An episode generally lasts 30 minutes - so we don't have to worry about students getting bored or losing the plot - as sometimes happens when we watch a feature film. Sitcoms are often repetitive too. Students who watch more than one episode become familiar with the characters and their catchphrases. As students begin to predict how a character might behave in a particular circumstance they will become more motivated and enjoy a sense of achievement.
Sitcoms provide us with authentic English in all its guises. The situations that the "sit" refers to are often situations that are universal. Students are already familiar with the basic set up - even though things are never quite the same in another country. ‘Dodgy Del Boy' (A character from the TV show ‘Only Fools and Horses') characters exist all over the world although rather than dealing in fake antiques or stolen perfumes they might instead be involved in olive oil deals, pirated DVDs or bogus wine labels. Who isn't familiar with the ‘Sybil Fawlty' (A character from the show ‘Faulty Towers') type - complete with illusions of grandeur and an exasperating realisation of having married the wrong man?
Traditional English teaching videos that are specifically designed for the classroom lack a vital element that only authentic material can provide. The speech is often slowed down and laboured; the situations at best implausible, at worst banal.
Very often teachers underestimate the ability of their students to understand authentic language and so they shy away from real material in favour of these purpose-made recordings. Or worse, they don't use any videos - thereby denying their classes the opportunity to get used to real English, spoken by real English speakers, in realistic situations. Students get listening practice with tapes and CDs but we shouldn't underestimate the value of the visual element a video provides. A large part of communication is non verbal. Being able to see gestures and facial expressions helps students grasp the meaning of the words spoken and also any underlying insinuations. Sitcoms are full of unspoken innuendos.
Sitcoms are funny and everybody enjoys laughing. Watching a humorous video clip in class can be rewarding for students and helps to create a positive classroom atmosphere. This in turn can only have a positive effect on the learning experience. Even if the comedy isn't all that funny it only takes one person to laugh and everybody else will soon join in. As the poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox said "Laugh and the world laughs with you". To watch, enjoy and understand a clip of an authentic British sitcom can be highly motivating. And if a teacher prepares their students effectively for what they are about to watch there should be few problems in understanding.
Sitcoms are full of cultural references. Depending on the situation these references might portray regional differences throughout the UK, the British class system, family issues, religion, race and ethnicity, gender issues, social issues, politics and numerous others. Think about it! First think of an episode of your favourite sitcom. Now imagine watching it through the eyes of one of your students. Everything that passes almost unnoticed by somebody brought up in the UK will be picked up on and stored by your student; the clothes, the furniture, the velvet curtains or the three flying ducks on the living room wall.
Varieties of English
Every successful British sitcom has its trademark English, from Del Boy's Cockney accent and attempts at talking "posh". There are sitcoms from up north, down south and everywhere in between. This exposure to different varieties of English introduces the idea to learners that there isn't just one standardised version of the language. All too often the only reference to spoken English that students have is the accent of wherever their teacher happens to come from or wherever their teacher's teacher came from. How many times have we heard "I understand everything in class but when I went to the UK in the summer I didn't understand a word!"?
Availability of materials
All of the successful British sitcoms are available on video or DVD. Whole series can be bought through websites like Amazon or e-bay. Another great source is Youtube. A simple search for any of the major - and even lesser known sitcoms throws up scores of video clips. Sometimes whole episodes are serialised into five or six short videos making it possible to watch a whole 30 minute programme in five or six ‘bites'. There is always a risk that a video clip you are planning to watch will disappear from the website but with the most popular sitcoms this is less likely to happen.
Comparisons with L1 culture
Students love watching videos that reflect Britishness. They like to see how British people live, what they eat, how they spend their free time. They love seeing typical British homes and institutions, British countryside and British weather. Our students like to confirm their perceptions of British stereotypes and they like to be surprised by aspects of British culture that they didn't know about before. This is usually true for students of all ages and backgrounds. By learning more about the culture of the country they stop seeing English as a language in isolation but start to understand the wider implications of a language's link to its culture(s). This is the same for learners of any language. The more we know about the culture of the language we are learning - the better our understanding of that language will be.
If you haven't used a sitcom as a classroom resource I'd recommend you to give it a try. Students will appreciate the opportunity to watch something that is so British. Whatever they think of the programme itself, they will have the chance to hear a variety of English accents and to pick up some new expressions. If they share the British sense of humour they will find the experience even more rewarding. And who knows? One of the classic British sitcoms might even acquire some new overseas fans.
Written by Katherine Bilsborough, British Council, Spain
First published 2009