The Telenovela Method of Learning Spanish (or any other language)

by contributor · 37 comments

learn spanish from telenovelas soap operasHi, 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.

Cheers,
Andrew

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.

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{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tomasz 'cenebris' Cieńciała June 10, 2011 at 6:06 am

That sounds both crazy and amazing – perhaps I will give this method a try. Are there any spanish telenovelas that you or your friend would recommend or are there any sources with free spanish episodes (like american South Park)? Thanks :)

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2 Andrew June 10, 2011 at 10:45 am

Tomasz,

Yes, I love Betty la Fea! It’s popular so it’s really easy to find videos of it online for free (go here, select an episode, then click the ‘Ver’ button to watch: http://www.seriespepito.com/buscador/ ) and it’s easy to find explanations and overviews of different episodes if you’re confused, I’ll bet you could even find transcripts pretty easily if you looked (I haven’t yet).

I’m really glad you enjoyed the article!

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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3 Geraldine Mac Donald June 17, 2011 at 5:10 am

YES! I moved to Mexico in 1994 without a word of Spanish to my vocabulary. Unbeknownst to me at the time, and with only 2 channels to watch on a rusty TV, I quite easily [taught myself] how to speak Spanish while watching a Telenovela; and I can vouch for the method. I am now, and have been since 2004, a Medical and Scientific Spanish to English Translator- who would swear by the Telenovela Method. I did not use scripts or follow along in a dictionary, none of which should be denied if possible, but with the standard, expected, and very stereotyped plot lines and character traits it was just soooo easy!!!! Girl meets boy, they hate each other, the families and friends get involved, gossip spreads, plots burst apart, they fall in love, the live happily ever after!

Have fun learning Spanish and watching Telenovelas.

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4 Andrew June 19, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Geraldine, that’s an excellent point I never thought of: Telenovelas are so predictable in their plot that it’s really easy to learn what things mean from the context. It’s sort of like something I was just discussing with Teango where he says he likes to read a paragraph in English first to get the context and then read the Russian so that he can discern what the Russian is saying–does that make sense? Being able to learn from the context is VERY important and the fact that Telenovelas make this so easy is a huge help if you’re learning Spanish from them! Thanks for pointing that out!

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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5 Marta June 10, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Hi there! I’m from Barcelona, Spain. Here, there’s a very popular method similar to yours, it’s called Speak Up, it includes a magazine with article and short explanations on difficult points (grammar, vocabulary) and then you can also buy the film (DVD) and a small book that includes expressions and slang of that particular film.
¡Felicidades por tu autoaprendizaje! ¡Es increíble!
Saludos desde Barcelona,
Marta
Marta´s last blog post ..The Bilingual Advantage The NY Times

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6 Andrew June 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Thanks Marta! I’m not surprised there are lots of other people using variations of this, I actually remember watching a TV series made in the early 90s for people learning Spanish and it was fantastically useful (I don’t remember what it was called, but it involved this woman who was a lawyer traveling around these Spanish speaking countries investigating some mystery related to her dying client). I’ll definitely check out that magazine, I’d be particularly interested if there was some sort of online version of that which didn’t require you to order physical products (DVDs, etc.) through the mail.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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7 ShhBrad March 1, 2013 at 7:02 am

Destinos (1992).

The entire 52 episode series is available for free streaming on the site below…..

http://www.learner.org/resources/series75.html?pop=yes&pid=370#

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8 Ana Lomba June 10, 2011 at 1:08 pm

This is the method followed in the textbook Destinos, by linguist Bill VanPatten, which was the resource we used when I was a Teaching Assistant at Princeton Univ. many years ago. The students loved it! Actually, the course was divided in video and grammar sections. One TA would do the telenovelas videos and the other the grammar (I was always assigned to teach the grammar, grrr!). I just checked and Destinos is still available from Amazon.com.

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9 Andrew June 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm

Sorry, I replied to you but didn’t use the ‘Reply’ button, it’s the next comment below yours :/

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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10 Andrew June 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Destinos!!! That’s what it’s called!! Ha ha! What a coincidence (see my above comment to Marta). Yes, I loved that show, I watched the whole series and used it to teach myself tons of Spanish about a year and a half ago, you can find the whole thing online for free.

Thanks so much for reminding me of what that’s called, Ana, I loved that series (it wasn’t particularly interesting, but it was interesting enough to keep you from getting bored plus it was fantastic at teaching Spanish).

