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Accelerated American Slang Learning: Watching all 7 Seasons of Desperate Housewives in Less than 3 Months

Learn American Slang with Desperate Housewives

Improve Spoken English

Can you improve your English JUST by watching TV programs?

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 ear (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.

* * *

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!

Robby

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!

 

English Harmony System

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Thanks Andy for the positive feedback, much appreciated!

  • andy

    im actually getting a vast information about the given topic to better inprove. and i liked everything that my friend robby has done here

  • Yes, watching TV programs definitely improves listening skills and comprehension, there’s no doubt about that! 😉

  • jose

    Great post Robby! It’s quite helpful for us and what it’s worth, with all you say I agree. In fact, I’ve improved my listening skills following several TV series, especially, breaking bad, for the record. : )

  • Thanks for pointing out the typo, I guess I wrote “year” instead of “ear” simply because it follows the same letter pattern, my fingers do the typing by themselves! 😉

  • KKeys

    Perhaps it’s already been said – under Wing it you wrote “play it by year”. The idiom is “Play it by ear” – which indeed means to improvise, just like sounding out a musical piece by listening in leiu of reading the sheet music.

    Also, “How to swing it” or “How will I swing it” means basically how will I manage, how will I get through this – not necessarily how will I do it the right way. I have actually heard “swing it” most often used in reference to money, asking “Honey, I just don’t know how we are going to swing that vacation to Hawaii this summer now that the car needs to be repaired.” or simply, “Don’t worry, we’ll find a way to swing it.” If you’re not sure you can “swing it”, thent’s a tight situation that is overwhelming and might fail. If you’ll “find a way to swing it” then you are determined to finding a solution, you just don’t know what the solution is yet.

    Great site – as a native english speaker it is difficult to recommend the best series for english learners. Many comedies are too difficult due to obscure references adn slang that goes well outside of simple idioms. But desperate housewives is likely a good choice.

  • Pingback: Speaking While Thinking WHAT and HOW You’re Saying It at the Same Time Ain’t That Easy!()

  • No problem! 😉

  • rayana

    yeah i got it now thank you soo much.

  • My “gut feeling” tells me that the phrase “doesn’t it just figure?” would be better used in the following sentence – “My desktop PC turned off by itself again… doesn’t it just figure?”

    You see, if you give a complete explanation of the issue, the “doesn’t it just figure?” phrase becomes kind of redundant. 

  • rayana

    will you correct this sentence : my desktop had done with me 8 years almost and now it’s acting up and turns off by itself , it figures/ doesn’t it just figures ?

  • Your’e saying you’ve never cared about the translation – that’s the perfect way of learning a language!

    On this blog I mostly write about fluency issues originating in the grammar-translation English learning method, hence the comment about keeping the languages separate.

  • Artmots

    Dear Robby,
    This is where I want to disagree. I remember my first book read in English. This was “Strictly for Cash” by James Hardley Chase. 1984 was the year I got this book as a pocket reading. You might have probably remembered how precious the books like that were in the USSR.  No Russian version was available at the time. Frankly speaking, I did not very much care about any translation at all. This was the book written mostly using phrasal verbs combinations namely utilized with the verbs: to have, to get, to take, to make and to handle. You know that was something. I picked up everything that really was of interest in terms of English, read the book up to the end and thought this was it.
    Actually, this is not the case. What I wanted to say is that people never think using languages as a means to think, communicate or remember. I still remember the episodes from from “Strictly for Cash”. Just by the notions inspired by something!!! I swear. I never read it in Russian.
    With best regards,
    Arti.

  • Personally I use Latvian at home with my wife and kids and also with my Latvian friends, so I don’t think I’ll ever lose the ability to express myself properly in Latvian.

    I think the key is to keep the two languages – your native one and English – separate by not trying to translate concepts from one language to another, and that will solve the issue of your native language mixing with English in your head and vice versa. 

