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How ‘Friends’ helps people around the world learn English

Seventeen years after the final “Friends” episode, students and educators say that the show, still seen widely in syndication around the world, works well as a learning resource.

By: New York Times |
May 31, 2021 10:37:58 am
“Friends” may have endured as a teaching tool in part because the internet has made it accessible to new generations of fans.

Written by Mike Ives

True or false: In the television show “Friends,” Monica Geller was invited to Rachel Green’s wedding.

The question is part of an English lesson for international students in San Jose, California, that is based entirely on the show’s pilot episode. It was designed by Elif Konus, a teacher from Turkey who once binge-watched “Friends” to improve her own English.

The class, and the teacher’s TV habits, illustrate an international phenomenon that emerged in the 1990s and has endured across generations: Young people who aren’t native English speakers appear to enjoy learning the language with help from the hit sitcom.

Seventeen years after the final “Friends” episode, students and educators say that the show, still seen widely in syndication around the world, works well as a learning resource. The dad jeans and cordless telephones may look dated, but the plot twists — falling in love, starting a career and other seminal moments in a young person’s life — are still highly relatable.

“It’s really entertaining compared to other sitcoms, and it addresses universal issues,” Konus, 29, said by telephone from her home in Monterey, California. “The themes, if you ask me, speak to everyone.”

Over the years, several prominent celebrities have said that they learned English from “Friends.” The list includes Jürgen Klopp, the German soccer coach who helms Liverpool in the English Premier League; a number of Major League Baseball players whose first language is Spanish; and Kim Nam-joon, leader of the South Korean pop group BTS.

“I thought I was kind of like a victim at that time, but right now, I’m the lucky one, thanks to my mother,” Kim, who performs under the stage name RM, told television host Ellen DeGeneres in 2017. “She bought all the seasons.”

The “Friends” reunion episode that premiered Thursday on HBO Max included a cameo by the members of BTS and scenes from the show that had been translated into French, Japanese and Spanish. Fans around the world, from Ghana to Mexico, also reminisced about how the show helped them cope with personal dilemmas or tragedies.

Measuring the popularity of “Friends” as a teaching resource is an inexact science because so many people watch it outside of formal classrooms. But educators, academic studies and page-view data suggest that the show still has a wide following among English-language learners.

Elif-Konus, an teacher from Turkey who once binge-watched “Friends” to improve her own English and now incorporates the show into her own EFL lessons. (Photo Credit: Nic Coury/The New York Times)

“I’ve been on YouTube for 13 years and I have not been posting ‘Friends’ content the whole time,” said Rachel Smith, founder of the learning site Rachel’s English, based in Philadelphia. “But I’ve definitely never sensed that the time for it has passed.”

In one apparent sign of that, “Friends”-based learning videos that Smith posted in 2019 have received significantly more views per day on average — 839 — than those featuring other shows or movies, she said. After the United States, the most popular markets for her videos as a whole are Vietnam, India, Brazil, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea.

Other seminal American TV shows can serve a similar learning function, Smith said, but they tend to be too particular for nonnative English speakers. The humor in “Seinfeld” is a bit too gritty and New York-specific, for example, while “The Big Bang Theory” could come across as too much of a “scientific nerd thing.”

“Other shows do work,” she said. “‘Friends’ just seems to have the magic something that is even more attractive.”

Fans and educators on three continents echo the sentiment, saying that “Friends” is a near-perfect amalgam of easy-to-understand English and real-life scenarios that feel familiar even to people who live worlds away from Manhattan’s West Village.

Kim Sook-han, 45, known in South Korea for her YouTube videos about teaching herself English, said that the show helped her understand the basics of American culture, including which holidays are celebrated in the United States, as well as how people there deal with conflicts between friends and family members.

“My favorite character is Monica because I think we have similar personalities,” she added. “She is very meticulous and clean and always insists on using a coaster because she hates when a cup leaves water stains on a table.”

A few fans said they could pinpoint precisely when and where they saw “Friends” for the first time.

Konus was teaching English at a military academy in Ankara, Turkey, six years ago when she noticed that her roommate kept laughing while watching “Friends” on a laptop. Konus began watching “nonstop,” she said, and learned far more about English than she had in years of grammar-based classes.

Jamie Ouyang, 30, discovered the show during her last year of high school in south-central China when she bought a box set in her hometown, Changsha, for about $15. She was hooked from the first episode, in which Rachel, played by Jennifer Aniston, meets the other characters in a wedding dress after abandoning her groom at the altar.

Ouyang, who attended college in Ohio and now works as a film producer in Beijing, said that “Friends” gave her the confidence to make small talk with Americans. It was comforting, she added, to see Rachel make grammatical errors on her resume.

“But Rachel also grew a lot: She did well at her job and found her own path,” Ouyang said. “Over time, I noticed that people stopped teasing her about her grammar. I paid close attention to that.”

“Friends” may have endured as a teaching tool in part because the internet has made it accessible to new generations of fans. YouTube, especially, allows nonnative speakers to watch clips without having to, say, buy pirated DVDs under a bridge, as Ouyang did in China 12 years ago.

Another reason, said Ángela Larrea Espinar, a professor in the department of English studies at the University of Córdoba in Spain, is that people who teach foreign languages have gradually shifted over the last two decades from a “communicative” approach that emphasizes grammar to one that encourages cross-cultural understanding and reflection.

“Culture is a difficult thing to teach, and if you rely on textbooks what you get is stereotypes,” she said.

To avoid the textbook trap, Konus, the English teacher in California, built lesson plans around the sitcom’s 1994 pilot episode. In addition to the question about whether Monica, played by Courteney Cox, was invited to Rachel’s wedding (answer: false), there are exercises that ask students to analyze scenes, idioms and character motivations.

Why, for example, does Rachel breathe into a paper bag? And what does Monica mean when she tells Joey Tribbiani, played by Matt LeBlanc, to “stop hitting on” her friend? (Answers: “She is scared of her decision about living on her own” and, “to try to start a conversation with someone that you are interested in.”)

Konus said that her students — who are from Brazil, China, Colombia, Japan, South Korea and Turkey — generally like the “Friends” lessons and end up binge-watching the show on their own. They also slip lines from it into conversation, including Joey’s signature “How you doin’?” greeting, and mimic the depressive way in which David Schwimmer’s character, Ross Geller, says “Hi.”

After one class, a Turkish student observed that her teacher’s English sounded not quite native, but also “not Turkish.” Konus said she took the comment as high praise.

How, the student asked, could one hope to reach the same level of English proficiency?

“Just watch ‘Friends’ and try to imitate the characters,” Konus told her. “You’ll get there.”

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