Learn Spanish by Watching TV

You will often hear some non-native speakers of English say they learned the language by watching television in English, especially soap operas or game shows. Is there some foundation to this so-called TV method? If so, how could you apply this idea to learning Spanish? I have not seen any scientific studies on the question of learning a language just by watching television, but nobody doubts that any exposure to the language will do some good. However, becoming fluent in Spanish is certainly not as simple as just sitting in front of the boob tube. What is the most effective way to do it? Here are some pointers.

First of all you will need three tools. Have a printed or electronic Spanish dictionary handy. The second tool is a notebook to jot down words, expressions and phrases that you will be learning. The third, and very important, tool is a video recorder or some device that can record television programs. This is essential because you want to be able to go over the material repeatedly. That old VHS recorder gathering dust can be pressed into service again.

If you are a beginner, watching Spanish-language programming is not very useful. The language material will be way over your head. The problem is that in the beginning, even if the images give some clue as to what is going on, the spoken words are just a stream of meaningless sounds. If you can’t distinguish words, you can’t look them up in the dictionary. Wait until you have some footing in the language.

The effectiveness of the television method lies in being able to associate understandable audio with images. For this there is a fabulous tool called closed-captioning.

In North America nearly all television programming is required to have closed-captioning. This is a transcription of what is being said. This is not to be confused with subtitles of foreign films that give a rough translation of the spoken sound track. Admittedly, closed-captioning is not always accurate especially for live programming; but it is a wonderful tool because it provides a written record for language study. So turn on the closed-captioning.

The availability of closed-captioning for Spanish-language TV programming over the Internet is currently very limited. If it is available for the program that you wish to watch, you may not have to make the recordings as suggested here.

What programs to watch? The simple answer is to choose a subject you like and would normally watch in English. There are some things you may want to avoid though. Latin American comedy shows are very difficult to understand because they are full of verbal puns and references to current political and cultural events,

Most morning talk shows are also very steeped in current celebrity culture and may be hard to follow because of references to celebrities, shows, movies and songs,

Two forms of programming are highly recommended. How-to shows on subjects like cooking, fitness or astrology are really good because they contain lots of interesting vocabulary and plenty of examples of how to give orders or instructions in Spanish, something called the imperative mood.

Soap operas called telenovelas are also highly recommended because they are rich in idiomatic spoken Spanish dialogs. Try to avoid the telenovelas from Brazil and dubbed into Spanish. Look for the programs from Mexico and Columbia.

Whatever your choice of programming, the method of study is essentially the same. With the closed-captioning feature turned on, record a segment or an episode. Then review it and look up the meanings of the words or expressions you do not understand. Write down things you may want to memorize or learn. Then repeat watching the program until you can follow the sound track easily. Then turn off the closed-captioning and watch the program again a few times until you understand the sound track perfectly. After doing this often enough, you will notice that you are able to spontaneously understand more new material even without the captions.

Keep in mind that the closed-captions may not be very thorough or accurate; not everything is transcribed, especially if there are many people talking quickly. And mistakes, especially spelling mistakes or wrong words, do occur.

The nice thing about most television programs is that the actors speak with clear diction and their lines are spoken with no hesitation or repetition. It is not the language of the streets, but it gives a good idea of the spoken language.

All of this works wonders for learning spoken Spanish, because you will develop an ear for the sounds of the language, including intonation and rhythm. As your ear becomes more attuned to the sounds of Spanish, your speaking fluency will also improve because you will have a good idea of how what you want to say should sound like.
Stanley St- Yves Aleong is a teacher of Spanish and French, especially at the advanced levels. He lived in Europe for three years and has developed a learning system based on wall charts for the study of French, Spanish and English.

For more information on methods for learning advanced Spanish, visit http://www.langcal.com/

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