I learned Spanish entirely on my own, online, and I'll show you how you can, too!
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A Complete Beginner’s Guide to Learning Spanish Online, Part 2: Make it fun and learn modern Spanish as it’s actually spoken by native speakers! How to use Spanish-language TV shows, music, movies, books, comics, and more.

What I’m going to teach you now is how to learn Spanish from various modern Spanish-language popular media, entirely of your choosing (so you get to choose something that will be interesting, fun, and entertaining for you, which is how we “make it fun”), such as TV shows, music, movies, books, comics, newspapers and online news articles, stories, etc.  I cannot overemphasize how effective this is as well as how much more fun and interesting it is compared to every other language-learning method I’ve ever tried.

Here’s why I like this method…

  1. Most importantly: it’s fun, it doesn’t feel like work. ‘Fun’ will do more to actually make you succeed at learning a language than any other factor, bar none. Why? Because it keeps you interested, it keeps you paying attention, it keeps you coming back, it keeps you from giving up, it keeps you from getting bored (which inevitably leads to you giving up). Don’t overestimate your self-discipline, even the most determined and disciplined among us would be helped immensely by making the process fun and interesting versus not. Make it fun.
  2. You learn modern, contemporary Spanish.  That is, you learn Spanish as it’s currently used right now by native speakers, precisely the kind you want to learn if you want to be able to converse with those native speakers and sound just like they do.
  3. In relation to the previous point, you learn common slang and curse words: you need to know these regardless of whether you intend to use them or not because if someone else uses them when speaking to or about you, then you’re going to at least want to know what they said, now aren’t you?
  4. You remember what it is that you learned.  This is because it uses material that you, personally, are interested in. You learn much more than if it were not entertaining or interesting, and you do so much easier. If you watch a TV show or movie that someone else has chosen that you’re not the least bit interested in, how much of what you saw will you remember later? Not that much because you don’t pay attention to it, do you? Now, how about if it’s a movie or show that you like and want to watch: how much of that will you remember later? See what I mean?
  5. Availability, cost, quantity, and quality of resources. This one is extremely important. You use the internet, DVDs, books, and television (any one of them alone will work or any combination of them). The stuff that does cost money is not only entirely optional but also fairly inexpensive (e.g. DVDs and books that can be had off of Amazon for a few dollars each). You can’t beat free.
  6. It gives you something to talk about with native speakers: the utility of this will really become apparent in Part 3 where I show you how to apply what you’ve learned by using it to actually communicate in Spanish with real native speakers (which is a huge and extremely important part of the learning process, by the way!  you learn more doing that than at any other stage!). People always know about and love talking about current events and contemporary popular culture such as movies, TV shows, and music that they personally like. People do not know about nor wish to speak with you about “I’m allergic to shellfish.” or “Where is the library, Juan?” that you learned from your textbook. This is important and extremely useful when you start talking to natives via language exchanges, which is the last part of the learning process where you take everything you’ve learned and apply it—it’s what truly turns you into someone who’s fluent in the language and can talk like a native speaker.

How to do it

First, as a preliminary step, you’ll need some resources, specifically and at a minimum: a dictionary (I recommend SpanishDict), a verb conjugator (I recommend the one at SpanishDict), a translator (I recommend Google Translate), and a way to note what you’re learning for later review (I recommend Anki – I wrote a whole post you can read here about why it’s so good and how to use it which includes a video demo).  I’ve got an article specifically about these resources, and some others I find highly useful, that you can take a look at and reference if you like (it includes several short videos of me demonstrating the use of many of these resources) called: Spanish Learning Resources & Tools: These Are My Top 9 Most Used, Most Valuable, and Most Recommended

Ok, let’s get going with the actual method:

Step 1: Choose your media

Pick something you like! Or, at least, pick something you think you’ll like seeing as how you haven’t seen/read it yet so you can’t really know.  There are so many choices out there, there are tens of thousands of them even if you just restrict yourself to what’s available for free online.

