May 23, 2013 at 11:06 am

Gata Salvaje, photo: Daniel Oines

Telenovela (n): (1) a soap opera produced in and televised in or from many Latin-American countries. (2) pure gold for learners of Spanish and Portuguese.

Beautiful Bella Cepeda was in love with her childhood friend, Antonio. But there were always tensions in the relationship: Antonio came from a prominent conservative family, who didn’t trust a girl from a humble background. She loved Antonio so much that when a powerful local businessman became infatuated with her, she rejected the new man. Enraged, he abducted her and kept her in cruel conditions on his plantation. Nobody came to rescue Bella. Antonio believed that she had run off with the businessman.

Over time, the young lady became angry and bitter. To retake control of her life, she joined the sex trade and became a wealthy woman from it. With her new power, she returned to the village of Agua Hermosa to rekindle her relationship with Antonio. But Antonio was now married with children and could not forgive Bella for disappearing. Out of bitterness and anger at the conservative attitudes of the village, she set up a brothel, where she was the only worker.

But her love for Antonio was too strong and they started a torrid affair. Their passion led to a baby girl. But she also had a child with Andrés Mendoza, another local man who adored Bella. Antonio became insanely jealous. Bella’s only choice was to hire an assassin to kill her lover. But did she really want to kill Antonio?

That’s a very rough synopsis of Doña Bella, a Colombian telenovela from 2009 based loosely on the true story of Ana Jacinta de São José (although her descendents were not impressed with the seductress protagonist of the telenovela).

Going worldwide

Telenovelas reach out to the Latin American diaspora all over the world, particularly in the USA. As a result, they are increasingly being used to spread public health messages and other important information. While soap opera viewing figures in the USA are declining, telenovelas are still going strong. Perhaps because of this, the idea has now been successfully exported.

In Germany, for example, Bianca – Wege zum Glück was first broadcast in 2004 and was a big commercial success. The final episode attracted around 3.4 million viewers (including 790,000 men!)

The most successful German telenovela, Sturm der Liebe started broadcasting in 2005 with an original planned run of 100 episodes. Unlike the classic telenovela, however, Sturm der Liebe is still going strong, more than 1600 episodes later. Telenovelas normally have a beginning, a middle and an end!

Other telenovelas have been translated and remade for other markets. For example, Yo Soy Betty, La Fea became Ugly Betty (and 16 other national interpretations everywhere from Vietnam to Poland).

Watching telenovelas to improve your Spanish or Portuguese

If consuming foreign language media is an excellent way to develop your language comprehension and vocabulary, telenovelas are an ideal starting point.

Accurately expressing how you feel is one of the harder things to grasp in a foreign language and these dramas are filled with the everyday language of relationships. Characters are constantly talking about their emotions, their partners and what’s going on with the other characters. If you are learning Spanish for business, perhaps this is not the most important vocabulary, but if you intend to live in a Spanish-speaking country for any amount of time, these are words and phrases that can really make a difference.

One of Michel Thomas’s tips for improving your foreign language vocabulary was to pick up celebrity magazines and read the interviews. His reasoning was that these interviews are full of everyday informal language, of people talking about what they like and don’t like, what they have been doing and what they are planning to do. The same is true of telenovelas.

The language is deliberately simple to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This is another major plus point if you are watching as a learner of Spanish. If you can switch on subtitles it can help even further.

¡Muy grande!

For an idea of how popular telenovelas are in Latin America, look no further than Avenida Brasil. Attracting an average of 46 million viewers each night during its run in 2012, the record-breaking show was blamed for power blackouts as so many people tuned in!

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