The Three Best TV Series For American English Listening Practice
Updated September 2022
What better way is there to get American English listening practice than to watch TV series?
I can still remember the day I saw the pilot episode of the Walking Dead.
I walked into the front room, took a look at the TV screen and asked my boyfriend “what’s that film?”
But it wasn’t a film. It was a 50-minute episode of a new series. The pilot reminded me of the film 28 Days Later. Our hero wakes up in a hospital to discover that a zombie apocalypse took place while he was in a coma.
I watched as British actor Andrew Lincoln put on (i.e pretend to have/imitate) a Southern US accent and set out to find his surviving family members.
“Epic” and “cinematic” are not words I use lightly. But in this case they fit perfectly.
It was just too realistic, too intense.
That’s the power of the Golden Age of TV.
Watching 2 episodes of these epic and cinematic TV series back to back is like watching a film.
We can say the same of shows like:
- Stranger Things – a complete and utter rollercoaster of emotions in every, single episode
- The Americans – gripping cold war era drama
- Fargo – based on a movie, and frankly, almost as good as watching the original film
These shows are addictive and enjoyable to watch which makes them a great way to get American English listening practice. If you’d like to learn how to understand American accents, keep reading!
American English Listening Practice With TV Series
If you need American English listening practice and you’re not living in the USA, then watching American TV series can be a great way to immerse yourself in American English.
But movies and TV series can be harder to understand than real-life conversations! Weird right? Well not so much when you consider that in face to face conversations you’ve got:
- Shared, concrete context – if you know the person then it’s pretty easy to follow them as they talk about their life
- Body language
- Lip movements
- The opportunity to interrupt to ask for repetition and clarifications
- Disfluency features to help you: repetitions, false starts, hesitations, pauses. You can filter out all these features to get to the message.
So yeah, I get it, it seems easier.
That’s why in this post you’ll work on some clips from three of my favourite American English TV shows so that you can understand them. Sound good? Let’s go.
American English Listening Practice: A Quick Guide To My Abbreviations
Now, of course, connected speech features and the rhythm of English make any type of English tricky to understand. They just tend to be “worse” in conversational English.
Connected speech features or “magic tricks” as I call them.
- Joining sounds: consonant + vowel links or vowel + vowel links.
- For a while => fora
- I agree => Iyagree
- Do it=> dowit
- Disappearing sounds: often ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds in the middle or at the ends of words disappear. Or the second sound from a diphthong. That means the pronoun ‘I’ often sound like ‘ah’ because we lose the second sound from /aɪ/
- Transforming sounds: when ‘t’ + ‘y’ come together to make ‘tch’ or ‘d’ + ‘y’ => ‘dj’
- So ‘sent you’ sounds like ‘sen chew’ and ‘would you’ sounds like ‘wou chew’
- Glottal stop: a sound you make by closing your vocal chords. This sound often replaces “missing” ‘t’ or ‘d’ sounds as well as ‘k’ or ‘p’. I represent it in writing as an apostrophe. The phonetic symbol looks like this /ʔ/
- Contractions: I am=> I’m; we have => we’ve; she would => she’d; they will => they’ll. These are tricky to catch and explain a lot of your listening difficulties when it comes to verb tenses.
- Squashed expressions: expressions containing multiple features like “I’m gonna” => contractions, disappearing sounds, joining sounds.
- Relaxed sounds: /ə/ or /ɪ/. These occur in unstressed words or syllables. I write schwa as ‘uh’. Typical unstressed words are auxiliary verbs (be, have, do, modals), prepositions (at, to, for) and pronouns (him, we, our).
These aren’t so common in movie dialogue, but you might hear:
- Hesitation sounds: umm or err
#1 A Love Letter To The 80s: Stranger Things
You can watch the first 8 minutes of Stranger Things here:
If you’re of a nervous disposition, don’t watch the first 1’44 with the lights off.
Just after that you’ll see 4 boys sitting around a table playing fantasy board game Dungeons and Dragons. Apparently that’s what American kids did in the 80s.
Don’t ask me. I was born in 1985. And I’m British.
Mike is pretty easy to understand initially because he’s narrating the game, speaking slowly and dramatically.
“Something is coming”
“Something hungry for blood”
“A shadow grows on the wall behind you” sounds like “uh shadow growson thuh wall behindjuh”
- Relaxed sounds: a, the, you
- Joining sounds: grows + on
- Transforming sounds: ‘behind’ + ‘you’ => djuh
“swallowing you in darkness it is almost here”
Strangely, Mike emphasises the word ‘it’. Normally this is one of the harder to catch words in spoken English.
“What is it?” sounds like “whadisit?”
Will, joins together ‘what’ and ‘is’ and the ‘t’ sounds more like a ‘d’ in his American accent.
“What if it’s the demogorgon?”
“Oh Jesus we’re so screwed if it’s the demogorgon”
The demogorgon is one of the mythical creatures in the game. What’s tricky here is the way Dustin says “what if it’s”. It sounds like “whatdifits”
“told you” sounds like ‘todjuh’.
- Transforming sounds: Told + you => djuh
This expression is short for ‘told you so’ in other words, I was right all along and you were wrong!
#2 The US Series That’s Half In Russian: The Americans
The Americans is also set in the 1980s and is about a couple of Russian spies pretending to be ordinary US citizens.
FX won’t let me watch any of the clips on YouTube because I’m outside the US, so I’m sharing the season 5 trailer with you.
“I feel like there’s a whole other you I don’t know at all”
- “There’s” sounds like “ders”. Sometimes English speakers are too lazy to pronounce ‘th’
- “At all” sounds like “adall” thanks to the consonant plus vowel link.
“The centre is concerned about you”
If you know the series, then you know that “the centre” means the KGB headquarters.
- Transforming sounds: “About you” sounds like “abou chew”
“Do you know something about this that I don’t?”
- Relaxed sounds: “Do you” sounds like “duh yuh”
- Disappearing sounds: “About this” sounds like “abou’ this”
- Squashed expression: “That I don’t” sounds like “thadi don’”
#3 Ewan McGregor x 2: Fargo Season 3
Want to save money on actors? Get one to play two roles. Ewan McGregor plays both Stussy brothers in Fargo season 3.
Every season of this series is based on the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name. I guess that speeds up the creation process.
“I’m going to search the rest of the house” => am gonna search thuh restuh thuh house
- Disappearing sounds: i’m => am
- Relaxed sounds: ‘the’, ‘a’,
- Joining sounds: rest + a
- Squashed expressions: going to => gonna
“What can I do for you here Ray?” => wha’ canah do fuh yuh here Ray
- Glottal stops: ‘what’ => wha’
- Joining sounds: can + I
- Disappearing sounds: I => ah
- Relaxed sounds: for, you
“What did you do?” => wha’ didjuh do?
- Glottal stops: ‘what’ => wha’
- Transforming sounds: did + you => d + y => didjuh
- Relaxed sounds: you
“Why don’t you start from the beginning?” => why donchuh star’ from thuh buhginning?
- Transforming sounds: don’t + you => t + y => don chuh
- Glottal stops: ‘start’ => star’
- Relaxed sounds: from, the, beginning
American English Listening Practice: What Will You Watch?
So, has this post given you ideas for getting American English listening practice with TV series? Let me know in the comments what you’re watching and which series you find easiest or hardest to understand.
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