanks to visual associations created when you see a scene on the screen and hear a certain phrase or expression.
Also, it’s much easier to understand meanings of new English words if you see all the action unfold before your eyes.
Can you make a CONSIDERABLE difference in your English fluency by watching TV shows in English?
Yes, but it will require some effort because by listening alone you’ll mostly develop your passive vocabulary. Your active vocabulary – the one you use when speaking – is developed when you USE those new English phrases and expressions in your own conversations.
So, while I was watching the Desperate Housewives box-set I got my wife for Christmas, I did all the following:
- I shadowed the characters with the subtitles turned on;
- I took notes of new English phrases and American slang expressions;
- I purposefully used those new expressions in my English conversations at work and also when practicing spoken English with myself.
It all started quite innocently.
I didn’t mean to spend the whole month of January, February and a week in March glued to the screen watching a TV soap loved mostly by members of the opposite sex.
I simply watched one episode of Desperate Housewives with my family during last Christmas Holidays – I guess, I just wanted to see what all the fuss is about! And that, my dear friends foreign English speakers, was it… I was literally sucked into it!
I couldn’t have imagined that Desperate Housewives was so intriguing and interesting! Illicit affairs, murders, scheming and dark secrets – and it all wrapped up as a comedy. Awesome!
So, what I learned while watching around 160 episodes of Desperate Housewives within a matter of 10 weeks?
I learned loads of American slang expressions, new vocabulary, phrasal verbs and idiomatic expressions – and that’s not all
I also tried to speak like an American while shadowing the actors and I realized that I’m not too bad at speaking with an American accent!
Here’s just a few of the idiomatic expressions and American slang phrases I added on to my active English vocabulary:
For what it’s worth – I noticed this phrase being used quite frequently in contexts like “… and Gabby – for what it’s worth, I still love you!” I didn’t look up this idiom on Google right away because I kind of guessed what it means. If I were asked to paraphrase the aforementioned sentence, I would say “Gabby – it might not change anything between us, but I still love you!”
And that’s exactly how you use the phrase “for what it’s worth”. Whenever you’re having a conversation with someone about a subject that is painful for that other person, you can use this idiomatic expression before you provide information on something that MIGHT JUST change things around.
To go through a rough patch – this English idiom is used a lot in this TV series because as you can imagine, all the couples were constantly having a difficult time. All the breaking up and making up took a toll on the poor housewives – Gabrielle, Bree, Susan and Lynette – and that’s what this idiom “to go through a rough patch” means.
“She’s gone through a rough patch lately…”, or “As you all know, my wife went through a rough patch, so I’d appreciate if you respect her privacy” – it’s just a different way of saying that someone has had a difficult time and has been dealing with hardship lately.
That’s all there is to it! – a perfect way of ending a conversation if you want to make clear that you’re not giving in to the other person’s demands and you’re standing your ground over that particular issue. Bree Van de Kamp is using this expression more than anyone else in Desperate Housewives, and it’s hardly surprising given her perfectionist nature!
To make amends means to make peace with someone after you’ve done something bad to them and make up for it by doing something good. When Suzan burnt Edie’s house down, she wanted to make amends with Edie for having caused her so much trouble with getting the house re-built from scratch. Of course, it didn’t happen until Suzan found out that her secret was documented in a diary of her deceased neighbor, and the diary was in the possession of police, so she simply had to come clean (reveal the truth)!
Take a backseat to – this English idiomatic expression is used when someone is compromising his needs with someone else’s. You can say, for example – “I won’t allow my future plans to take a backseat to yours!” – which means you don’t think your future plans are less important than those of the other person.
In Desperate Housewives Tom and Lynette used to argue all the time about whose career is more important, so this expression was used a few times and I picked it up from there. I actually like these type of English idioms because it’s quite easy to infer their meaning. In this particular occasion in the context of taking a backseat in the car I immediately figured out what that idiom means, and I also started using it in my English conversations!
Stop playing hard to get! This English idiom is used when a girl pretends not to like the guy, but her real intention behind the charade is to make him chase after her and want her even more! If you’ve watched at least a couple episodes of Desperate Housewives, you’ll know that if there was someone who was having an affair, then most likely it was Gabrielle Solis.
And it’s exactly in that context when I heard this English idiom, and it has come in handy at least a couple times when discussing girls with other guys. “You’re afraid to ask Katie out? Just go for it! She’s always playing hard to get, but she’s not like that when you’ve had a five minute chat with her!”
Step up to the plate – this is one of those English idioms – and there’s loads of them! – that originate in sports, and its meaning can be inferred if you know what “stepping up to the plate” means in terms of baseball. It’s when the batter prepares to strike the ball, but in figurative speech it means to take responsibility for what you’re doing.