*A quick note on videos: they need to have subtitles in Spanish.  You can make do with English subtitles or none at all, but it’s much more difficult.  The reason we want Spanish subtitles is we’re presuming that your Spanish isn’t good enough such that you can determine what they’re saying, what words they’re using, just based on what you hear.  Now, in order to learn said Spanish we need to be able to look it up and if we don’t know what it is (which specific words are being used) then how can we do that?  We can’t.  We need a written word-for-word transcript of what was said, and subtitles are just a transcript that’s been synced to the video such that the line shows up on the bottom of the screen as the actor says it.  So, to be clear, either subtitles in Spanish or a verbatim transcript of what was said will work, but we need one of them.

Option #1: Free online videos in Spanish (including TV shows)

This is an excellent choice and also the most immediately obvious one since our emphasis here is on learning Spanish (1) online, and (2) free.  I have two lists I maintain of websites where you can watch Spanish language videos and TV shows online for free, one of them is a list of sites with videos that have Spanish subtitles and the other one is a list of sites that have videos without.  Here you go:

  1. List of Websites Where You Can Watch Spanish Videos with Spanish Subtitles or Transcripts Online for Free
  2. List of Best Free Sites to Watch Spanish-Language TV Online [no Spanish subtitles]

Option #2: Movies

My favorite!  This is what I personally like to use but the only downside with it is that I’ve yet to find a good source for free Spanish-language movies online that includes Spanish subtitles for those movies that were made with them.  In other words: you’ll have to buy them on DVD.  I really don’t think this is a big deal because they’re typically very cheap (most I see are under $10US) and a single movie is about 1.5-2 hours worth of Spanish dialogue and will therefore take a beginner or even an intermediate several months to get through normally, so that’s only like $7-10 once every few months if you’re going to use movies.

Here’s a short list of some of my favorites that are available on DVD on Amazon and that I know for a fact have Spanish subtitles that work properly (because I have them and have watched them myself):

  1. Maria Full of Grace – This is an outstanding movie. It tells the very true-to-life story of a poor, pregnant, Colombian girl going to work as a drug mule to try to help her family. Working as a drug mule means that she has to swallow a large quantity of capsules containing heroin and smuggle them across the U.S. border in her body—if one of them bursts, she dies (which happens to one of her friends). It currently has a 97% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and Catalina Sandino Moreno, who played the main character, María, was named Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress at the 77th Academy Awards for her role in the film.  Also, as of this writing Amazon is currently selling this movie on DVD for $4.09, that’s very cheap. Here’s the IMDb Entry.
  2. Pan’s Labyrinth – This is another one that I love, it’s a fantasy type of movie (magic and mythical creatures and such) set in 1944 (they make mention of the D-Day landings happening while everything else is going on, is how I know this) involving a little girl who finds out she’s a long lost princess to a mythical underground kingdom and has to pass several tests in order to reclaim her throne.  She is assisted by a magical Faun.  Although this sounds like a kid’s movie, I warn you right now: it’s not.  There’s actually a good bit of fairly graphic violence in it.  However, it’s a superb choice because the Spanish is very clear and correct, the subtitles are excellent (read: accurate), and you get a good deal of insight into the cultural aspect of Spain and the Spanish Civil War. Here’s the IMDb Entry.
  3. Ladron Que Roba A Ladron – This one’s a lot of fun, much less serious than the first two.  The best way I’ve heard this film described was by one NY Times reviewer: “Like Ocean’s Eleven, if directed by Robin Hood and financed by Telemundo…”.  Yup, pretty much, that’s basically what it is: a Mexican knock-off of Ocean’s Eleven, but a good one!  It’s an action movie, that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a good bit of comedy and a couple of pretty girls thrown in (¡Ivonne Montero sí me gusta!) Here’s the IMDb Entry.

