There are lots of shiny, spangly, new resources out there, but I’m not going to start with them. No, instead I’m going to start with a decidedly low-tech Spanish language learning tool that’s over 20 years old: Destinos.
Why? Because it’s great, that’s why.
What is Destinos?
Destinos – by Annenberg Media – is an entire language program built around a ridiculously cheesy telenovela from the early 1990s. While the original program included a textbook, workbooks and tapes (hey, it was the early 90s!), what really matters is the soap opera itself: 52 30-minute episodes that help you build vocabulary and train your ear to understand spoken Spanish. And you can watch all of them online for free!
Don Fernando (he’s the guy in the picture – see how sad and serious he looks?) reveals his deepest, darkest secret to his family: he was married once before and he may have another child. The family hires Raquel Rodriguez, a Spanish-speaking lawyer from California, to find them before the ailing Don Fernando dies. She travels the world, seeking answers:
- What’s in the letter?
- Where is Rosario?
- What happened to the child?
- Should she buy the red shirt or the blue one?
- How does one fit so many shoulder pads into one suitcase? (Actually, this is one mystery that will never be solved.)
Add in pregnant pauses, overdramatic facial expressions, cheesy romantic subplots and clothes that would have made even the 80s cringe, and you’ve got Destinos.
Why I love Destinos
OK, so the story is a bit silly – but isn’t that true for all soap operas?
What matters is that it works.
It introduces vocabulary in context. Rather than studying disconnected vocabulary lists, watching Destinos allows you to learn food vocab while people are eating, colours while Raquel is shopping for new clothes, and numbers in the context of phone numbers, addresses and room numbers. Yes, sometimes the context is a bit forced – for example, when Raquel ends up in a pet market so that we can learn the words for “dog”, “cat” and “bird” – but it’s never completely unrelated. Because words are used in context, they’re much easier to learn and retain.
It uses very little English. One of the things that disappoints me the most with resources for beginner learners is just how much English they tend to include. Some of them have more English than Spanish! This is not true for Destinos. The vast majority of each 30-minute program is fully in Spanish. Because it’s a telenovela, it’s a very visual medium. If you don’t understand something, you can use picture cues to help you figure it out.
It uses different speeds of speech to help develop listening skills. The narrator speaks in slow, clearly enunciated Spanish. Raquel also speaks slowly and clearly at the end of each episode, when she’s thinking back on what happened. In between, though, there’s lots of conversation at a “normal” pace. OK, it’s probably a bit slower and definitely with less slang than a truly normal conversation, but it’s still a challenge!
It introduces different Spanish accents. Throughout the story, Raquel visits Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico and Mexico. Each region has its own accent and speech patterns. I was starting to feel a bit smug after nine episodes in Spain. This is easy. I’m good. Then we went to Argentina, and I felt like I was starting all over again for the first few episodes. I love having the opportunity to train my ear using a variety of accents. The show also includes snapshots of history and culture for each region.
It includes closed captioning – in Spanish. You can turn the subtitles on and off by clicking on the CC button at the bottom of the screen. While I try not to use the closed captions, I do switch them on now and then, especially if someone is speaking with an accent that’s new to me. In addition to Spanish subtitles, the show also sometimes includes Spanish words and sentences written on the screen, especially when going over new learning at the end of each episode.
It’s fun. Let’s not forget the most important part of language learning: you have to want to do it. And – despite the drawn-out storyline and the ridiculous overacting – I like Destinos. It’s fun. It’s funny – even when it isn’t trying to be. It makes me feel like I’m actually getting better at Spanish.
How I use Destinos to learn Spanish
At first, I watched an episode every day, but that became a bit tiresome. Now, I generally watch four episodes per week, which is often enough to stay immersed in the story – but not so often that I stop listening during the recaps.
When I first began, I tried to write down all of the vocabulary that I was learning, but that quickly headed down the road of “not fun”. Since I already use other methods and resources to learn vocabulary, I decided to simply watch Destinos without madly scribbling down every new word. My main goal here is to develop my ear so that I can understand spoken Spanish, and the best way to do that is to listen. I do write down some of the vocabulary when Raquel is doing her recaps at the end of each episode.
If I get really stuck during a conversation, I’ll watch it with the Spanish captions turned on, and then go back and watch it again without the subtitles.
The site also includes a few language, grammar and vocabulary activities to help practice what you’re learning. These include fill-in-the-blanks, multiple choice, drag-and-drop, reading comprehension and other worksheet-type activities. I do some of these, but only if I feel like it. I don’t think that they’re all that helpful overall, but they’re quick to do and some of them are worthwhile.
Do I think that Destinos is worth watching?
Yes, absolutely! For people new to Spanish, it’s a great way to learn in context. The story – while a bit silly and slow-moving – is engaging. While you will spend a lot of time laughing and rolling your eyes, you’ll be surprised to find that you actually do care what happens next! And it’s very motivating to see how quickly your listening skills improve.
Destinos definitely wouldn’t stand on its own as a true telenovela. I think of it more as a kind of kindergarten for Spanish-language television. I plan on sticking with it until the end, and then I’ll graduate to a real telenovela.
While it won’t make a person fluent in Spanish on its own, Destinos is fun, and it’s a great tool for developing listening skills. In fact, I think I’ll go watch an episode right now!
You can access all 52 episodes of Destinos for free here.