[Note: this article is based off of a few academic studies. I’ve done my best to summarize the findings, but if you want to learn more, just click the appropriate links]
We all know that learning English with TV shows is a fun and motivational way to develop our listening, pronunciation, and fluency.
But many students have asked me, "Which TV show should I learn with?"
Does it matter? Are some series more conducive to learning than others?
The answer is YES, and although there are HUNDREDS of English-language TV shows that you can enjoy and learn with, ONE is still the best, even with more than 10 years since it first aired.
The sitcom1 Friends in particular has been the subject of various academic studies and articles, focusing on both the cultural and linguistic impact.
This may come as no surprise. On more occasions than you would believe, I’ve met people who have excellent English, superb2 pronunciation, and have never lived or even visited a country where the language is spoken. Again and again, when I asked how they got such great English, a contributing factor has been watching the entire series of Friends.
Just the other day, I even met a girl here in Barcelona who said she had gotten fluent in Italian by watching the dubbed3 version of the series!
At first, I thought it was a strange coincidence. It’s just a TV series, right? Why would this one series be a tool for success for so many?
Some more research revealed to me why Friends, even more than 10 years after it went off the air4, can still be considered one of the best TV series for learning English.
In this article, I’ll summarize this research into three principle reasons:
- The Perfect Concept
- It's the perfect series for grammar, linguistics, and wordplay
- Cultural Influence
Before we jump into the 3 reasons, and a lot of academic research, we invite you to dive deeper into WHY we chose to build Fluent with Friends.
As you'll have discovered in the above video, plenty of famous people have learned phenomenal English from Friends including 2023 Oscar-winning actress, Ana de Armas. Watch her talk about her experience with Friends in this short Saturday Night Live Clip.
Friends Has the Perfect Concept for Learning
First, it’s worth noting that Friends is a sitcom, which, in general, shows the everyday life of the characters, making humor that perhaps relates to our own lives.
Sitcoms are better than dramas and other genres for learning because they portray scenarios in which you probably find yourself every day, and therefor are composed of vocabulary that will be most useful for you in reaching conversational fluency.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn a lot with a drama like Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad, but the vocabulary you obtain will rarely be useful. So if you’re not already an advanced English speaker, I’d recommend you start by watching English sitcoms.
Friends rises5 to the top of sitcoms because you can surely relate to at least one of the characters.
Friends is a show about people who sit around and talk, as all of us do with friends and family, and linguistically this has helped make it a very similar example of natural conversation in real life.
The show’s relatability is also part of the reason why it’s had an influence on English language and grammar.
Friends' Linguistic and Grammatical Influence
Americans watch around 35-40 hours of TV per week (almost as much as they work!), so it’s pretty natural that it can affect the language.
Friends may have begun in 1994, but the language is still very relevant. In fact, it has helped shape how English is spoken nowadays in some apparent (and not so apparent)ways.
This show has influenced the way Americans speak English, including the grammar.
One example is with a study on the use of intensifiers. Conventionally speaking, “very” and “really” are considered the most common, correct and proper intensifiers. I'm sure you learned this at school.
However, in part through Friends’ influence, “so” became one of the most common intensifiers in the English language. This is affirmed by a University of Toronto study that identified “so” as the most common intensifier within the Friends’ scripts, comparing it to North American English before and after the show.
Example: You are so wearing that; that is so not true; that is so not what this is
Another instance of this is with the word “totally.” You probably know the meaning, which is whole or complete. In the 90s this word was starting to be used to show strong agreement, Friends helped to take a growing trend and make it mainstream.
Paulo Quaglio, a linguistics professor at State University of New York, found that "innovative uses of ‘totally’ in American English conversation were fully captured in the Friends corpus.”
Example: This restaurant is totally the best in the city! A: Are you coming over later? B: Totally!
Both "so" and "totally" are still commonly used in American (and British) English today.
In another study by Quaglio, comparing Friends' script versus face-to-face conversation, Friends scored just one point lower in grammatical context than face-to-face conversation (34 vs. 35). To give you more context, most academic and formal materials fall between -15 and 10.
Therefore, Friends is an excellent example of how to observe grammatical use in real life, presenting a large variety of grammatical structures in use. (Quaglio p. 197, Corpora and Discourse).
In his study, Quaglio deduced that, “…numerous examples of features that characterize natural conversation can be illustrated with a television show such as Friends,” and“[Friends] shares the core linguistic features of conversation… the language of Friends, overall, is a fairly accurate representation of face-to-face conversation.” (Quaglio p. 208, Corpora and Discourse).
Vague language is very common in native speech. It is used to speak informally in a friendly way, or when you are not sure of details or are trying to save time in conversation.
The final aspect of linguistic influence that makes Friends the best TV series to learn English is the immense amount and quality of the word play and jokes. When we, as learners, slow down to digest the humor and connect the dots, we learn new expressions. For example, in this joke, which is one of MANY, the attentive or proactive learner can learn the expression "Pick a lane" through Joey's slap stick response of "pick Elaine."
To wrap up7 this subject, it’s worth noting that some of Friends’ language, e.g. quotes and catchphrases8, have penetrated English, and are still used today. But we’ll discuss that more in the next section.
Friends’ Cultural Influence
Some aspects of how Friends influenced American culture can still be seen today. And it’s not just in the U.S.A., it was so popular in the United Kingdom, according to the Telegraph, it’s even had effects on British culture.
Lines from Friends used in English
Probably the most famous line from Friends is the character Joey’s “How you doin’?”
Joey used this as a pickup line: Something said to open up conversation with the opposite sex when flirting. This collocation introduced to the masses by Friends is still used today, either when flirting, or more likely, to informally greet a friend. Watch this compilation of this catchphrase being used throughout the show:
Other less common lines from the show might still be heard used between Friends fans, for example, “He’s her lobster” and others in this poster.
Other Cultural Influences
The famous haircut worn by Jennifer Anniston during part of the series, had viral success in the U.S. and abroad, and was so closely tied to the show that it is still named after Anniston’s character, Rachel.
The Central Perk
The café where the TV show’s characters always spend time, the Central Perk9 (a play on words with New York’s famous park), has actually materialized in the real world. You can find copycat10 cafes in various cities around the world that mimic the original café’s furniture and more. This video shows an example in NYC, and also portrays the prominent popularity of Friends in the US still 20 years later:
Finally, Friends was important at the time (and is still relevant) because it challenges societal taboos, for example: Being divorced, being single over a large period of time, and casually dating various people.
Now before concluding this article, I want to touch on what Friends lacks to make it a perfect English learning resource.
What’s Still Missing?
It is impressive how close Friends’ comes to face-to-face conversation, however it’s not perfect. Quaglio points out that, as with any show, it is rare to find overlap and interruptions in discussion, which is common in natural conversation. This can also create a challenge for non-native speakers to understand group conversation in real life.
However, you will get practice with this when you actually start speaking. Shows like Friends provide a tremendous11 base for your English listening skills, far beyond what you learned in school.
How to Learn Best
Although you can learn just watching TV shows, if you want to use them to really gain fluency, consider using some techniques to make your learning powerful and effective. There are some great recommendations in this video.
If you don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to these sorts of techniques, we’ve helped make it easier with our course Fluent with Friends. To get a free taste of the course, check out some of our best, free lessons on Learn English with TV Series on YouTube.
Until next time, be sure to let us know if you have any questions down below!