Language teaching has changed in recent years.
“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 Ms. 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, Ms. 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.”)
Ms. 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.”