Among advanced English students, one of the most popular ways to practise English listening is to watch movies or TV shows in English (usually with subtitles). If you do that, then great—keep watching! After all, movies and TV shows usually have a natural, native English, or at least close to natural. That is, the people speak very quickly, use conversational vocabulary (including a lot of phrasal verbs and idioms), and elide often. And if you’re going to have conversations with native speakers or live in an English speaking country, then you will definitely want to understand full-speed, natural English.
But watching TV may not help your TOEFL scores, specifically. Well, it will help some, of course—any practice is good practice! But it won’t help to prepare you for the particularly difficult parts of the TOEFL. In other words, English movies and TV are very difficult, and the TOEFL is difficult, but they’re difficult in different ways.
What Makes TOEFL Listening Difficult?
The TOEFL listening section can be difficult even for a native speaker. I’m not trying to scare you if you’re new to the TOEFL; I just want to clarify what, exactly, you should be practising. After all, watching a movie isn’t difficult for a native speaker—it’s one of the easiest, most comfortable things! So it’s important to consider what exactly is different about the TOEFL, and how you should prepare for it.
The big difference is that ⅔ of the recordings on the TOEFL are lectures. They’re not conversations, which you might be used to and more comfortable with (especially if you like watching English TV). Lectures are different for a couple of reasons:
1) You have to consider the structure
In a conversation, you rarely have to think about the relationships between ideas—instead, the focus is usually on different peoples’ opinions, not on complicated, extensive information. In a lecture, though, you have to consider the structure of the talk and the importance of specific information. You have to identify the main ideas and know how they’re explained—when the professor is giving an example when he/she is defining a core concept, and when the information is just extra, unnecessary detail.
2) There is a lot of information
If you want to succeed on the TOEFL listening, you have to take great notes or have a good short-term memory. Ideally, you’ll have both. You’ll hear a lot of information, and then you’ll be asked six questions, some about very specific details that were buried in that 5-minute recording.
3) There is less change
Lectures, in comparison to conversations, can be a bit boring. Listening to just one person talk for an extended time can be tough. Students who become distracted during the test, who start to think about other things and lose focus, will often have trouble remembering the specifics of what they heard. This, again, means it’s very important to practise taking notes. Doing so can help keep you focused.
4) You might hear a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary.
There are two types of tough vocabulary words in TOEFL listening: words specific to the topic that you are not expected to know before listening and words that are used often in general, academic English, not specific to the lecture topic. The first type (topic-specific) is a challenge for everybody, but it’s not so bad. If you listen closely and understand the other words, then those topic-specific words or phrases will be defined. But the second group, academic vocabulary, will not be defined in most cases. You simply have to know them. These are words you might see in writing, but you won’t usually hear from friends who speak English or from English TV and movies.
Watching Movies and TV Still Helps
The truth is that movies and TV are a still great way to practise general English listening and more informal English. And the TOEFL does include informal English, too—you will hear both students and professors using conversational words and phrases. So the vocabulary you might learn from watching TV can help.
But the main message here is that you shouldn’t just watch movies and TV. You also need to practice listening to lectures and taking notes. Only by doing that will you improve the specific skills that the TOEFL tests.