Guest Post: Learn Spanish the Fun Way

Hello you sexy little lot (yes, that includes you too, my little heinous looking ex-girlfriends of the past), we’re back on the subject of learning Spanish, the very thing that kick-started this ‘ere site and got us to the point we’re at now – what, you didn’t notice we’re huge?

Hugeness aside (I know that’s quite difficult seeing I’ve already got my kit off and already bared all here on MSA), I’m keen to let my friend Andrew share some of his Spanish learning tips with you all seeing as I took last month off from delivering any progress reports and what not.

Andrew runs the ace blog How to Learn Spanish and has quite a unique take on getting to grips with the language. I first came across him and this technique after writing for Benny’s site Fluent in 3 Months. Anyway, enough about me. More about this legend.

Over to Andrew!

Learning Spanish successfully boils down to one of two factors.

A) Possess a willingness to exert a Herculean effort towards learning this skill and an immense amount of self-discipline, commitment, and persistence…

or

B) Make it as fun, interesting, and entertaining as possible as frequently as possible that way you don’t lose interest and quit…because 99.5% of people, if it’s not fun and interesting, will quit.

So how do we make it fun and interesting while simultaneously learning the language at a decent rate?

Ah ha. Here’s where me and my goofy method come in…

I’d like to share with you my own personal method that I’ve developed to gain fluency in a language that I developed over several years of working on becoming fluent in Spanish, I call it…

The Telenovela Method

A telenovela is simply a Spanish-language soap opera, that’s it, that’s what the word “telenovela” means: “soap opera”. Let me quickly tell you a story about where I got the name and the fundamental basis for my method…

I had a friend, years ago, who learned to speak fluent Spanish with a perfect Mexican accent while working as a line cook at an Applebee’s here in Texas (he decided to do this because everyone else in the kitchen was a native Spanish speaker with very limited English skills–mostly Ecuadorians and Mexicans), and the method he used was‚Ķinteresting, funny, and just plain ingenious all at the same time. His background in Spanish was nothing more than a couple years of high school Spanish classes from which he remembered almost nothing four years later. He did this in his spare time when he wasn’t at work or studying, putting in maybe two to three hours per day, and with this simple method he went from almost no ability to speak Spanish whatsoever to being able to hold a conversation in Spanish with a native speaker, with a perfect accent, about nearly any subject, in less than a year. This alone was enough to get my attention, but the fact that when I would, on occasion, watch him do his thing it looked like he was having a ton of fun and not even working…well, that almost made me downright angry!

He was really just starting from scratch, a complete beginning Spanish learner. He had DirectTV and what he would do is choose a telenovela (Spanish-language soap opera) on Univision and record a one hour episode of it on Tivo. Next, he would play back the episode and, pausing every few seconds, write down verbatim one or two sentences of dialog. Then, he would go through those two or three sentences and learn absolutely everything he needed to completely understand what was being said‚Äìhe would look up definitions of any words he didn‚Äôt know, ask friends who were native Spanish speakers from work what certain idioms, expressions, or slang terms meant, etc. He would try saying the lines himself, then immediately replay the character saying the line, then rewind, say it again, replay‚Äîhe would keep this up until he sounded exactly like the actor (and consequently had excellent pronunciation after a very short period of time). This might take him a couple of days because although he could look up definitions and grammar from books, often times he would need to consult with a native speaker via someone he knew from work. We can do all of this now in a matter of minutes, not days, thanks to the internet and all the resources on it that I’m going to give you. I would like to emphasize that he would really learn absolutely everything he could about those few sentences to the point of memorization: he made sure he really understood everything that mattered, not only what they said but why they chose to say it the way that they did, he really learned the language. It was fun, it was effective, and it allowed him to make progress very quickly.

He would initially get through one 30 minute show every few weeks but quickly accelerated because he was learning so much at such a rapid pace. After about three months he was plowing through a new telenovela episode once per day, taking about two and a half hours to get through a thirty-minute episode (still quite impressive). After about a year of this he was completely conversationally fluent which, when you think about just how much Spanish he was exposed to and forced himself to learn, isn’t really surprising.

I took this method of his and modified it slightly, I improved it by doing the following:

  1. I use movies, primarily, instead of telenovelas. Why? Because you can find plenty of Spanish language movies on DVD with Spanish subtitles, it’s almost impossible to find telenovelas with Spanish subtitles.
  2. I use the internet far more than he did. I used forums to ask questions instead of asking native speakers in person (he would ask his co-workers), I used Urban Dictionary to look up slang (it’s the best resource on the web for looking up foreign language slang, I’m serious), etc.