    At the end of the day it all boils down to frequency of using your native language. Those communicating mostly in English will naturally get used to thinking in English and the native tongue will take the backseat to English.

  • Artmots

    Thanks for your reply, Robby!
    I like very much writing to you. One other thing. I am sure there exists one and very tough- to- overcome obstacle in bettering everyone’s standard of English fluency. Do you know what it is? This is your mother tongue. Some of my friends having lived in the States for at least 10 or more years experience difficulties in expessing their thoughs in Russian (I am from Ukraine). So the bottom line is: the worse you tend to become in your native language the more and more naturally you appear to be showing your English speaking and other skills. Apart from your native tongue  already there you mind rejects any other intruder as a substitution. The mind simply does not understand why it has to bear one more language while it feels OK with just the language of your mother’s milk. That explains why it’s really hard to learn English. In an English speaking surroundings one has to tackle two basic tasks: to improve English and struggle not to loose you native tongue. Although sooner or later the second occurance will take place.
    Regards,
    Arti

  • Hi Hashem,

    I would really like to help you, but I don’t know of any of such websites; I think that finding a website to watch free movies and TV series alone would pose a problem…

    Personally I watch TV and DVDs, so it’s not really a problem then. You can get loads of cheap deals on eBay – for around $15 you’ll get a full season of TV series and I believe it’s well worth spending that amount of money on around 20 – 25 episodes of a TV show.

    Then there’s YouTube of course, and it’s subtitle transcript option (the “CC” button in the right hand side section of a video)  but I have to tell you – it doesn’t always work properly and you can get very funny transcripts which of course prevent you from perceiving the audio message.

    Speaking of easy to understand language – no, I don’t think it’s done on purpose. We foreigners often think that natives use the most sophisticated vocabulary when speaking with each other etc, but it’s not the case in real life.

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Hashem

    greetings robby,
    for quite a while now i’ve been franticly searching for websites in which i can watch english series with english subtitles. do you know of any website in this regard?and do you think the film makers purposefully feature easy to understand language for other foreginers from another countries?

  • Wow, that’s some serious work you’ve been doing Arti!

    I’m really impressed by what you’ve been doing and I have to tell you – that’s the way forward!

    Here’s my five cents:

    1. I really don’t think we foreigners should aim for 100% comprehension by ALL means. The fact alone that you understand most of what’s being said means you can infer the rest from context, so as far as your TV watching experience is concerned, you’re totally OK!

    2. Don’t feel sad about the fact that we’re not natives, and that certain things will never happen – such as us being able to use all means expression with equal skill to native English speakers. We are what we are, and it’s much better to ACCEPT things they way they are than being in an inner conflict with ourselves!

    3. You’d be surprised what one can accomplish over time! If I got 10 cents every time I thought I would not be able to have normal English conversations EVER, I’d be rich by now, seriously.

    Basically keep doing what you’re doing, and make sure you practice your spoken English a lot!

    Thanks again for your input, your comment will definitely be a source of inspiration for others!!!

    Best Regards,

    Robby

  • Yeap, using the language learnt from watching TV is the key to being able to use it in conversations and I always make sure I do it. Of course, it’s not possible all the time but even if I learn a couple new expressions from one episode which I keep using regularly, it’s definitely worthwhile.

    Speaking of difficulties with understanding certain films…

    …I, for instance, wouldn’t understand what my daughters tell me sometimes when they speak fast. I always have to tell them to slow down, and mind that it’s my native language!

    Another example – I remember they mentioned on the radio that some recent Irish film had to be shown with subtitles in the States because of comprehension difficulties.

    Basically I think we can’t comprehend 100% of what’s being said in certain films not only because we’re not native speakers. Of course, that factor definitely plays a part in it, but probably not as much as we think.

    That’s my opinion! 😉

    Thanks for the comment!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Great post, Robby.

    Yes, I agree that you can improve your English quite dramatically by watching Tv series and films on a regular basis. Of course, some studying is required to learn the vocabulary and the more you use it (or hear it when watching the film or series) the easier it will be for you to remember it.

