Watching Telenovelas Can Improve Your Spanish
I am a Spanish teacher, but I am not a native Spanish speaker.
I know that to maintain my fluency in the language, it's critically important to practice it—and to practice often.
It's not always so easy to head to a Spanish-speaking country, or have native Spanish speakers around for daily practice.
So, I do the next best thing: I watch telenovelas, sometimes called "novelas" for short.
Now, before you think, "Oh great, I have to watch soap operas in Spanish. Now my IQ points will drop," I am here to tell you that I am living proof that watching novelas can improve your Spanish.
There are some really good novelas that rival some of the best U.S. television shows. Ever heard of Breaking Bad? There's a novela that is almost as good, in my opinion.
In fact, the quality of many novelas is so good, you won't think you're watching a cheesy soap opera at all.
You'll also learn current slang and how different ages of people speak.
As you progress watching the telenovelas, you'll be able to hear and understand so much more than you thought possible.
Why do I say this? Because I personally have experienced it!
In about six months, I went from an intermediate level of speaking and listening to an advanced level.
Telenovelas vs. Soap Operas
Before delving into the different telenovelas and how to practice Spanish, it's important to distinguish between these and soap operas.
In fact, telenovelas are not soap operas. They're not even Spanish soap operas as some people claim.
Telenovelas have some important differences from typical soap operas.
Novelas have a beginning, middle and end.
They run for a specified amount of time, usually between six months and a year, averaging about 120 episodes.
They try to teach a lesson or touch upon some moral value.
They can touch upon nearly any genre: thrillers, dramas, romance and even comedy.
They run in hour-long segments on regular television; each segment is like one chapter in the story, and they are often on TV in the evenings.
Soap operas, on the other hand, usually run indefinitely.
They may or may not teach a moral lesson.
They often are shown during the day on local television.
Often, they are quite dramatic and focus on the characters' emotional lives.
Telenovelas and Soap Operas At a Glance
Run for 1 year or less
Teach a moral lesson
Investigate emotional lives of characters
Include many genres
Often center on romantic problems
Run in hour-long segments 5-6 days weekly
Run in hour-long segments 5 days weekly
Using a Novela To Improve Your Spanish
If you are new to speaking Spanish, it will be very challenging to listen to the full speed of the language to understand many words.
But, there is still PLENTY that you can do.
Watching the novela: First, as you watch an episode, write down the words that you DO recognize. This will help you place what is happening into context. From there, you'll be able to extrapolate a general idea of what's going on.
Now, look up other words that you recognize but don't know the meaning for and write them down.
Watch the same episode again. This time, you'll understand a lot more than the first time. Take this opportunity to write down more words: the ones that you know (to help you get the gist) and those that you recognize but don't know the meaning.
Optional: Watch the episode a third time. This part is a bit tedious, but you will recognize even more words and situations than before.
Follow up: try to incorporate all these new and familiar words into your vocabulary as you practice daily.
Mi Vida Loca
Mi Vida Loca is a great beginner's Spanish soap opera with teaching prompts, questions and quizzes all put on by BBC.
I recommend this for complete beginners as the Spanish is slower and there are consistent episodes to watch.
Tips For Watching Novelas
- Try to watch at least one episode per day. On television, this is one hour. Online, commercials are cut out, reducing your watch time to 40 minutes.
- Keep an online dictionary open, such as WordReference.com, so you can quickly type in a word, get the meaning, and return to the novela to better understand what is happening
- Study the words you write down as much as you can between episodes
- You can turn on the subtitles in some videos. Toggle over to the lower-right-hand corner in the video where you see "CC." If the option to have subtitles is available, you should see it when you hover your mouse over it. One caveat: the subtitles often don't reflect what's actually spoken if you set them to Spanish.
- For beginners: try to find novelas with English subtitles on the web. This makes it easier to get your ear used to listening in Spanish. Be careful, though: once you get to the intermediate level, it's a good idea to turn the subtitles off—at least in English. After a while, they become a crutch and hinder progress.
Novelas Are Great for Listening Comprehension
Intermediate Level Students:
As with beginning students, the language speed may be extremely fast still to catch smaller details of what characters are saying.
However, intermediate students know more verbs and a wide range of nouns covering a variety of subjects. Students can use this to their advantage.
Watching the novela: It's a good idea to watch an episode twice. The first time through, jot down some words you recognize but don't know.
(This happens a lot: when you're an intermediate speaker, you've heard many words but forget the meanings, or you can understand distinct words but don't know the exact meaning).
Immediately after, look them up and write down the definition you think fits with the show's subject matter. Don't spend a lot of time doing this—just jot down one or two words to understand the meaning.
Also, focus on a few key words—don't try to write down every single word you don't know. That will get exhausting.
For example, if you keep hearing the word "pretender" (they seem to use this a lot in novelas—it means "to expect"), then it might be a good idea to look that up.
Once you're familiar with the new vocabulary words, watch the episode again. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how much more you can understand.
Follow up: As with the beginning-level speakers, it's a good idea to try to incorporate these words into your daily Spanish vocabulary.