I just found the site where you can watch them for free: http://www.learner.org/resources/series75.html – scroll down, pick an episode, and click the ‘VoD’ button on the right.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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11 Corey June 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm

Woohoo, Destinos! Here is what we ended up getting to learn Spanish with Destinos for Language Challenge 101: http://www.multilingualliving.com/2010/08/13/language-challenge-101-week-five/2/

However, ahem, I have to admit that I got stuck on the transition between the audio part and the grammar part. We’d have to listen to section xyz and then answer questions in the book in section abc and it all got a little annoying. I’d recommend that people watch the videos and do the textbook and workbook stuff that relates to it. The audio part can become very cumbersome.

We are going to do Language Challenge 101 again, Andrew, and will definitely implement your suggestions in your post!!! Please continue to share any specific telenovelas that you really like! And maybe we can get you to write some more posts, this time for Language Challenge 101? :-D

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12 Andrew June 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm

I’d love to write some more for you guys, sure, that’d be no problem at all, just keep me updated on it and let me know what/how/when/etc.

I didn’t do any workbook exercises with Destinos, I just watched it and used it to practice my listening comprehension (which it’s FANTASTIC for because they make a point of speaking slowly, clearly, and using basic to intermediate vocabulary), you can learn a ton just from the video series alone.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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13 Wan June 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Andrew…your friend is surrounded by native Spanish speakers which is a great situation for motivation. I really admire him working hard on a pragmatic approach. A few years ago,I learnt some Italian by analyzing songs and movies and I must agree with you it works. What I have learnt, is not easily forgotten. Since native Italian speakers are rare in my hometown, I am contented to be able to understand menus and signboards.
Wan´s last blog post ..Toyol

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14 Andrew June 12, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Absolutely, Wan. And you do have to be persistent with this approach, but, you know what? You have to be persistent to learn a language, period! It’s not all easy-going, there are times where things really get boring/difficult and you just have to get through it. Although, I think that learning from contemporary media (movies, music, etc.) that interests you is one of the best possible methods because it’s the least difficult way of doing it.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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15 celita June 12, 2011 at 4:33 pm

Growing up with an Abuela who loved to watch her telenovelas, I am not at all surprised at what you have shared. I find it to be a brilliant idea to pass on to others, and am grateful to have such a practical option in my family’s multilanguage development. Thanks for sharing…
celita´s last blog post ..Mommy Maestra- Homeschool Essentials- Letter Tiles

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16 Andrew June 12, 2011 at 8:01 pm

You’re welcome, Celita, I’m really glad you liked it!

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..The Awesome Language-Learning Resource that is Children’s Books

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17 Joanne January 21, 2012 at 5:02 pm

I actually learnt spanish spanish by accident :D. As a little girl I used to watch this telenovela called “Mi gorda bella”. I loved it. And like four years ago I remembered it and felt this urge to watch it again, to feel little again. So I searched for it, but I couldnt find it in my mother tongue or in English. So I decided to watch it on Youtube in Spanish. At the beginning I didnt understand a word of what they were saying, but I remembered a little the story. With time I began to conect some sentences with certain situation and in conclusion I understood their meaning. And exactly that is why telenovelas are perfect for learning Spanish. Or at least begin to learn it. Because the characters repeat the same stuff like….many times! :D Slowly I fell in love with Spanish in general and started to study it on my own at home. Then I took some lessons with a private teacher and after two years of studying it I have a diploma in Spanish. I wouldnt learn it so fast if it werent for telenovelas. Sadly, as I can finally understand everything what they say in telenovelas, I am not interested anymore and I began to watch TV shows. Currently my favorite is Aguila Roja. Amazing spanish masterpiece. If you have time check it out. Greetings from the Czech Republic.

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18 Andrew January 22, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Hi Joanne,

Thanks so much for telling me about that, I love hearing about how these techniques have worked for other people, and I agree with your point about Telenovelas tending to repeat the same words over and over, you see that with movies, too, and it does make it really easy to figure out what you should be spending your time learning.

