Hi, I’m Andrew, and I’ve been teaching myself Spanish for almost four years now. I’ve been doing this entirely on my own and it’s been a huge learning experience, the fruits of which I enjoy sharing with other people who are passionate about teaching themselves a new language.
Right now, I’m going to cover one of my favorite techniques that I picked up from a friend of mine years ago and have sort of modified and improved. He used this method to get fluent in Spanish using only what are called “telenovelas” (soap operas) in Spanish.
This technique can be applied to any TV show, movie, or music video that you can find a script, transcript, or subtitles for (that would be most of them, by the way – sometimes you really have to look, but typically you can find something to go off of) in any language.
My friend learned to speak fluent Spanish with a perfect Mexican accent in about a year while he was working as a line cook at an Applebees here in Texas (he decided to do this because everyone else in the kitchen was a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills), and the method he used is… interesting, funny, and just plain ingenious all at the same time.
Please keep in mind the fact that this can be applied to any language in many different ways (you could modify it and use it to teach your children a language through children’s songs that you can find the lyrics or subtitles to, or children’s TV shows that you can find the script or subtitles for, etc.).
He had DirectTV and what he would do is choose a telenovela (soap opera) on Univision and record a one hour episode of it on Tivo. He would play it back and, pausing every few seconds, write down verbatim one or two minutes worth of dialogue. Then, he would go through those two or three paragraphs of dialogue, turn them into his ‘lesson’ for the day, and learn absolutely everything he needed to completely understand what was being said – definitions, grammar, idioms, expressions, everything.
He would try saying the lines himself, then immediately replay the character saying the line, then rewind, say it again, replay. He would keep this up until he sounded exactly like the actor (and consequently had excellent pronunciation after a short period of time).
Normally, these 2-3 paragraphs of dialogue would take him about a day to fully learn (he spent an hour or two in the evening working on this), but occasionally it would take him a couple of days because although he could look up definitions and grammar online, frequently he would need to consult with a native speaker either via a language learning forum online or someone he knew from work.
The really important point here is that he would learn absolutely everything he could about those few sentences to the point of memorization: definitions, verb conjugations, tone, pronunciation (very important if you want to sound like a native speaker – what better way to do that than to imitate them repeatedly until you sound just like them?), etc.
He would initially get through one 30 minute show every few weeks but quickly accelerated because he was learning so much just from those few paragraphs (a few paragraphs of spoken dialogue will contain a lot of a language’s grammar and syntax). After about a year of this he was completely fluent which, when you think about just how much conversational Spanish he was exposed to and forced himself to learn and speak, isn’t really surprising. Persistence, persistence, persistence.
The telenovelas, along with movies, are the best. If you don’t want to use soap operas or your language doesn’t have them, then you want whatever the equivalent would be: a TV show with lots of normal, natural, colloquial dialogue between the characters so you learn the kind of Spanish people use throughout their everyday lives.
The Spanish in telenovelas is colloquial, but not extremely formal, technical, obscure, or difficult; plus there’s a wide variety of characters who you would actually encounter if you were living in a Spanish-speaking country who speak Spanish at very different levels and require widely differing types of Spanish because of the level of respect they’re due because of their social status: children, mechanics, housewives, doctors, criminals, and beggars. You’ll learn how to speak with all of those people and the various common terms used with and around them (you’ll learn the words for “vaccination”, “homework”, “medium-rare”, “toy car”, “carburetor”, etc.) .
Where to Find Scripts, Subtitles, and Transcripts
I’ve actually provided translations (my own) for various songs because I use music videos, such as Shakira’s Ojos Así, to teach people Spanish, and even scripts for certain Spanish-language movies that I like (such as Maria Full of Grace, which I also found an English translation of the script for) on my site, How to Learn Spanish. If you’re learning Spanish or interested, please come on over and check it out.
The easiest way to find a script is to just Google “(movie title) script” or “(movie title) English script” and see what comes up. If you can get an English translation of the script in addition to the original script and/or subtitles so that you’ve got an in-context translation, that’s even better.
If that doesn’t immediately turn it up, three great sites to check with are The Internet Movie Script Database, Drew’s Script-O-Rama (go to the menu at the bottom under the picture – yes, I know, his site design isn’t the best), and Simply Scripts. Not only can you find movie scripts, but you can often find scripts for TV shows as well.
There are a ton of different song lyrics sites and I swear I’ve used a different one for each song it seems, so frankly the best way to find lyrics for a particular song is to just Google “(song name) lyrics”, you’ll almost always be able to find them. To get the English translation (which you should be able to find the majority of the time) just Google “(song name) English translation.”
I really hope this will be of as much help to you as it was to me. Please let me know what you think in the comments and feel free to ask any questions you might have.
I’ve been passionate about learning languages since I was 12 and have previously worked on (primarily on my own) French, Russian, and Swedish, and am currently teaching myself Spanish and Japanese. I run a site on how to learn spanish where I share the various techniques and resources I’ve discovered over the years that you can use to learn Spanish on your own. The idea behind the site is to help people who want to teach themselves the language entirely on their own from home without resorting to formal classes and to focus on using resources that are available online for free. Please come by and check it out.