Another thing you can do is summarize what happened in Spanish in your own words.
Continue Building Your Vocabulary
Advanced Level Speakers
Understanding the high speed of native language is definitely much easier at this point. However, there is still much to learn. Idioms, slang, less common words, and complex tenses are some items you can focus on.
As you watch the telenovela, you probably don't have to watch every episode twice. However, it still is a good idea to re-watch scenes where it's difficult to understand what is happening.
In addition, it's a good idea to jot down phrases that native speakers use that you might have trouble expressing on your own.
For example, the phrase "cueste de lo que me cueste" is used in a hypothetical context (the subjunctive tense if you really like the grammar stuff), but there are a lot of extra little words in that phrase.
By writing that down, it can help you learn and understand where and when this phrase would be relevant. It can also help you memorize where all the "little words" go (they're really indirect, direct and reflexive pronouns) and use them in a future similar situation yourself.
It is also easy to get "lazy" at this point. Perhaps you look up a word you don't know but then don't write it down.
If you do write it down, it'll help you to remember it better.
Recommendations for Telenovelas
Now that you know how to approach watching telenovelas, I have five recommendations for novelas that will capture your attention, especially if you're slightly sappy like I sometimes am.
After watching all these, I have found that sometimes YouTube works best for finding episodes, but other times it does not. After each description, I've included the best place to find the episodes to watch online for free.
Of course, watching for free does have a cost: you have to watch ads and search for each episode. Sometimes an episode is just not available.
You can avoid all that by purchasing DVDs or heading to places like Hulu and paying a monthly premium.
You can try and see if a television station itself has the episodes available.
However, I often run into "this is not available in your country." I'm sure if I tried harder, I could probably get around that somehow, but . . . I haven't.
La reina del sur
This is, by far, one of the best novelas I've seen. It's also based on a true story.
It's about a young girl, Teresa, on the run after her boyfriend is killed. She flees from her native Mexico and ends up in southern Spain.
There she embarks upon a new life working as a bartender in a shady bar—but not for long. Her life begins to take a different turn when she meets Santiago and gets involved in the drug trade.
From hospital visits to jail sentences, she gains experience and confidence. With that, she builds a reputation on three continents as a drug lord. Teresa's life is never boring, with various friends and partners in crime along the way.
Will she succeed as La reina del sur?
- The best place to find free episodes on the web is YouTube and VerNovelas.
- Here is a trailer for La reina del sur, with explanations in English:
Eva has lost her father and needs to take care of her sister. She secures work as a maid working for the Arismendi family.
In an early episode, Victoria Arismendi has a boyfriend, Daniel, with whom Eva was already acquainted from a not-so-great-run-in.
Eva realizes she likes Daniel, but Victoria is jealous, and when Victoria and Daniel get engaged, things heat up.
Will Eva be able to keep her job, seeing that the man she loves will marry another? Will Victoria's jealousy be the undoing of Eva?
Only time will tell.
- As a bonus, the soundtrack in this show is well-done. Each character has his or her own theme song. The show's opening song is a catchy tune as well.
- Best place to find Eva Luna for free on the web: YouTube.
When Demetrio finds his brother has committed suicide, it's because Virginia, a sociopath, has broken up with him.
Demetrio knows nothing about this woman but sets out to investigate what drove his brother to his death. His search leads him to the Fernández-Negrete family in Mexico City. There are two nieces, Virginia and Verónica, and Demetrio doesn't know which one was responsible for his brother's death.
He decides that since Verónica is more confident and Virginia seems innocent, Verónica must have been the one. He seduces her into marrying him and whisks her away to Pueblo Alegre, where he can fulfil his wishes of revenge.
He treats Verónica terribly but never tells her why he changed from the nice man she fell in love with to the sinister, vengeful one.
She tries to leave Pueblo Alegre and, in the process, falls off a horse and injures herself. She wakes up in the hospital and dares Demetrio to kill her.
He convinces the Fernández-Negreti family that all is well in Pueblo Alegre and that he will care for Verónica as she recuperates.
Their relationship only disintegrates. Verónica moves back to Mexico City, where she finds out she is pregnant with Demetrio's child.
Eventually, he learns that it was not Verónica who drove his brother to kill himself, but her cousin, Virginia.
Can Demetrio undo the damage he's done to Verónica and their relationship? All is revealed in the end, but not before all characters endure many costly lessons.
- This was one of the first novelas I started watching, with the plot being riveting enough to capture your interest and make you want to understand what's going on. In addition, the video below has English subtitles to help beginners listen and learn.
- Best place to find La mentira on the web: YouTube.
Rubí grew up as a poor girl but is determined to change her fate. Her sister works to pay for Rubí to attend a private university where she can acquaint herself with wealthy people. Her goal is to marry rich.
She is "best friends" with Maribel, a girl of high social status at the university. Rubí's intention is to use Maribel on her way to finding someone wealthy to marry. When Maribel meets Héctor, Rubí meets his friend Alejandro and the two couples begin dating.
