Let’s Get Dramatic: How to Learn Spanish with Telenovelas
Spanish is a passionate language.
Even more so when it’s being dramatically flung around by lead personalities in telenovelas.
Whether you love to sink your teeth into a juicy drama—or just love ‘em because they’re so bad, they’re good—telenovelas are guaranteed to give you a heaping dose of entertainment while boosting your Spanish.
- Let’s Get Dramatic: How to Learn Spanish with Telenovelas
- Why Learn Spanish Through Telenovelas?
- The Telenovela Approach to Learning
- Strategies for Actively Watching Telenovelas
- Best Telenovelas for Spanish Language Learners
Let’s Get Dramatic: How to Learn Spanish with Telenovelas
Okay, so there are tons of television programs, movies, news broadcasts and other video resources out there for learning the Spanish language. This may leave you wondering why telenovelas are so darn special for Spanish language learners.
While living abroad in Ecuador for two years, I quickly latched onto these programs as a way to bond with my homestay families and newly-made friends. They gave us something in common that we could chit-chat about, something we could look forward to and watch together.
Wherever you live, work or travel in the Spanish-speaking world, at some point you’ll find yourself face-to-face with die-hard telenovela fans who live for the next installment of their favorite program.
As I began to explore this strange alternate dimension—where people kill, die, concede to love and burn with fiery hate on a daily basis—I quickly found that the sheer diversity of telenovelas means that there’s something out there for everyone.
Today, we’re going to figure out which telenovela is right for you, considering your personal interests and skill level.
Before you get started, tools like FluentU‘s library of immersive, authentic content can help you figure out what level you are on, and can also help you learn all the vocabulary you need to understand telenovelas like a native.
Why Learn Spanish Through Telenovelas?
Need a little more evidence before getting on board the telenovela bandwagon?
- Diversify your Spanish. You’ll learn words and expressions perfect for explaining all kinds of crazy situations. Don’t know how to talk about heart-wrenching tragedies, devastating romances, criminal activity or conspiracies? Now’s your chance!
- Gain a great new conversation starter. Whether or not your Spanish conversation partners have seen your favorite programs, it’s always entertaining for others to hear about the silly stuff you’ve been watching. It also offers you a great opportunity to ask others what they do and don’t like to watch after you’ve shared your preferences.
- Learn key Spanish fluff. It’s a funny thing about Spanish—every Spanish speaker, no matter their level of education, seems to be capable of cobbling together a passionate monologue. You’ll quickly find that even casual, everyday Spanish is rich with more formal expressions, dramatic turns of phrase and lofty speech. Pick up this useful vocabulary by watching characters denounce their lovers and demand justice for the wrongdoings of others.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition. You want to hammer Spanish into your brain? In any telenovela, you’ll be expected to follow about eight different intertwined story lines. Even the writers seem to understand that they’re overloading you with information, so they’ll bombard you with the same phrases and key vocabulary words from scene to scene, trying to help your brain connect different events and relationships more easily.
- Give yourself clues to comprehension. I honestly still don’t know how any telenovela drama queens expect to keep their secrets under wrap. All they do is talk! You’ll never be left guessing what someone is thinking, feeling or doing since they will provide you with constant stream-of-thought narration.
- Choose what you love to watch. What do you like to watch? Crime, medical drama, historical fiction, mystery, suspense, fantasy, science fiction, wacky slapstick humor, romance, high school coming-of-age stories—telenovelas have seriously gone in every possible direction. Are Korean or Japanese dramas guilty pleasures of yours already? They’re a huge hit in the Spanish-speaking world and you’ll easily find expertly dubbed versions of your favorites.
The Telenovela Approach to Learning
- Learning to let go. Until now, you’ve carefully listened to scripted audio and dissected sample conversations word by word. In the real world, you won’t get that chance. Let telenovelas be your gentle introduction to Spanish listening comprehension. You’re not going to understand everything. Heck, you’re not even going to understand most things if you’re anything less than fluent. Watch some shows without taking notes or looking up words, and see how much you can learn from passive listening.
- Learning to pick up rapidly spoken Spanish. Real-world Spanish is spoken at a very fast rate. Grab onto whatever words and sentence fragments you can to catch the gist. You’ll soon find yourself starting to hear certain key words and phrases repeated frequently. Eventually, you’ll piece it all together!
- Pick a country, any country. Want to learn slang, expressions and accents from a specific region? Pick a telenovela that comes from the country you want to learn about! You’ll get glimpses of society and culture, as well as hefty doses of colloquial language. Characters are often caricatures, meaning that the token rich girl will speak in the stereotypical rich girl speak (think valley girl speak or something similar) and the poorest character will speak like a hillbilly straight out of Arkansas. The extremes will help clarify types of speech in your mind and help you categorize new vocabulary and accents—just remember to take all this with a grain of salt.
Strategies for Actively Watching Telenovelas
Sure, you can just absorb the Spanish as you go, but there are a couple of fun strategies you can use to further enrich your telenovela-watching experience.