Fun

It has to be fun. That’s why this method is so damned good, it uses modern contemporary media which means you’re learning modern Spanish as it’s actually used in common, day-to-day conversations by native speakers, and it uses entertaining and interesting media, media that’s entertaining and interesting to you: you choose which movies you want to watch, you choose which books you want to read, you choose the music, etc.

If it’s not fun you’ll lose interest and quit, I know I’ve been through this about half a dozen times since I was 12: I’m a complete language nerd, I have a passion for learning them, and I started with French when I was 12 and have since attempted to learn Spanish, Japanese, Swedish, and German since then, in addition to French, and failed every time simply because after a few months it was no longer fun because it was no longer novel and therefore I would lose interest and quit. This is the core problem that causes most people to fail at learning a language: they quit (if they were to keep going they would eventually become fluent after a year or two most likely). Why? Because they lost interest and therefore other things are now more interesting and fun than learning this language and they therefore get attention over it. They slowly spend less and less time on the language until they say “Aw what’s the point in this? I might as well just give up.”

We have to keep it fun and interesting. The more entertaining, the better.

So let’s use movies and music and books that actually interest you, how about that?

Resources

My favorite Spanish dictionary, by far, is SpanishDict, that’s what I use whenever I’m doing this. The best translator I’ve found for Spanish is, by far, Google Translate. I always have both of those open. Additionally, I use Anki, which is basically a flashcard program that I highly recommend. You’ll need either Anki or some paper flashcards to write down all the new words, phrases, and grammar that you learn.

Additionally I highly recommend Forvo for when you’re using this method with written material, it’ll allow you to look up any word you read and hear a native speaker pronouncing it for you so that you know exactly how to correctly say it. Oh, and use Urban Dictionary and Google to look up any slang or oddball expressions you run across, Urban Dictionary has more Spanish slang in it than any other single resource online, I mean no one else is even close. If Urban Dictionary doesn’t have it, just put it in Google and see what comes up, if that doesn’t work…

Go to the WordReference forums, but search and see if the question has already been asked before you start a new post. Read the rules and directions for making a new post first, do it right lest they get irritated (and they will if you don’t) and delete your post. Now, that said, they’re actually very friendly and helpful if you play by the rules, I find that on average I’ll have any question I post about a Spanish word or phrase correctly answered inside of 15 minutes.

Movies

My favorite! I love using movies and think they’re by far the best choice of material for use with The Telenovela Method because:

  1. There are lots of them, many high quality, and tons coming out every year.
  2. You can get them on DVD and online if you know where to look (though I prefer the DVDs because the online versions frequently don’t have subtitles and when they do they’re always in English).
  3. They’re far more likely to include Spanish subtitles than telenovelas or other TV shows that have been released on DVD.

Why would you want Spanish subtitles? Because (I’m presuming you’re a beginner or intermediate learner) they’re going to be talking much too fast and using too many words you don’t know for you to be able to understand them, additionally English subtitles won’t actually tell you what they’re saying, they’ll tell you what what they’re saying means, but they won’t tell you what the actual words are that are being said and that’s what you need if you’re to look them up and learn them, now isn’t it?

So what do you do?

Simple, just put the movie in, turn on Spanish subtitles, pull up SpanishDict and Google Translate and Anki–or get your hardcopy dictionary out and your flashcards–and then play the movie. Pause it the second they say something that you don’t understand. Ok, now do whatever is necessary to understand everything that they just said in that one line: look up any words you don’t know (put them into Anki along with the definition and, I recommend, the line that they were used in in the movie), look up any slang or multi-word expressions you don’t know, look up any grammar that you need to in order to understand the how and why of what’s going on (Google is your friend, for what it’s worth Wikipedia’s article on Spanish grammar is pretty good).

Just do whatever you have to in order to understand the entire sentence from beginning to end, and then move on to the next line, and the next one, and the next one. And before you know it you’ve finished the whole movie and now you can play it back all the way through and understand what they’re saying without having to look anything up!

How to find Spanish-language movies on DVD with Spanish subtitles

Amazon. Go to Amazon, they’ve got over 11,000 Spanish language movies and about 1 in 10 have Spanish subtitles I’ve found. Here, I’ll make it easy: this is Amazon’s Spanish-language DVDs section, now just go through those and check under the “Product Details” section where it says “Subtitles” and see if it lists Spanish there.