I’d actually really like to learn Czech some day and travel there, for what it’s worth.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..Learning Spanish with Comics

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19 Amy Van Vranken February 10, 2012 at 10:40 am

I’m going to try this with French! It will have to be a movie because I don’t have a TV. Anybody have any suggestions?
Amy Van Vranken´s last blog post ..Bandeau flash

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20 Andrew February 10, 2012 at 10:58 am

Hi Amy,

I sure do. I’ll tell you exactly how to find what you’re looking for. Also, I’d like to make a suggestion: specifically look for movies in your target language (French) that have subtitles ALSO IN YOUR TARGET LANGUAGE, this will frequently be called “Closed-Captioning”. This is far more useful than English subtitles, because if you’ve got subtitles in the language actually being spoken it allows you to pause and look up everything that they say so that you can learn it, and unless you’re at a very advanced level you’re not going to be able to catch all or even most of the things the speakers say, they’re just too fast. If you run into slang or an idiom/expression that the dictionary just can’t explain properly, you can always switch it over to English subtitles and replay the scene in question (also try plugging the line or expression into Google and see what comes up, 9 times out of 10 you’ll be able to figure it out this way as well).

Ok, here’s what you do:

1. Starting at the Amazon homepage, go to the menu on the left and scroll to “Movies, Music, and Games”.

2. A menu will pop up from that, choose “Movies & TV”

3. Once on the “Movies & TV” page, go to the menu on the left and scroll down just a bit to the “Popular Genres” area and choose “Foreign Language & International”.

4. Once on that page, look to the left and under the category of “Browse Foreign & International”, choose “By Original Language”.

5. Once on that page, go to the menu on the left called “Department” and underneath that should be a subcategory called “By Original Language” where you can select the language you want, choose “French”.

Here’s a direct link to the page you want (if it doesn’t work or goes dead, use the above instructions): French Language Movies on Amazon

Ok, now when you click on a movie, scroll down to “Product Details”, what you’re looking for is one of two things, either “Closed-Captioned” in front of “Features:” or “French” in front of “Subtitles:”, they both mean exactly the same thing: it has French subtitles.

Just from quickly scrolling through the first few results I see that “Amelie” meets our criteria: it’s French language and has French subtitles (it’s closed-captioned). Same story with “Over the Hedge”, “Bizet: Carmen”, “Cirque du Soleil – Quidam”, “Inside”, “Anatomy of a Murder”, “A Very Long Engagement”, and “A Place in the Sun”. That’s just what I got from the first 3 pages, about 30 different movies, and Amazon lists over 6,000 French language movies as being available through them, so you should be set :)

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..Para qué vs. Por qué – The difference explained and when to use each

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21 Amy Van Vranken February 10, 2012 at 1:05 pm

WOW!!! Thanks so much for those detailed instructions, Andrew! It’s so great not having to invent the wheel myself like I often feel I am with my language learning. I can’t tell you how much i appreciate it!
Amy Van Vranken´s last blog post ..Bandeau flash

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22 Amy Van Vranken February 10, 2012 at 1:09 pm

I think I’ll cross refer what turns up on Amazon with this list of the best French movies of the past 20 years: http://www.imdb.com/list/2spiMhGfFUQ/ that way I can be sure I’m getting contemporary language and a plot line that will keep me interested for the next year or however long it takes to do this!
Amy Van Vranken´s last blog post ..Bandeau flash

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23 Andrew February 10, 2012 at 1:10 pm

You’re welcome, Amy, I really enjoy helping people with this stuff. Let me know if there’s anything else I can do or if you have any other questions–you can contact me through my site’s contact form.

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..Para qué vs. Por qué – The difference explained and when to use each

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24 Seonaid May 15, 2013 at 11:40 am

Hi Amy and Andrew,

Andrew, thank you for such a great idea! I’d been looking for TV programs to watch in French, but I hadn’t thought about soap operas. Of course, they’re perfect from a language point of view. And thank you for such detailed Amazon tips too.

Amy, I’ve found a French soap opera called ‘Sous Le Soleil’, which seems to have plenty of episodes on YouTube (I’ve just watched the first one, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfJcG0VUmBQ), and I found the script here: http://sous-le-soleil.hypnoweb.net/episodes/sls-saison-1/plage-vendre/script-101.43.2969/. Hope that helps!

Seonaid

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25 Andrew May 15, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Good work, Seonaid, thank you! I plan on learning French next and really can’t wait, though it’s definitely going to be a while still.

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I just realized the other day that most of the Disney classic movies on DVD on Amazon (Cinderella, Lion King, Snow White, etc.) are listed as having Dubbing in Spanish and French along with Spanish, French, and English subtitles. Very cool. I need to order a couple just to make absolutely certain that they do in fact have all this (I’ve seen DVDs before listed as having had Spanish subtitles that didn’t :( ).

Cheers,
Andrew

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26 Harry March 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm

I am having a real hard time finding scripts/transcripts for the telenovelas that I watch. Does anyone have ANY info on where I can find some scripts?