Option #3: TV shows (not online)

If you’ve got Telemundo or Univision or any other Spanish language channel as part of your cable package, they broadcast many shows which have CC (closed-captioning) which are subtitles in the language being spoken (Spanish in this case) originally intended for the hearing impaired but which are also great for beginning language learners!

Option #4: Music

This is a favorite of mine and most people, I run into very few people who don’t find this an appealing way to learn a language: you choose some music in Spanish of a genre that you like and then learn the language from it!  I’ve done several posts showing people how to do this, primarily with Shakira songs because I like them and she’s very popular, that you can check out here, here, here, and here.  Just find some Spanish-language music that you like (first stop: YouTube – odds are very good it’s there), get the both the verbatim Spanish lyrics for it as well as an English translation (easiest way is to just search “[song name] lyrics” and “[song name] English lyrics” or “[song name] English translation”), and then start looking up and learning the Spanish used in it (I’ll get to how to do that in the next step).  I personally find myself using LyricsTranslate.com more than any other lyrics site, for what it’s worth, as they provide both the Spanish and the English lyrics in a side-by-side parallel text sort of format.

Option #5: Written Material

This is an excellent choice because it’s so plentiful (in both paid and free form) and, despite what you might initially think, you absolutely can use written material to work on your listening comprehension and speaking ability thanks to things like audio books and sites like Forvo, a free site where you can find a recording of a native speaker pronouncing almost any word you might come across (Forvo currently has 63,889 Spanish words in its database and adds new ones every day).  Forvo really is a godsend for language learners as it solves the age-old problem of working with written material: you don’t know how what you’re reading is prononced.  Well now, thanks to Forvo, you do!

There are tons of free sources of written material in Spanish online, some of my favorite examples for beginning Spanish learners include anything written for children such as children’s books (see my article on them here) which you can find at sites like the International Children’s Digital Library, as well as children’s short stories such as the classic ones by The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen which you can find, along with the English versions of the same stories which are immensely useful to us in understanding and learning the Spanish, at GrimmStories.com and AndersenStories.com.  Oh, and be sure to check out my article on using comics in Spanish (yes, Garfield, Calvin & Hobbes, and many others are available in Spanish online for free).

Additionally, there are millions of examples of written Spanish that you can buy such as books, newspapers, and magazines (excellent chance there are Spanish-language newspapers sold locally where you live, especially if you live in the United States).  Amazon has a whole section of children’s books in Spanish, and one of my personal favorites I love to recommend is the Harry Potter books in Spanish because they’re so popular, they’re written at a level that’s easy but not too easy, they’re fun, they’re easy to find, and you can buy the English version along with the Spanish to give yourself a translation to work off of that will make understanding and learning the Spanish much easier.  Try starting off with a combo of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Spanish version, Harry Potter y la piedra filosofal (note that those are both also available as Kindle e-books plus there are very inexpensive used copies of the paperback and hardcover versions available, I see some right now for under $5 even).

Step 2: Watch/Listen/Read and Look It Up!

This method really requires you to be active, as any truly effective language-learning technique does.  A lot of courses try to spoon-feed people as much as possible, because they know they’re lazy and so therefore that appeals to them, but really the more active you are in looking up, learning, listening to, and speaking the Spanish the more success you’re going to have, straight up, ok?  Take action.

What I mean by this is very simple: when you see Spanish you don’t know, go look it up using the myriad of free resources I’ve provided you and find out what it means!

I’ll break this down into a bit more detail:

  1. First, watch, listen to, or read whatever media it is you’re using, be it a TV show, movie, song, or book.  I recommend going only a short ways into it before you stop and start looking up what you don’t know, probably about one or two lines regardless of the media.  So you would start the movie, listen to the first line (subtitles in Spanish are on), pause it, then read the subtitles and…
  2. Look up everything you see there that you don’t know and understand already.  Look up any words you don’t know, look up any grammar you don’t know (SpanishDict will cover you for most of this, see my video on using SpanishDict for a full demonstration), any slang, etc.  Use either the English subtitles (if available) and/or Google Translate as a translation of the Spanish in order to get the full meaning of it (knowing the meaning of the individual words sometimes isn’t sufficient due to the use of idioms and such).  If it’s written material use Forvo to look up the pronunciation.
  3. Work on your listening comprehension where applicable (this presumes you’re working with a video, TV show, movie, song, or audio book): carefully play and replay each part of a single sentence or line until you can understand it (meaning that you can not only understand what it means, because you’ve looked up and translated it already, but that you can actually distinguish each individual word as it’s said at full speed).  I highly recommend starting off by reading the line (in the form of the subtitle, book, lyric, or transcript) at the same time it’s being spoken the first few times you play it, this will really help the auditory/speech area of your brain register and identify the individual words.  After doing this a few times, once you can hear each individual word as it’s said at full speed, remove or cover up the subtitles/lyrics/book and replay the line some more; continue this until you can understand it at full speed without the aid of the subtitles or transcript.  Also note that you can even do this when working with just a written book by using Forvo as your pronunciation guide – it’s not as good as hearing the whole line spoken aloud at full speed by a native speaker but it’s far better than nothing.
  4. Speak!  Say what you’ve just learned to comprehend out loud.  This is extremely important.  Repeat the line aloud, replay and listen to the native speaker say it, say it out loud again, and continue doing this until you sound just like the native speaker.

Step 3: Note What You’ve Learned for Later Review

Enter everything you learn into whatever your flashcard/note-taking system is (again, I really recommend Anki and made a video showing you how to use it here).

Step 4: Review

Review what you’ve learned using your flashcards, notes, or Anki.  I recommend reviewing what you just learned immediately after each learning session as well as starting off each learning session with a review of what you learned previously.  Please see my video on how to use Anki for further clarification.

Before we move on to Part 3, if you’ve made it this far I highly recommend…

What you just read above is basically the Telenovela Method, or a very simplified and condensed version of it.  If the basic concept appeals to you I’d like to point out that I recently published an entire 216-page (approximately – depends on the settings on your e-reader) e-book about not only the Telenovela Method and how to do it in much greater detail but also about how to learn Spanish online in general (the chapter on the Telenovela Method is just one of thirteen plus four appendices).  It’s packed with over 400 links to all sorts of useful resources (almost all of which are free) and includes over 7 hours of video of me personally demonstrating and teaching the concepts therein, and I’m selling it on Amazon for just $9.99 (that’s in U.S. Dollars, it’s $9.99 Canadian, £6.34,  €7,59, and $10.34 Australian).  No, you don’t need a Kindle, you merely need an electronic device (computer, tablet, smartphone, e-reader, etc.) capable of running the Kindle software which Amazon provides for free (click here to see all supported devices and operating systems) that will allow you to read the book (you can also read it online in your web browser simply by logging into your Amazon account).  So before we go on to Part 3 I’d really like to ask you to at least click on the link below and have a look at my e-book on Amazon (note that I put the entire Table of Contents in the Book Description):

The Telenovela Method: How to Learn Spanish Online for Free Using Spanish TV, Music, Movies, Comics, Books, and More

Also, I wrote a blog post about it that goes into a lot more detail you can read here, and if you’re not in the United States (and consequently use an Amazon site other than Amazon.com) it’s also available on the following Amazon sites: Amazon U.K. (Amazon.co.uk)Amazon Canada (Amazon.ca)Amazon Australia (Amazon.com.au)Amazon Spain (Amazon.es)Amazon Mexico (Amazon.com.mx)Amazon Deutschland (Amazon.de)Amazon France (Amazon.fr)Amazon Italy (Amazon.it)Amazon Japan (Amazon.co.jp)Amazon India (Amazon.in)Amazon Brazil (Amazon.com.br)

Moving on!

Alright, let’s get on to Part 3 by clicking the link below:

Part 3: Applying What You’ve Learned by Using It to Talk to Native Speakers