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Learning Spanish by Telenovelas




Want to learn Spanish? Want a method that is free, fun, and definitely not boring?

Study by Telenovelas!

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What is a telenovela?

A telenovela (TN) is a Spanish language soap opera. The most popular ones appear in the evening (7 to 10 PM) on the Univision and Telemundo networks. Each show is one hour, Monday through Friday. One series will typically run for seven to fourteen months. The final show of the series typically features a wedding between the two leads, some horrible death or “fate worse than death” for the worst villain(s), and redemption for the bad guys who were less evil than the villain. Are they cheesy? Por supuesto que sí! (Of course!) They’re soap operas! But they really are engaging, and sometimes the cheesiness is part of the fun. They also are racey, just like American soaps. There is usually a strong moral component – the evil are punished and the good are rewarded. As one friend said, they are “Sunday school with sex.”

How much do you want to learn?

If you want to watch TNs to improve your Spanish, you have to decide how much you want to get out of it. Do you want to study or relax? Deliberate study requires more work, but of course it produces faster results. Despite the work, study by TN's is still more fun than any Spanish class I’ve ever taken, and the "teachers" are much better looking (disculpame, Maestro).

Here's what worked for me.

Before I discovered TNs, I had taken weekly Spanish classes with limited results. When I started watching my first novela (LFMB), I could understand very little of it. Within two months, using this study method, my comprehension had doubled! Within 18 months, I was ready to write recaps without closed captions! (More on recaps below.) Be advised, I do not have a natural gift for learning languages; I’m actually below average. And I'm no spring chicken either, so don't hide behind the excuse that you are too old to learn.

  1. Watch and record the show at night.
  2. Print out the recap (see below) the next morning.
  3. Re-watch the episode with the recap in hand. Read a scene in the recap, then watch the scene. Listen for the key words that tell you they are saying what is in the recap. As you progress, try to decipher entire sentences.
  4. Repeat for the next scene, etc.
  5. Write down words or phrases that you like. Keep a list, and try to incorporate some into your vocabulary. One of the favorites from TN “study” was, "Cuándo me vas a dejar en paz?" (When will you leave me in peace?).

Note, my comprehension on the second viewing was vastly greater than in the first pass. Why? It was my second hearing, I had slept on it (I think that is important), and I knew what to expect because I had just read the scene in the recap.

Closed Captions? All the TN's have closed captions in Spanish. Should you turn them on or off? It depends on your learning style. For me, watching without captions works best because the captions distract me from the spoken Spanish. Others report the opposite. You may want to turn them on for the first pass and off for the second viewing. Or you could watch without captions, but turn them on to replay and decipher something you really care about, or to write down a vocabulary item. Be advised, don’t put too much confidence in the captions. They are full of errors.

Another Take. See Andrew's The Telenovela Method of Learning Spanish for someone else's method of telenovela study.

Is that enough?

If you are serious about learning Spanish, a little study outside of TN's will make a big difference. For me, TN's are my primary method of language study, but not my only method. I also incorporate the following.

Why telenovelas?

Why not news shows, game shows, interview programs, etc.? I believe TNs are particularly well suited to language study.

Recaps

What do I mean by “recaps”? At Caray Caray, volunteers write English language summaries of each day’s episode of Univision’s evening novelas. The recap is normally posted some time the next morning. It’s not a transcript, and it’s not just a strict retelling of what transpired. Instead the recappers give commentary on the important parts, skim over some of the useless stuff, and add their own style of humor. Then the viewing community comments. A large percentage of the people commenting on the recaps are watching novelas to improve their Spanish, just like you. If you read a scene in the recap before you watch the scene, it is a tremendous aid in deciphering the Spanish.

Advanced Study: How is language learned?

So a complete study program involves vocabulary and grammar, speaking and listening, and reading and writing. You can combine those ingredients more easily than you think. In fact, you’ll learn better and you’ll enjoy it more if you cover all the angles. Each element supports the others, but most study programs tend to focus on only two elements. (Which two? It depends on the program.) I tend to follow a ping-pong approach, working on one area for awhile and then jumping to another. Take a look at this list for ideas to cover each area. Note that reading and writing involves the most work but it produces the most results.

Paula's Ping Pong Plan

Here's a study plan for you to consider. A sort of ping-pong study plan. Study a chapter of Practical Spanish Grammar (Prado). Then do something with real language, not workbook exercises. You could read a bilingual reader (same story in both languages), or transcribe a scene from a favorite novela, or memorize sentences from 1001 Most Useful Spanish Words, or learn some words of wisdom from the Dichos page and try to start using them. Whatever it is, do something with real Spanish that forces you to think, something where you are more actively involved, not just letting novelas wash over your ears. As you do, you'll start noticing some grammar structures you learned about in Prado. And you'll notice other grammar things that you don't recognize. You can use Barron’s Spanish Grammar handbook to figure those out. Then ping-pong back to your Prado and read another chapter, then go back to the reading/memorizing.