When Rubí finds out that Alejandro is not from a wealthy background - though he just became a doctor - she dumps him. Never mind the fact that she was really in love with him.
She sets her sights on stealing Héctor from Maribel. On the day of Maribel's wedding, Héctor leaves her at the altar and goes to pick up Rubí so they can elope in secret. They travel around the world for three years.
They return, and Rubí discovers that Alejandro, in the meantime, has been very successful in his physician's career. Now...she wants him back.
- Best place to find Rubí for free on the web: YouTube.
This story begins with Maricruz—poor, barefoot, and scavenging for food. When one of the workers on the Narváez ranch discovers her on their land, he tries to run her off. Octavio Narváez runs to defend her.
It's love at first sight—at least for Maricruz.
The rest of Narváez family, on the other hand, can't believe Octavio is commiserating with someone in the lower class and won't mistreat Maricruz. He decides to marry Maricruz to "teach his family" a lesson.
From there, things go awry. Octavio realizes that the differences he and Maricruz experience drive a huge wedge between him and his own family. She's uneducated, and he doesn't know how to deal with it. Finally, he decides to rekindle his piloting career and leaves Maricruz in the hands of his family.
They reign supreme in Maricruz's mistreatment, from falsely accusing her of theft all the way to burning down the shack where her grandfather and sister lived. Her sister escapes, but her grandfather perishes because one of the Narváez workers trapped him inside.
Maricruz finds herself in jail, framed for a crime she didn't commit.
After a lawyer takes pity on her, Maricruz gets out of jail and heads to Mexico City to start a new life with her sister. She finds work at Alejandro Mendoza's house, not knowing that he is her father.
Eventually, Maricruz finds out and, now educated, wants to help her father deal with one of his struggling casinos. She wants to help take over the casino, but her father won't permit it: to do so would be like abandoning "his long-lost daughter", and the casino is supposed to be for her.
Before she can take another step, Maricruz bumps into someone she recognizes from her past . . .
But will Maricruz's father find out who she is before it's too late? And will Maricruz ever resolve her marriage with Octavio?
- This is another novela with a great soundtrack—the opening song and other theme songs are really worth a listen.
- Best place to find Corazón Indomable for free on the web: DailyMotion.
© 2016 Cynthia Calhoun
JC Scull on June 16, 2020:
Un articulo muy bien redactado y organizado. Desdichadamente, si yo tuviese que depender de telenovelas para aprender otra lengua, creo tendría que ser en otra vida. En esta existencia, las considero aborrecilble. Aunque cuando viajaba a Colombia veía 'Las Juanas' de vez en cuando. Felicidades.
Anna on July 12, 2019:
Sure,they are useful for learning Spanish. But how can you say they are on par with Breaking Bad??? They're idiotic soaps with terrible acting, frankly, they are not even remotely as good as the current wave of American tv.
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on January 30, 2017:
Thanks, Leanne! Que tengas un buen día.
Leanne on January 29, 2017:
Found it...Nuevos Destinos, in case anyone else was wondering!
Leanne on January 28, 2017:
I watched Destinos last summer and found another Destinos series that continues where the first series left off. I can no longer remember what it was called or how I found it. Can anyone help me?
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on October 21, 2016:
Thank you, Christy for your visit and sweet words! It is pretty fun, hehe. Sending hugs!
Christy Birmingham on October 17, 2016:
Thanks for explaining how you use novellas to maintain your Spanish vocabulary :) I think it would be a fun way to learn new words!
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 20, 2016:
Dianna - haha, my mom loves watching them, too! I needed to practice my Spanish and a teacher told me to watch and I've never looked back. ;) Hmm...I have Arabic-speaking families in my afterschool program. You've got me thinking that perhaps I could learn some words that way. :) Haha. Hope you're well!
Dianna Mendez on September 20, 2016:
My mother-in-law loves watching these telenovelas. A friend of mine, who is Chinese, told me she learned Spanish by watching a Spanish TV show. I can see how watching a show over again would help reinforce the language. Good tips for those who want to learn through something that is non-threatening (no homework!).
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 19, 2016:
Gina - nice! Yes - Destinos is great. :) Psychology is useful, too. And living abroad is one of the most effective ways to become fluent - that's really awesome!
Gina Welds from Tampa, Florida on September 13, 2016:
I watched Destinos. Have you heard of that? I became fluent in Spanish by living in Mexico for a year. When I went to college, I decided to get a minor in Spanish since I could already speak it. I should have just gotten the full major, but I did that in Psychology.
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 12, 2016:
Larry - thanks so much! You speak Spanish?
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 12, 2016:
Cynthia Calhoun (author) from Western NC on September 11, 2016:
Haha, Big Bro. I agree! Some days I can't even speak English OR Spanish! LOL.
And I have to watch these to keep up. :D
Hope you're well. Thank you so much for coming by!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 11, 2016:
It actually makes perfect sense but Lil Sis, I'm way beyond the days of me learning another language. I'm rapidly forgetting the rules of English, so I should probably focus on that, don't you think? Since I'm a writer and all. LOL