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Friends is more than a catchy theme song and coffee shop banter. For many English-language learners around the world, the seminal sitcom is an unconventional classroom, offering glimpses into American life they’ll seldom find in textbooks.
Since airing on NBC from 1994 to 2004, with more than 30 million loyal viewers each week, Friends has solidified its place as a cultural touchstone. The series made an even larger impact when it was syndicated in 100-plus countries — including Spain, Bulgaria, China, Turkey. The show moved to streaming services in 2018, where it remains in heavy rotation.
For nearly three decades, experts say, generations of English learners have binge-watched the show to sharpen their speaking skills and American phrases.
Me: Wow, your English is perfect
Young Mongolian woman: Thanks!
Me: How did you learn it?
Me: American or English friends?
Her: No. The show Friends! I watched all ten seasons five times!
— Chris Arnade 🐢🐱🚌 (@Chris_arnade) October 27, 2023
With the sudden, shocking death of Mathew Perry on Oct. 28, fans are remarking how his portrayal of the sarcastic Chandler Bing — as well as the performances of co-stars Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer — was their entry points into American language... and life.
Binge-learning with Friends
Over the years, numerous celebrities whose first language wasn’t English have credited Friends with helping them learn the nuances of the language. That list includes Ana de Armas, Korean pop star RM and several Latino MLB players, all of whom claimed to have perfected the language by emulating characters in the show.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Melissa Baese-Berk, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Chicago, who tells Yahoo Entertainment that learning English from TV shows is “far more engaging than a textbook.”
Unlike other programs that encourage listeners to self-repeat “audio tracks” to absorb information, TV shows provide non-native viewers with a variety of knowledge and cues through observation, such as body language, vocal tone and emotional subtext, Baese-Berk says. That allows viewers to sense a character’s intentions or understand why certain jokes land while others fall flat.
This is called “incidental learning,” she explains, "and language learning through film and TV are good opportunities for all of that."
I think Matthew Perry and the rest of the cast are responsible for more people around the world learning English than any other show I know. Every time I ask somebody how do you speak English so well, that’s amazing. They said… I watched friends.
— Jem Costa (@jemtherevelator) October 29, 2023
Ángela Larrea Espinar, a professor of English studies at the University of Córdoba in Spain, has included episodes of Friends in her curriculum for years. She says students have been “very responsive” to learning through watching, more so than other traditional methods.
“English-language textbooks are very interesting but usually the culture you see is very restrictive,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. When trying to access language, she continues, “culture has to be learned and observed.”
“It’s about more than grammar and language,” says Espinar. “Audiovisual resources, in terms of cultural knowledge, open those possibilities because TV or films or sitcoms recreate everyday life. You are watching people and learning what kind of humor is typical for people [to use] in that country, how they behave, or how to act normal in nonverbal aspects, like when people stand close to each other. So, you can analyze a lot more things.”
The Chandler Effect
When it comes to deciphering humor, Baese-Berk says watching the witty and sarcastic Chandler Bing crash and burn in awkward situations is an “efficient and effective” way for non-native speakers to learn.
“It’s hard to teach humor and sarcasm in a language, especially because it’s so situational. But with Chandler, sarcasm is his M.O. It’s the way he functions,” she explains. “If you’re a person trying to learn when it’s appropriate to [tell a joke] or not, you’re kind of learning by these examples instead of learning by instruction.”
Mimicking Chandler’s famous phrases can work as well. In her opening monologue on Saturday Night Live in April, de Armas remarked, "Who would have thought that the best English tutor would be Chandler Bing? I mean, look at me now. Could I be any better at English?”
Says Espinar, “Chandler was the one that encapsulated everything” about American humor, which her students respond to the most. “And because they also watched the episodes in Spanish, it’s easier for them to understand and connect the jokes.”
Laura Noble, founder of Smashing English, a YouTube series dedicated to help English-language learners, says immersion is key to understanding how to land a joke.
“Many English learners want to feel like they can express themselves through humor in the same way as they would in their native language,” she says. “However, this is extremely hard to achieve without immersing yourself in the culture.”
Noble says Chandler, “a master of sarcasm” is the perfect “character to study if you want to understand how to use sarcasm in English.”
She points to a particular scene when Phoebe (Kudrow) gets Chandler and Monica (Cox) a life-sized present wrapped in shiny blue paper: Phoebe exclaims, “I got you a present!” to which Chandler replies in a monotone deadpan: “Oh my goodness, where did you hide it?”
“If you listen to the intonation of his voice, how his pitch and volume do not change at all, it’s a perfect example of how to deliver sarcasm,” she says. “Overall, I think if any English learner wants to take their English to a place where they feel comfortable enough to make jokes and express themselves through humor, they should look to Friends.”
“We certainly didn’t write it as a grammar primer,” its creators say
According to a 2012 study by Kaplan International Colleges, an international education service provider, 82% of people have watched TV shows to learn English. Of that number, 26% claimed that Friends was at the top of their list.
The show’s impact hasn’t been missed by co-creators David Crane and Marta Kauffman: “It’s funny, because it’s such colloquial English,” Crane told Variety in 2019.
That was intentional on their part, right down to the “likes” and "uhs," with Crane later quipping: “We certainly didn’t write it as a grammar primer.”
I learned English watching Friends and I learned humor watching Chandler Bing. I owe so much to Matthew Perry and I mourn his loss, as I’m sure millions of others are too. His memory will forever live on as the beloved king of sarcasm with a heart of gold pic.twitter.com/TcYvq4vilt
— Lior Hamovitz 🌍 (@LiorHamovitz) October 29, 2023
Of the number of MLB players who turned to Friends to sharpen their wit, Kauffman later noted, “You always want your show to be enjoyable and for people to say, ‘Oh my God, I love watching your show.’ But what you don’t expect is for it to accomplish something, and this feels mighty fine.”
“To the player whose wife is sick of watching it so much,” she added, “I apologize.”
“It really is like losing a friend”
News of Perry’s death struck a nerve among many people who have viewed him as a teacher, which is to be expected, says Baese-Berk.
“For a lot of people, especially those who learned English and credit Friends, there seems to be a particular soft spot for Chandler,” she says. “When somebody has a big impact on you, and how you’re able to function in the world, it doesn’t matter if that person is a fictional character or a real person you do or don’t know, you’re going to create an emotional bond.”
Because they have credited Perry for helping them “function in a global society in a better way,” losing him is “a big hit” for many, she adds.
So upset to hear about the passing of Matthew Perry. You’d be surprised how many Iranians have told me that they learnt English from Friends & how impactful that show was for them. He will always be remembered as someone who warmed our hearts & taught us meaningful lessons about…
— ♔ Yassi ♔ (@YassiGe) October 29, 2023
“It feels like a personal loss, even though it is not,” says Espinar, who credits that bond to the power of television. “Movies can be long, but TV shows are different. You watch them day after day. You feel like you have a long-term relationship with these characters. Losing them feels like you’re losing someone close to you.”
“I have seen many episodes over 10 times each and I have still not grown tired of it,” adds Noble, which is why she believes English learners will carry Perry’s legacy forward. And that’s a “very special” thing.
“Losing [Perry] will undoubtedly make these viewers reflect on happy memories of laughing, cringing and crying with him,” she says. “It really is like losing a friend.”