Along the way, start building your own list of vocabulary you want to learn. That will be much more meaningful than a list in some book. Gather words you like from your TN, your reading, your dichos, and your sentence memorization. For listening comprehension, see the suggestions above, regarding learning by TN's. Read an article from El Universal’s Twitter page or a bilingual reader. Look for a study partner who wants to learn English, or practice conversation on a web site like LiveMocha.com. The idea is to study your telenovela as your main resource, and then complete your study plan with some grammar, vocabulary, reading, writing, and conversation.

Listening Comprehension

You learn to understand spoken Spanish when you study by TN's, as described above. I also listen to Spanish language music (I love Alejandro Fernandez's Viento a Favor CD). You might try Spanish radio talk shows (I like Javier Poza on Radio Formula - a beautiful radio voice, exquisite diction, and a really nice guy). As you listen, write down words and phrases you want to remember. This feeds into your vocabulary study.

Vocabulary

I believe vocabulary is learned best when it’s relevant. So don’t study a word list from a book; make your own. Watching TN’s, write down interesting or useful words and add them to your word list. When you try to speak Spanish and get stuck because you don’t know a word, look it up and add it to your word list. You will be motivated to learn it because you didn’t have it when you needed it.

Making a list won’t help you if you don’t use it! I keep my personal glossary on the computer so it's easier to update, and I don't lose it. When you know a word well, remove it from the list. Your list will always be a work in progress. Some people make flash cards. Review one section daily until you know it well. I strongly believe you should review part of the list for a few minutes every day rather than heavy studying once a week. When you go back to it daily, your brain concludes that this is something you need every day, and it keeps it in the front of your memory. Look for opportunities to use your new words in your speaking practice.

I have two favorite resources for learning vocabulary. The first is WordReference.com, an on-line Spanish/English dictionary. It has usage notes, phrases which use the word, links to discussion forums about the word.. the list goes on and on. It’s vastly more informative than any paper dictionary. The second is 1001 Most Useful Spanish Words. A marvelous little two-dollar book. I memorize the sentences and it helps my vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. I find that when I memorize a whole sentence, it “sticks” better than individual words. By memorization, your brain starts to internalize the grammar and structure of the language. You’ll start to get a feel for the flow of Spanish sentences. 1001 is not your usual "where is the train station" kind of phrase book. Instead, it has sentences like, "Merece un premio por lo que ha hecho" (He deserves a prize for what he’s done).

For more ideas about learning vocabulary, see the How to Teach Vocabulary page.

Grammar

Find a Spanish grammar book that suits you. My favorite is Practical Spanish Grammar by Prado. It's clear, thorough, and well taught, and it will teach you everything you need to know. I just study the grammar part and skip the rest. If you learned the grammar years ago and you need to dust it off, I recommend Countdown to Spanish by Gail Stein. It goes too fast for beginners. But for those who are familiar with the grammar, it is a very fast way to refresh your knowledge, and it goes into some details that you may have missed the first time around. You may want to buy Barron's Spanish Grammar handbook as a reference book. It doesn't really teach grammar, but it's a great resource for finding the answers to questions.

Now put your grammar knowledge to work. Try to transcribe (write word-for-word) a favorite novela scene in Spanish. Pay attention to verb endings and object pronouns (me, te, lo, la, etc.). Look for the things you just learned about in your grammar book. When you transcribe dialog, you pay closer attention, you notice things you overlooked, you see how the grammar is actually used, and you discover grammar structures that you don't understand, which is good! It makes your grammar lessons more relevant. When you transcribe a scene, you also improve you listening comprehension and vocabulary.

On the Spanish Resources Menu, you'll find charts of the regular verbs, most common irregular verbs, and pronouns.

Speaking

Speaking Spanish brings together many of the other tasks. It's important to actually speak your Spanish aloud. It not only trains your tongue, it reinforces what you have learned by hearing yourself speak. If you are shy at first, start in private. I talk to my cat in Spanish. Sabes que? He ignores me in Spanish just like in English! When I'm driving or cleaning house, I speak my thoughts aloud in Spanish. It often points out gaps in my knowledge, showing things I need to go look up.

The very best way to get speaking practice is a "hairy dictionary" - a Spanish-speaking friend who wants to learn English. You help each other, learn about another culture, and build a friendship. With the growing Hispanic population, it’s getting easier than ever to find immigrants who want to improve their English. See Finding a Spanish Study Partner for suggestions of how to find someone. If that is not an option, you can find conversation partners on LiveMocha.com.