My personal favorite movies for doing this are Maria Full of Grace and Pan’s Labyrinth – if you’re especially interested in Spain then I really recommend you get Pan’s Labyrinth since it’s based in post-civil-war Spain and you’ll learn a lot about the Spanish Civil War, and it’s just such a wonderful movie (read the reviews). Similarly, Maria Full of Grace is based in Colombia and if you’re interested in that culture or just Latin American culture in general then I highly recommend that movie because you’ll learn a lot about those cultures from it.

Books, comics, and newspapers

Just about every book you can think of has Spanish translations available for it. My personal favorite is Harry Potter as so many people love them, they’re written in a manner so that they don’t use language that’s too difficult to understand (they’re written at around a 6th grade level I’d say) but it’s not overly simplistic or “childish”. Again, Amazon is your friend (used copies are generally pretty cheap).

You handle books exactly the same way as with movies, have your dictionary and other resources at hand in addition to Anki or some flash cards, start reading, look up what you need to look up, and then note everything you learn for later review.

By the way, I highly recommend you also use comics as well, you can find Spanish versions of many popular comics such as Garfield, Calvin and Hobbes, and FoxTrot online for free, everybody loves comics, they’re a ton of fun, and they’re short and the language is usually pretty simple, this makes them a superb choice for learning languages. Please refer to my recent post called Learn Spanish with comics! where I’ll show you where you can find excellent Spanish comics online for free and how to use them.

Interested in current events? Newspapers it is. You need one site, and one site only, this one: NewsPaperMap.com – just choose Spanish as your language of choice from the toolbar at the top and then pick one from wherever you want, they’ve got every major Spanish language newspaper in the world, which allows you to pick one from the country you want to visit and possibly even the city (e.g. Madrid, Valencia, Sevilla, etc.) that way you learn about things going on from a place that you care about thereby ensuring that what you’re reading is…what? Interesting, of course!

In Summary

Look guys, all you have to do is find Spanish-language resources (movies, TV shows, books, comics, whatever) that you will find fun, interesting, and entertaining and then use them to teach yourself Spanish, that’s it. You read or watch the thing, stop as soon as you see or hear something you don’t understand, look it up, write down what you learned, and then keep going. All you need is a dictionary and some paper and a pen to write down what it is that you’re learning for later review (for what it’s worth I also recommend a small grammar book, this one by Barron’s is my favorite).

The Telenovela Method is my unique, proprietary method, and most things I write about on my blog are centered around using this method, so if this appeals to you then I would be most gracious if you would possibly consider coming on over to my blog, How to Learn Spanish, and subscribing to my posts and my newsletter where you can learn much, much more about not only this method (the above article is the tip of the iceberg, I’m actually writing a full-length book on The Telenovela Method, should be out in a few months), not only about learning Spanish, but also about learning languages in general. I’d be glad to have you, and thank you for giving me a chance and taking the time to read this (I know, it’s long).

Big props to Andrew for putting together today’s post. If you want to ramp up your Spanish language learning make sure you head over to his site and read carefully!

8 Responses to Guest Post: Learn Spanish the Fun Way

  1. maria May 30, 2012 at 3:42 pm #

    Hola Will, que tal? progresando mucho y disfrutando de tu experiencia?
    Estoy triste porque no has mencionado nuestro grupo de meetup en este articulo.
    🙁
    Un saludo
    Maria

  2. Vieja Ceravieja May 31, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    I completely agree with your friend: wordreference.com is superb!

    • Andrew May 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

      Thank you, Vieja, I agree, I love the WordReference forums, just be sure to follow their rules and you’ll be fine (mainly remember to search first to see if the topic you’re about to ask about has been covered already). Like I said, I usually get an answer inside of 10 or 15 minutes of posting.

      Cheers,
      Andrew

  3. Brian June 4, 2012 at 10:28 am #

    sounds great, except that most soap operas are verging on insanity so hopefully you would only pick up the language, but Im sure it would work and well explained too

  4. franlucas July 15, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    I agree about leraning a language watching soap opeas. I’ve learnt a lot of English myself watching As the world turns that it was quite easy to understand. I tried the same thing watching Eastenders and I had to quit because I had a hard time to understand the accents.

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