- Keep a notebook. Jot down a general overview of the story line. Try to pick up people’s names. This is far trickier than it might sound. Draw out family trees and love triangles (or love octagons) that are important to the stories. When you begin to learn names, you’ll understand who all the characters are gossiping about in other scenes.
- Play the telenovela drinking game! Hey, no irresponsible behavior is necessarily being encouraged here (although a traditional alcoholic drinking game can make this into a riotous good time). Pick your poison and take a swig every time you hear a previously decided-upon phrase, like, “I saw you with my godmother at the party” or, “I know who killed Juan Pablo’s half-sister’s husband.”
- Keep good company. Get together with a few friends who’ve also caught the drama fever. Watch together and discuss the events that are unfolding on screen. Use commercial breaks to argue over who actually said what, who is the most evil and what is going to happen next.
Best Telenovelas for Spanish Language Learners
“A corazón abierto”
Longing for the good old days of dark and twisty “Grey’s Anatomy” drama? Now’s your chance to recapture that magic. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this show was modeled on “Grey’s Anatomy” in almost every way—even the characters look nearly identical to the Grey’s cast. In keeping with the spirit of the original program, “A Corazón Abierto” is the perfect confluence of medical and emotional. You’ve got the dark ambiance, meaningful stares, personal trials and doctor-on-doctor relationship dynamics. You’ll ride along with these doctors-in-training as they run up against ethical dilemmas, medical mishaps, intrigue surrounding mysterious diseases and major learn-the-hard-way moments.
If you’re a more advanced learner, you’ll love all the new, specific vocabulary and expressions that come from following hospital happenings. Beginners may not catch all the details of ongoing procedures and what-not, but will definitely be able to keep up with the personal issues and interpersonal dramas—and, honestly, that’s really what we came to see, right?
“Una familia con suerte”
This classic rags-to-riches story is guaranteed to win you over from episode #1. Do you love crude, vulgar Mexican street talk? A bit of heartwarming family humor? Stop right here.
Pancho López is undeniably likable, a humble widower and doting father just trying to make ends meet. To top it off, he persuades a suicidal woman to come down off a bridge and see the value in her life. As fortune would have it, she’s a wealthy business executive. When Pancho’s family is about to lose everything due to financial hardship, she steps in and changes their lives overnight. Reluctant to accept her “charity,” but in dire need nonetheless, Pancho hesitantly accepts her job offer (to become the president of her company) and moves his family into her mansion. Worlds collide, star-crossed lovers meet, yada yada—all in all, this show has a lot of great things to say about humanity and how people from different social strata interact.
Advanced learners will revel in the abundance of Mexican slang and ultra-thick accents. Beginners will have to acclimate, but catching the major take-home messages should pose no major problem.
“La Reina del Sur”
This powerhouse drama chronicles the rapid rise of underworld queen Teresa Mendoza, a Mexican diva who uses her womanly wits to take over Spain’s illegal drug industry. In her home country, her thug of a boyfriend gets wasted and she goes on the lam. As an expat, she juggles international intrigue, flings with sexy lowlifes and her burgeoning drug empire without ever missing a beat. And she does it all in high heels.
Sure, Mexican and Spanish accents can pose problems for newcomers to the Spanish language—but no matter your level of Spanish, you’ll be able to get adjusted quickly to these regional sounds.
The story is primarily action-driven, so you’ll understand what’s going on thanks to the strong visual element to this show. With some of the highest production costs of any telenovela, you’ll see why so many people have become positively engrossed in Teresa’s tale.
“Por ella soy Eva”
This little number overtook “Una familia con suerte.” The premise is, if you can believe it, even more far-fetched. Juan Carlos is a womanizing playboy who falls in love for the first time and, predictably, bungles it all up. Can he have a second chance? Well, in this universe of telenovela meets “Mrs. Doubtfire,” of course he can. When business adversaries attempt to murder him, he fakes his own death, transforms himself into a woman, and starts work as his ex-girlfriend’s assistant. You can probably see where it’ll all go from there, but the journey is pretty hilarious to watch anyway.
This one is perfect for all levels of Spanish language learners. Its bombastic, slapstick, Mars-versus-Venus humor is quite easy to follow.
“Yo soy Betty, la fea.”
Capping off this list, for no other reason than alphabetical order, is Betty—an unassuming but extraordinarily well-known global phenomenon. After watching “Ugly Betty” in high school and college, my Spanish learning friends and I immediately gravitated to this familiar story. You’ve just gotta love watching Betty’s journey from homely to fabulous, which is explored far more in the original series. The OG Betty is also a bit more hardcore—she’s surrounded by scandals which would shock and horrify America Ferrera’s Betty—and she hits us with unexpected doses of realism at every turn. The resolutions of this Betty’s corporate climbing and relationship endeavors tend to be anything but fairy-tale perfect. On the bright side, this all balances out with tons of goofy, cheeseball humor and catty (but silly) “can you believe she wore that?” comments.
The sing-song Colombian accents, along with regional slangs, may toss you a curve ball. However, it’s relatively similar to many other Latin American accents and will serve you well to learn.
So are you ready to feel the passion, be entertained for hours and improve your Spanish?
Start watching one of these dramatic telenovelas today!