Learn some useful phrases and look for opportunities to use them. You could start with the most popular TN phrases like "No puede ser!" and "No lo puedo creer." Move on to everyday phrases like, "Que chistoso eres" (you're so funny) and "Dimelo a mi" (tell me about it! / you're telling me!). Once you master them, you'd be surprised how often you can use them.

Next learn some dichos, the proverbs and words of wisdom the Mexicans love so much. They are colorful, fun, and they feel good in the mouth. Here are a few favorites. Entre broma y broma, la verdad se asoma. (Between jokes, the truth shows up.) Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda. Even if the monkey dresses in silk, he's still a monkey.) Dichos not only give you speaking practice. They also are a good resource for vocabulary. Check here for more fun dichos.

Reading

I admit, laziness has kept me from doing much reading in Spanish, but I know it's an important part of a study plan. One convenient method is to check El Universal’s Twitter page and open an article that interests you. El Universal is a respected Mexican newspaper, and the articles are fairly short and well written on a wide variety of topics. If you get stuck, enter the article's web address in Google Translator. Apparently El Universal provides a translation of every article into reasonably good English for the translator sites. I also recommend dual language books. They have Spanish on one side and English on the other, and they are available in a variety of levels. Go to Amazon and search for "Spanish Dual Language."

For my compañero Carlos, reading has been a major part of his Spanish studies. I asked him for advice about increasing one's Spanish by reading, and I thank him for the following.

Learning Spanish can be difficult and stressful work, especially the task of listening to, interpreting, and then formulating a coherent response to what another person has said, and in an unfamiliar tongue, mind you. Now watching telenovelas gives us the opportunity to eavesdrop as others engage in this activity, thus allowing us to practice if you will, silently, within the safe confines of our own mind, by rehearsing our own responses to the conversations without risking the embarrassment of having to perform. Nevertheless it requires an acute concentration of effort, straining to hear and interpret not only what is said, but what is revealed through the body language, gestures, and even the positions and actions of the actors. All this takes place within a finite span of time. We're not given unlimited time to ponder what has been said because we must continually process what is being said. Pleasant and entertaining, but still requiring a fair amount of effort, certainly worth that effort, but significant effort nonetheless.

Reading can and should be an important part of learning Spanish. After all, for centuries, reading and writing was our primary way of communicating with those who are not within our immediate presence. We communicated, by our writing and their reading, with those from whom we are separated by both time as well as space. I submit that reading can be one of the most relaxing, arguably the most convenient, richest, and potentially most enjoyable activity available to increase our knowledge of Spanish. The luxury of having no time constraints or pressures is both liberating and reassuring. Sit down with a story, a poem, a letter, a book, accompanied by a reliable dictionary and a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Spanish, and the only limiting factor is the amount of time you have at your disposal to devote to the task. If what is written is understandable, you have at hand the ability and the tools to understand it. How powerful does that make you? No snap decisions or guesses needed. You can devote all the time you require to interpret the words before you. In addition to that, you have available the thoughts, ideas, and the offerings of the best of those who have ever put pen to paper. As if by magic, you are able to enjoy the words and creations of a long gone master of words... as fresh as they were that day long ago that they were written. Reading is an intimate exercise between two people, the writer, who may even no longer walk this earth, and the reader in the here and now, whom by this magic process are united for a time.

Reading offers also one of the best opportunities to enrich your vocabulary. You will encounter words that are unfamiliar, hence the dictionary. If you are reading a longer work, a book, you will absorb a great deal of that writer's vocabulary. You will encounter a treasure trove of words. Some you will add to your own active store of words and others you may not actively use but will recognize if you encounter them again, and if you continue your exposure to the Spanish language, you will.

What to read? I had the good fortune to have a wise mentor who selected my initial Spanish reading material, but once I realized that I could do it (thanks doña Adriana) the horse was out of the barn.

My first independent excursion was a Spanish translation of the Da Vinci Code. Not great literature, but certainly riveting and a lot of fun. My second independent selection was recommended by a Spanish speaking friend. It was Azteca, a Spanish translation of a racy (and dauntingly long) historical novel, Aztec by Gary Jennings. Took a while, but nevermind, once started, it was difficult to put down. What I'm recommending is pick something that you would want to read anyway, then find the Spanish translation. There are also a number of originally Spanish novels, short story anthologies, and poetry collections printed with English translations on the opposite pages. Very convenient. There are many Spanish language magazines and tabloids available. I'm especially fond of Vanidades a magazine with something for everyone. I've also been able to find a number of short stories and poems by Googling the authors names. The point is, the choices are almost limitless, just don't be frightened. Pick a book, a poem, a short story, a newspaper a magazine and leisurely enjoy. In doing so you will surely augment and enhance your Spanish skills.

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