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Learn Spanish by Watching TV: Here’s How to Learn Spanish with Telenovelas


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

If you have been learning Spanish for a while you have probably tried a few things by now: language classes, apps, podcasts, websites, using social media in Spanish, listening to music and reading books. They all have their place in learning Spanish. But there is one thing that will fast track your language studies, particularly for anyone learning Spanish. Telenovelas!

That’s right – Telenovelas – they’re the most Hispano-Latino-Spanish thing since these comedy cacti wearing sombreros.

I was recently asked to give a best man’s speech in Spanish with just a few months warning. I didn’t really know where to start, and goodness knows it’s tough for English speakers to learn a foreign language. I set about trying to learn Spanish as quickly as possible, using apps, YouTube videos and a textbook, before I stumbled across the Telenovela method. Apart from the time I spent in Spain, it was by far the most useful thing I did to prepare me for Spanish in the real world.

What are Telenovelas? TV Novels with High Drama

But what are Telenovelas and why are they useful to Spanish learners?

Telenovelas (literally television novels) are produced in Latin America, and are the most popular genre of programmes there. It’s estimated that over half of Latinos watch them, and they’re popular in Spain too. Telenovelas are broadly Spanish soap operas, but the chief difference is that they normally end after six months to a year, rather than running indefinitely. Consequently, they have a very defined story arc and are characterised by high drama, such as star-crossed lovers, betrayal, a man on a quest for revenge or twins separated at birth.

My First Spanish Telenovela: Betrayal, Cheating and Wicked Stepmothers

The first Telenovela I watched was a Mexican one called Teresa. From the title sequence alone I could tell the main character, Teresa, was bad, and not just because the lyrics were “Esa hembra es mala. Es Mala. Mala. Mala.” (That woman is bad. She’s bad. Bad. Bad.) But also because she was twirling around, wrapping herself in silks, while sneering at anyone else who entered the titles — no mean feat.

From what I could make out (and a little searching on the internet) our heroine, Teresa, grew up in grinding poverty (a common theme in telenovelas, given the unequal nature of Latin American society and the fact that poor women make up the majority of viewers). Due to a series of tragedies and humiliations, Teresa vowed to do whatever it took to be rich, essentially becoming, mala, mala, mala, as the song suggests.

Here she is, looking like, let’s be honest, she’s cooking up a scheme.

As I watched, I saw betrayal, cheating, kidnapping, wicked stepmothers and more. High drama indeed. I particularly liked the way the villains self-identified by sporting comedy mustaches, sneering and smirking. They also had a rather reckless tendency of talking to the camera to reveal their evil plan the moment they were alone. Sometimes they barely waited until their unsuspecting victim had left the room. It was almost Shakespearean.

Telenovelas are Big Business (Did You Know “Ugly Betty” Was Originally a Telenovela?)

Telenovelas are big business. As well as commanding huge audiences in domestic Latin American markets they do well overseas, including the US, Eastern Europe, Italy, Spain, and even Russia. One Brazilian Telenovela was sold to 87 countries, while other shows, such as “Ugly Betty” were remade for the English-language market.

In Spain the Telenovelas are called “culebrones” (literally long snakes) due to their winding, twisting plots. This is perhaps unsurprising, since the programme makers will shoot only around 20 episodes (i.e. four weeks) ahead. This allows them to react to viewers tastes, or end or extend the show according to its popularity.

Killing off 85% of the Cast in One Episode

One article described it this way, “Drastic measures are often used to increase ratings: one of Brazil’s most famous screenwriters once killed off 35 of a 40-strong cast in an earthquake…. Perhaps more than any other drama genre, telenovelas are reactive to viewers’ tastes. Baddies can become goodies and vice versa. In the dialogue between programme-maker and viewer, one network receives 250,000 emails and 30,000 calls a month, and spends millions on research.”

But even with the massive popularity of Telenovelas in the Hispanic world, the allure of Hollywood is still tempting for the most famous actors. Notable breakout successes include the Mexicans: Salma Hayek and Gael Garcia Bernal, and the Colombian actress, Sofia Vergara. (Here’s Salma below).

I am not going to say that Telenovelas are always the best-acted shows out there. Whenever I saw the heavily mustachioed villain in Teresa shark his way across the screen, I didn’t get the sense I was watching a future star. But that didn’t make it any less enjoyable.

For Spanish Learners, Telenovelas Are Hard to Beat

For language-learning it’s hard to beat Telenovelas because of the sheer amount of Spanish you’re going to hear. While it might take a lot of effort at first, in one 45 minute episode you’ll hear hundreds of lines of dialogue. And while that might seem a little overwhelming, it’s all real Spanish, albeit with a heavier emphasis on betrayal (traición) and revenge (venganza) than you would normally come across in day-to-day life.

How to Watch Telenovelas as a Spanish Beginner

If you are a beginner you can watch Spanish telenovelas with English subtitles but I recommend putting the subtitles on in Spanish. English subtitles might seem helpful, but you’ll be concentrating on the English rather than the Spanish. Using the Spanish subtitles will help hammer home the way real Spanish is used.

The second Telenovela I watched (after Teresa, see above) was Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal (the Boss of Evil), about the famed Colombian drug trafficker. It’s 100 or so episodes and goes into a lot of detail about Escobar and this important period in Colombian history.

One joy of each different Telenovela is they’ll give you an insight into the particular language and vocabulary of each Spanish-speaking country. So in the Pablo Escobar show, everyone greets each other with “¿Qué hubo?” (What’s up?”) and everyone and everything is “berraco” which is a very Colombian word meaning tough, hard, great, genius, and a bunch of other things.

In the Mexican telenovela Teresa, you frequently hear the local neighbourhood toughs describing someone as a pendejo (idiot) or exclaiming ¡Qué chido! (How cool!)

The Best Telenovelas for Spanish Learners

The beauty of technology is that there are plenty of Spanish telenovelas on Netflix. There are all sorts, and you should find one that fits your interest, and you can watch TV in Spanish in no time. As well as Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal here are the best telenovelas for learning Spanish on Netflix:

  • El Chapo (About the Mexican drug lord)
  • Sin Senos Sí Hay Paraíso (Without breasts, there is paradise) A woman seeks revenge in a town controlled by the mafia – the title refers to having to get breast enhancement surgery which is pretty common in Colombia.
  • La Reina Del Sur (Queen of the South) A Mexican woman becomes a powerful drug trafficker in Spain.

Telenovelas will both help your language learning and your cultural understanding, (although you might not want to base your whole understanding of Latin American culture on shows like the above). When learning a language you should enjoy yourself, and be looking to push to the next level, and Telenovelas will help with both of those things. If you want even more suggestions try this list.

After Telenovelas, What Next for Learning Spanish?

Once you’ve got yourself hooked on a Telenovela, I would highly recommend using language exchanges to start talking to real Spanish speakers. After all, it’s only going to cost you the price of a beer or coffee. Or if you’re addicted and are busy binge watching telenovelas you can even do the language exchanges via Skype, from the comfort of your home.

author headshot

Rich Bradwell

Author

Rich Bradwell travelled round Spain for three months, desperately trying to learn Spanish in order to give a speech at his friend’s wedding. [Read about it in his new book, My Reign in Spain or follow him on Twitter.

Speaks: English, French, Spanish

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