Learning English on Netflix is a lot of fun (check out some great options of what shows to start with here and here), and it’s even more rewarding when you’re watching a great documentary. You’ll perfect your grammar, expand your vocab, improve your pronunciation, AND become educated on topics as varied as history, civil rights, architecture and food at the same time – how grown up!
Here are 10 of the best Netflix documentaries to learn English with:
This show starts with filmmaker Bryan Fogel aiming to uncover the truth around doping (taking drugs to improve performance) in professional sports – but his journey turns into a political thriller once he starts peeling back the layers of top-level sports. It’ll make you question what you think you know about sports and how good athletes really are.
2. The Vietnam War
OK, if you want to watch this one you’ll need to set aside some time. A LOT OF TIME. It’s 17 hours long. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. Luckily, it’s actually really good and teaches you a lot about not only the war and American politics, but also the technical language related to both topics. SO informed.
I’ll warn you that this one’s pretty powerful and very thought-provoking. It looks at the treatment of black people in the US following the passage of the 13th amendment, which saw the abolishment of slavery in America in the 19th century. It’s directed by Ava DuVernay, who directed the award-winning Selma, so you know it’ll be good.
4. De Palma
If you love movies, you’ll appreciate this insight into the life of master filmmaker Brian De Palma. He gets interviewed by Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow (younger brother of Gwyneth, fact fans!) and discloses the secret truth behind some of his films, including what happened when his best friends/fellow directors George Lucas and Martin Scorsese got super famous and he didn’t. I live for the gossip.
5. Making a Murderer
You might have already seen this super-popular show, and now there’s a second season that picks up not only where the first left off, but with actual updates that happened AFTER the first season aired. The documentary follows a court case of an American man jailed for a crime he claims he didn’t commit, digging into suspicious police motives and revealing various twists that prove real life is way more interesting than fiction. Essential viewing for anyone who wants to talk about law and crime in English.
6. The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes
If you’re looking for something lighter than crime and political discussion, then try this feel-good series where two British property enthusiasts spend a night at some of the world’s most amazing homes: there’s the treehouse in a forest near New York, the hidden house on a tiny island in Norway, and the wooden home nestled in ancient trees in New Zealand. It’s a great watch, and wannabe architects should definitely pay attention to the technical lingo in English.
7. Chasing Coral
If you’re passionate about environmental activism, then this is the English language lesson you need. Coral reefs are precious ocean ecosystems that are on the frontline of climate change, so it’s vital we preserve them. This show follows a team of researchers studying the extent and rate of coral bleaching around the world with a focus on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. If nothing else, the scenery looks amazing, so that’s a plus.
As the name suggests, this documentary series focuses on the relationship between humans and dogs. It’s a wonderful look into the interspecies relationship that’s defined thousands of years of human development, and where it’ll go in the future. If you have a dog, it will make you love them so much more: if you don’t have a dog, you’ll want one. Adopt responsibly.
9. Planet Earth
Originally aired on the UK’s BBC network, this stunning series is narrated by legendary British natural historian, David Attenborough (known for his soothing voice, perfect English pronunciation, and expert knowledge of everything wildlife-based). True to form, this series follows him exploring some of the most magical, incredible and secret things happening in the natural world every day on Planet Earth.
10. Chef’s Table
If you love food as much as I do, you’ll find any shows about cooking really interesting. This immersive documentary profiles a different chef in each episode, most of them innovative and award-winning. Make sure you catch the episode about the Milk Bar in New York, where the head chef is famous for making experimental desserts from childhood candy and baked goods. It’ll make you want to travel the world and eat as much as you can (if you haven’t planned that already), while speaking excellent English, of course.