Español Reporting — 07 December 2014

Learn Spanish the same way the Chinese learn English when they move to the USA.

How is that? Television, of course.


Here we explain how American television has English language and
Spanish titles because of equal access laws. First we explain how
immigrants have been using English subtitles to learn English and how
you can do that too to learn Spanish.

Lots of immigrants to the USA use the television to learn English.
Equal access laws in the USA requires that people with disabilities
are given access to what otherwise would be difficult or impossible
for them. So buildings have wheel chair ramps and television has
closed captioning.

But how does this help you if you want to learn español? Let’s take
a look.
The difficulty of learning a new language is understanding what people
are saying to you, because to your untrained ear, they speak too fast.
You can pick out a word here or there, but you cannot put it all
together. It would be easier if you could somehow to read it. But, you

You think: If people would just slow down and speak clearly, I might
understand what they are saying. Well, your foreign girlfriend might
do that for you, but the teller at the bank probably will not. Worse,
he or she is going to use numbers, which are even harder than words to
understand, because one always does math in their head using their
maternal language.


Most of the world’s movies and international television shows come
from Hollywood. Most countries have their own thriving national
programming, but the USA dominates international programming by a long
shot. That gives people who want to learn English a decided advantage
over those who want to learn any other language. TV shows like “The
Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men” are broadcast in English
around the world with subtitles in the local language. Animated shows
like “The Simpsons” are usually dubbed, meaning the audio track is

So having misspent all of their youth watching TV, people overseas,
with an aptitude for such things. have learned English this way. Some
people learn from singing a long with the radio. It’s always
surprising to note how many people can speak English having never left
their Spanish-speaking or other culture.

For foreigners trying to learn English by watching American TV, the
spoken language does not match the text. But it still helps, a lot, as
one can learn over time, but it is not as speedy as close captioning,
which is what you need to learn quickly.


You should know that not all televisions support close captioning and
not all programs include it.

The lack of an internationally agreed standard prevents close
captioning from working on all devices. For example, it might work on
the over-the-air signal but not work with your decoder and HD TV. If
that is the case, watch national, over-the-air broadcasts using your
antennae if close captions are not working with cable.

The other thing to note is that even if a program might say it has
closed captioning, not all Latin American countries and broadcasters
function with the same precision as, say, those in Germany. To figure
out if a channel has subtitles you can type something like “(channel
name) subtitulos” in Google and see what you find. There is no single
repository for this information as it varies by channel and country.
Some shows will have it others not. Some will say they do and don’t.
In countries where the time programs start and stop does not even
match the timetable printed on the schedule, there will be more
variation than you might be used to.


Here we recommend what channels you can watch over the internet. Below
we give some samples of which programs on cable or broadcast TV are
well-suited to learning Spanish, because their Spanish is

Because America has equal access laws, programming there is required
to have close captioning. That includes the Spanish language networks
that operate there. There are two that dominate the airwaves:
Univision and Telemundo.

Both channels distributes their programming over Hulu, the on-line
streaming service. So you can watch popular shows like “La Fea Mas
Bella” and turn on close captioning. ¡Bueno! Now you have the ideal
learning tool: spoken Spanish with Spanish subtitles.

But, there is one small draw back. If you are outside the USA and cast
into the total immersion of, say, Ecuador, you cannot access Hulu.
Because it is currently restricted to the USA only.

Not to fret. Computer geeks have figured that out. Just sign up for a
VPN service, like ExpressVPN [1] or Cyberghost [2]. You use that to
connect to a computer in the USA which forwards your internet data
onto Hulu or where you want to go. Hulu cannot tell that your are not
outside the country, so they let you in. It takes no special equipment
to use VPN. It works with any computer and costs about $8 per month.


There is a flip side to that coin and that is that lots of TV stations
in the Latin American world do not allow their content to be streamed
internationally either.

If you think about this the reasons for this, they must be either
contractual or infrastructure. Why should the broadcaster buy all that
computer equipment needed to enable thousands of viewers to watch
their signal on-line and waste it on foreigners who cannot even buy
the products that they advertise? The contractual part of that has to
do with reselling their content to other channels.
But there is a way around that too. You could also use VPN to connect
to, say, Argentina. But an easier way is to use any of the
proliferation of apps that bypass these restrictions and broadcast
this signal to your iPad or Android. Look on iTunes of Google Play:
they are many there and most are free. They are called “Chile TV, [3]”
“Argentina TV [4],” and so forth.


By far the easiest programs to understand are those on “National
Geographic” and “Discovery” broadcast on cable. The narrators talk
slowly and clearly. It might be because they are talking about
glaciers or whales or something else that travels slow, but for
whatever reason it is decidedly easier to understand this kind of
programming that any other.


Another good program to watch is “Sabago Gigante.” You will not
understand a lot of the humor here. But Don Francisco has been
broadcasting his show for a remarkable 50 years. This Chilean moved to
Miami many years ago and left his Chilean accent behind. He is like
the Johnny Carson of Spanish language broadcasting, only much more
famous. And he has cultivated his Spanish so that all Spanish speaking
people can understand him. Maybe you can understand him too. In one
segment of the show he asks questions of children. It is quite funny.
You might understand that, being a linguistic child yourself.


Now, the worst kind of programming to watch, meaning the most
difficult to understand, is something like a comedy show where it’s
pure idiom. If you cannot even understand the words then you will
definitely not an illogical combination of words. So stick with
National Geographic and plain talking.

Also note that recorded television is better than live television. The
main reason for this is the person writing the captions has the time
to back up and rewind the video so that the text matches what the
actors are saying exactly. With live television the person writing
captions will skip words when they cannot keep up typing. Or they will
paraphrase. That does not help you. You need a verbatim transcript.


What you watch depends what your goal is. If you are learning Spanish
to spend a month in Spain then by all means watch [5]. Because
the telenovelas (soap operas) on Univision are for the most part
Mexican and Colombian. Spanish as it is spoken in Spain—i.e.
Castellaño—is difficult to understand if your ear is used to, say,
the Peruvian accent. It’s the same with American English: have you
ever tried to read a book by Irvine Welsh (e.g. “Trainspotting”)? He
writes in the brogue of Glasgow, Scotland. It’s undecipherable to the
American reader. If you cannot even read what they are saying then
there is no way you can understand what those Scotish heroin addicts
are saying.

The countries whose Spanish is most different than the others are
Chile and Argentina. This might have something to do with their
geographical isolation at the bottom of the world. So only watch that
programming if you are going there.

Chilean Spanish could almost be considered a dialect since it is
peppered with so many words from the Mapuche Indian’s Mapudungun
language, like cachai (Do you understand) or guagua (baby), and
words of local origin, like polola (going steady). Plus Chileans
speak very fast.

Argentina is equally tough if not more so. When Argentinians talk,
they wave their hands like Italians. This is because so many of them
are Italian. Their animated way of talking sounds more like singing,
albeit with a decidedly Italian accent.

So there you have some tips to get you started. By all means use the
TV for educational purposes. Then you can quit calling it “the boob




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(1) Reader Comment

  1. If any spanish to inglés writers want help editing before publishing let me know.

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