    I love watching a variety of films, series and programmes, especially documentaries. I own a modest collection of films, documentaries (Planet Earth, Life, Nature’s Greatest Events), and mini-series (Emma, Pride and Prejudice, etc.)

    The difficulty in understanding speech in some films lies in the rate of speed, accent and use of slang expressions. So, unless you are a very advanced speaker of English, you will be at a loss with certain films. I understand most of the dialogue in films, but there are a few of them which get the better of me. Fortunately, this is becoming less common.

  • Artmots

    Dear Robby,
    Thank you very much for your feedback. I personally believe that in terms of improving one’s understanding ability it is better to focus on working with TV soup operas. The advantage is that you gradually get used to the same actors’ way of speaking and somewhere in the middle of this never-ending story you seem not weighted up physically and mentally. Once I worked on Duplex movie (with Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore). What I really had in mind was to develop myself into one who could watch the film as if it were produced in my native language. I tracked down the script first having translated (or understood) it completely. Then I watched the movie again. You know, it had certainly been expected but I really understood around 60 % only. Then I picked up the episodes where there seemed to have been some gaps in understanding, got them sorted out again and learned by heart. This time it went better and I felt more comfortable. One thing came to my mind. To make sure I watch a movie effortlessly I should have sounded like them: tempo, the way they stress and pronounce sentences and combinations of sentences, slang they use, anything. The sad thing is this will never happen. One must be influenced by the environment to the greatest extent ever imagined in a non-english speaking country. I wantched Duplex again three months later. It was basically Ok, but there ware some gaps again. Not very many…
    Thanks again,
    Arti

  • Thanks a lot for the comment, I’m sure many will find those series very interesting! 

    You’ll probably think I’m crazy, but I honestly haven’t watched any of those you just mentioned…

    Somehow or another just didn’t happen to be! 🙂

  • Dirantmendes

    Hi Robby!!!! I’ve been watching TV series as a way to improve my English skills for a while , and I can tell that it’s undoubtedly one of the best ways for all those who are learning English to pick up new vocabularies, slangs, phrasal verbs, and so on.  There are other series I’d like to recommend to your blog’s readers:  “The Middle”, “sex and the City”, “Two and a half men”, ” The Big Bang Theory”.

  • Rayana,

    Personally I love watching anything that’s got to do with science, nature and adventure, you just have to go to Discovery.com and see what shows they offer and then you can watch them on YouTube.

    I love Mythbusters, Man vs Wild with Bear Grylls and Planet Earth whenever I have a few minutes to kill before bed 😉

  • rayana

    you know what i like the whole idea but series is not really my thing so can you name some of programs show in order to improve my language, i also still watching Mythbusters on youtube as you recommended truly i love it i want shows like this May you help me ? thanks in advance 🙂

  • Thanks for the comment!

    I agree with you to some extent.

    It depends on what movies or TV series we’re looking at. 

    Desperate Housewives, for instance, feature relatively easy-to-understand language, all the characters are speaking slowly and therefore little issues arise in terms of following their speech etc. Of course, there is an odd time I don’t quite follow this or that particular sentence, but generally speaking one can understand 99% of what’s being said in this TV drama.

    On the other hand, plenty of Hollywood blockbusters are quite hard to follow without subtitles, and I can admit without any embarrassment that I agree 100% with you on the fact that you’d have to be a native to follow everything that’s being said very fast, especially using slang etc.

    Thanks for the input!

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Artmots

    Dear Robby,
    I really enjoyed your views on this problem of being not always able to entirely understand authentic speach of movie actors in films. I have been working on that for many years and my conclusion is: if you are a non-native speaker and you have been learning English not in English speaking environment and no matter how hard-working you have been on pursuing this particular issue, you will never be capable of tracing a movie speaking content to your satisfaction just because you happen to understand 100 %! Unless you are a native speaker.