Telenovelas are a type of television drama with a limited run, which originated in Latin America.
Telenovelas, first produced by Brazil, Mexico, and Cuba in the 1950s, has become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world. With almost 2 billion viewers worldwide telenovelas are here to stay.
We could almost forgive calling Telenovelas Spanish Soap Operas. Almost. While there are some similarities, the differences are significant.
Telenovelas meaning “TV novel” are just that, novels for TV. Like novels, telenovelas have a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is probably the most significant difference with soap operas from, say, the United States. A telenovela is a contained drama that usually runs anywhere from 6 months to a year. In contrast, American soap operas can, theoretically, run forever.
The shorter running time of telenovelas means, that the story focuses around a set of central characters and that there is always a satisfying end that ties it all together.
The story arc is more fast-paced, self-contained and concise than in American soap operas. Also, thanks to their shorter format, telenovelas are easier to export and adapt for audiences all around the world.
The recent telenovela, Yo Soy Betty, la Fea" (or Ugly Betty as it is known in the United States), was sold to over 70 different countries.
Other significant differences are the fact that telenovelas are intended to be watched by the entire family and not just the housewives. In fact, there are even telenovelas aimed specifically at teenagers.
Before you get morally defensive about that fact, consider that telenovelas have at their core a moral lesson. Hidden within the all the drama or melodrama, telenovelas impart a social message and a moral lesson, much like Disney Movies.
Telenovelas are and have been so effective at not only at engaging the viewer emotionally but also at touching on social issues and even inciting social movements, that the format of entertainment-education has become globalized.
Consider, for example, Mexico, who introduced and educated the masses about family planning thanks to a telenovela.
A further important difference is that, although both soap operas and telenovelas deal with a lot of drama, telenovela TV shows can come in a variety of genres ranging from romance to thrillers, period dramas, and even comedies.
As you can see, although telenovelas are colloquially called Spanish Soap Opera's they are quite different.
Watching telenovelas is a great way to learn or practice your Spanish. Here are a couple of reasons why:
Telenovelas are so popular and have been so globalized, that you should have no problem finding them. Either switch to the Spanish channels on your TV or look them up online, on YouTube. As a learning tool, they are probably the most readily available Spanish immersion methods you can find.
Consciously and methodically watching telenovelas can help improve your listening skills and add an impressive variety to your Spanish vocabulary. Watch an episode of your favorite telenovela and keep a notebook at hand. Write down the words you do not know and look them up after.
Speaking of vocab, telenovelas are unparalleled in introducing you to all types of slang and even curse words. Regardless of whether you intend to use them or not, knowing them will greatly increase your comprehension skills when listening to native Spanish speakers.
In the same line, telenovelas focus on near-to life events (though slightly dramatized). While a textbook might teach you how to say you are allergic to shellfish or how to ask for directions to the library, telenovelas will teach you how to have a conversation with a native speaker.
In the end, most of us want to learn a new language to interact with native speakers about life. Telenovelas will teach you how to do that.
Overstating the popularity of telenovelas among native Spanish speakers is hard. They are a common conversation topic and a touchstone for Spanish speakers living overseas. Being able to talk about telenovelas will give you a ready-made conversation topic.
Watching a telenovela, and occasionally laughing at the plotlines, is a lot more fun than committing a textbook to memory.
Combining learning with fun will make it a lot easier to persist. Self-discipline can only get you so far and usually fails halfway. Telenovelas are a fun way to stick to your language learning goals.
Telenovelas TV shows are also a great way to immerse yourself a little in the Latin American culture and traditions. Their very format gives a glimpse into the social issues that that play major roles in Latin American society and the tone of the discussion around them. In recent years, topics like euthanasia, homosexuality, teen pregnancies, and drug use have become major components of storylines.
Most telenovelas are shot only 15-20 episodes in advance so that they can quickly respond to social changes or popular topics in the social arena. That means that telenovelas, when watched "live," are a way to see the concerns of a society playing out on television in almost real-time.
The ending of telenovelas is usually a happy one; in fact, many telenovelas end in weddings. Why not watch them, compare, and contrast to the weddings you are used to?
Telenovelas can also involve pregnancies, cultural references to attitudes to work and leisure, as well as traditions around funerals and christenings.
You do not have to look far to see how Latin American cultures approach family loyalty, devotion to friends, religious traditions and of course, love.
If nothing else, telenovelas will expose you to the passion with which Latinos tend to approach most if not all aspects of life. There is a treasure trove of cultural learning hidden in telenovelas.