“I think it’s time you stepped up to the plate and allowed your mom to have some time on her own!” – I can easily imagine Tom Scavo telling this to their twin sons Porter and Preston after they’ve forgotten to live up to their responsibilities yet again.
How to swing it? I really like this American slang phrase and I’ve started using it all the time. It’s basically the same as asking – “how to do it right?” or simply “how to manage to do it?” You’d most likely use this phrase in awkward situations when you need advice on how to get this or that particular thing done. “My supervisor told me today I’m filling in for John, but I’ve never driven the big truck before! How will I swing it?”
The possible answer might be – “Don’t worry, let me show you the basic controls and you’ll pick it up from there!”
Another way of answering the question “how to swing it?” is…
Wing it! So, can you guess what it might mean? Imagine – I’m in a situation when I’m not really sure how to perform a certain task, and I’m being told – “Wing it!” So, what does it mean? Anyone?
Yes, that’s right – it means to improvise, do it and see what happens, play it by year (another idiom with a similar meaning!) Basically when someone isn’t prepared to do something and he’s told to wing it, it means he’ll just have to do his best and see how it pans out (see if he’s successful at it).
Drop the act! This slang expression is quite straightforward – when one is acting (pretending), you can tell them to stop doing it by using this phrase – drop the act!
The housewives in the TV comedy-drama would often pretend in front of each other that nothing has happened while everyone actually knows what’s going on. Often one of the friends would tell that person to drop the act and spill the beans (tell the truth) – and you can also use this English idiomatic expression – drop the act – whenever you would have said “Common, stop pretending, I can see it anyway!”
What gives? – I remember a scene where Lynette ran after one of her friends (was it Bree or Suzan? I can’t really remember – there were so many similar scenes in Desperate Housewives!), grabbed her by the arm and asked the question “What gives?”
I couldn’t really figure out at the time what exactly it meant, so I let it slip by. The visual association between the scene and the phrase, however, remained imprinted in my mind, so when I heard that phrase on the radio a few days later (a perfect example of American slang being used in other English speaking countries), the new context made it absolutely clear. It means – “Why are you doing this/acting this way?” or just “Why is this happening?” – and by saying so you’re making it clear that you haven’t got a clue as to why your friend is reacting so badly or why something else is going on in a completely unexplainable way.
To play hardball – it’s another sports related idiom I leant from Desperate Housewives, and it’s used to describe aggressive and very determined behavior. If your boss is determined to get you sacked after an argument at work, you’d come home in the evening and complain to your wife that your boss is playing hardball with you and you don’t know what to do!
For the record – this is simple way of saying “for your consideration”, or “…given the circumstances, I’d like to point out that…” Basically you can use this handy idiom when you’re going to say something that’s important and you want the other person to pay particular attention to it.
For example, you’re discussing accident at workplace, and in the end of the conversation you want to remind your colleagues that you’re not involved in the events leading up to the accident in any way. You can say it the following way – “And, for the record, I was away for two weeks holidays right before the accident happened!”
Off the record – if you’re having a conversation and you want certain things to be kept secret between you and the other person, or this information hasn’t been yet made official, you can use this American idiomatic expression to make your point.
“Off the record, Gabby is expecting. Yes, haven’t you noticed she’s glowing? But I think it’s best to wait till she breaks the news herself!” Such conversation would have happened between Bree, Lynette and Suzan when Gabrielle got pregnant but hadn’t told her friends about it yet.
Doesn’t it just figure? also It figures – you can use this American expression when you want to make a statement about something bad that normally happens that way and no-one is really surprised about it anymore.
I used the phrase the other day at work when we were discussing yet another faulty order just received from the production line. We were looking at the crooked sweater necks and I said – “It figures.” Basically it’s the same as saying “Of course I’m not surprised it happened, it’s typical!” – only shorter and handier.
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Of course, these handful of phrases just barely scratch the surface (barely describes, provides a very superficial description) of what I learned from the Desperate Housewives comedy-drama over the last few months. I simply wanted to give you an idea of how effective such TV watching experience can be for you as a foreign English speaker – especially if you choose TV series that literally suck you in and even make you come back and watch them the second time! Off the record – that’s exactly what I’ve started doing recently!
For me it’s Desperate Housewives.
For you it may be Grey’s Anatomy or Lost.
For someone else – CSI.
Whichever one you go for – make sure you get a box-set of all the seasons because that way you’ll save an awful lot of money. By the way, you can get box-sets very cheap these days!
P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!
P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!