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27 May May 13, 2012 at 2:05 am

Hello:

PLEASE HELP

While abroad I saw several telenovelas dubbed in Persian, including: Teresa, Aurora, El Rostro De Analia, among others.

I am interested in purchasing telenovelas on DVD to improve my Spanish comprehension and grammar.

As such, I need DVDs with Spanish subtitles or closed
captioned in Spanish.

I am interest particularly in telenovelas: Rubi, Teresa, Victoria, La Usurpadora, Tres Mujeres, Corazón Salvaje.

Please help!

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28 Andrew May 13, 2012 at 11:13 am

Hi May,

Your best bet is Amazon. Here, go to the Spanish-DVD section on Amazon

Now, check each movie and look under ‘Product Details’ where it says ‘Subtitles:’, look for movies that have Spanish subtitles. I personally recommend Maria Full of Grace and Pan’s Labyrinth

Cheers,
Andrew
Andrew´s last blog post ..Para qué vs. Por qué – The difference explained and when to use each

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29 thurman December 6, 2012 at 11:18 am

It’s taken me so long to find this site. Thanks you…years of trying to learn/giveup/try again….I had run out of material and was not going to spend(waste) another dime. I wanted to watch something with spanish subtitles that I could stop then rewind…your solutions are just what I need…thanks so much…Thurman

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30 Andrew December 7, 2012 at 9:28 am

You’re very welcome, Thurman! I’m so glad to hear I’ve helped you.

Cheers,
Andrew

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31 Vherna86 February 5, 2013 at 12:48 am

I just started teaching myself Spanish because I was so enamorada with “Mirada de Mujer”, a Mexican telenovela. It’s actually very effective to learn language through telenovelas.Now, I can enjoy Spanish movies & soaps…

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32 Andrew February 5, 2013 at 10:54 am

Great to hear! That’s how this method works: you’re learning from something you want to watch in the first place, so motivation is a cinch, it’s no longer work you try to avoid but enjoyment you look forward to!

Cheers,
Andrew

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33 Jennifer June 25, 2013 at 2:27 am

Hello there,
I learned Mexican Spanish when I was in school. I was able to speak a bit outside of school as well with Mexicans. I later decided to study German because I became good friends with a German while doing my undergrad. I love learning languages but German is, apart from Asian languages, by far, one of the most challening languages to learn. I studied German as a minor and decided to do a one year exchange my 3rd year at college. The experience was life changing. I not only realized how much more quickly I was able to pick up the language by being fully emerged into it, but I also learned a new culture and even a lot about myself. I did have to make an effort to learn German cause it’s not like you can just magically speak it by living in the country. I became involved with the local swim team, orchestra and even did some babysitting. This all enabled me to improve my vocabulary in all directions because I was being exposed to all sorts of ages and types of people. I moved back to Germany after graduating in the States and have since been living here for about 12 years now. Through all this time I’ve been trying to keep up with my Spanish as well cause I think it would be a waste if I just threw all my knowledge of the language away. It has been tough keeping up with Spanish though living in Germany; but thanks to my job, it requires me to speak some Spanish. However, I deal with clients from Spain. So, the challenge for me the past couple of years has basically been relearning Spanish the ‘Spanish’ way. Pronunciacion and grammer in Spain are much different that what I learned in school. Watching movies, shows, listening to audio books, reading kids books and listening to Spanish (how I also learned German) have all brought me up to pace. I’ve learned that if I want to be fully respected in the Spanish market, then I should speak the Spanish of Spain. It is tough though. It’s kind of like growing up learning American English and then forcing yourself at some point to speak British English. A very strange feeling; like a forgein language of a foreign language.

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34 Fanny August 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm

I learnt English watching Friends in English with English subtitles! I highly recommend it, I became fluent and with a great American accent, people ask me all the time if I lived in the US!!!
I wanna do the same in Spanish, I’ll check out your site!

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35 Andrew August 11, 2013 at 1:51 pm

That’s great to hear, Fanny! Something I’d really like to do in the future is set up websites and write books for people who speak other languages (like Spanish) and who want to learn English, because the Telenovela Method would be especially effective and easy for them thanks to not only the quantity of American and British media like movies and TV shows (thanks, Hollywood!) but also due to the fact that American and British made TV shows and movies are much more likely, in my experience, to have English subtitles available for them (usually these are intended for the hearing impaired).

Cheers,
Andrew

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