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How to Understand and Enjoy Movies in Spanish

When I was new to Spanish and everything was completely fresh or me, I wanted to advance as fast as possible. I did my sentences (still doing them), listened to Spanish rap 6 to 7 hours a day (maybe it’s 4 – 5 hours now), read some simple EsParaLeer books with notes in Spanish and a limited vocabulary, etc., etc. But the thing I really wanted to do was watching movies, in Spanish. Original movies. Movies unknown to most people outside the hispanosphere. Movies that gave me an insight into the culture of the Latin-American countries.

Yes, that would be awesome, but next to impossible with my comprehension level at that time. “Man, I hate myself. Why can’t I understand a simple movie? Why does it have to be so haaaaard?!” I asked myself. I *had* to find a way in, there had to be some enterence into understanding Spanish movies. But HOW?

Living in the Netherlands, almost all – if not all – movies are subtitled (except for the Dutch ones, of course). This leaves a population with quite some English language skills, but it also breeds a hate for everything that’s being dubbed.

In the east there’s Germany. And the Germans are known for dubbing everything. Sometimes I watch German television (we have about 5 – 6 German channels), but when it comes to dubbed movies and shows I turn it off. I just can’t (or should I say couldn’t?) stand dubbed movies and shows, it’s just unnatural to me.

Just ask a random Dutchman, and he confirms what I feel. It’s just weird… So I tried dubbed movies in Spanish, but I hated it, I really hated it. I couldn’t stand the somewhat unnatural voices, I couldn’t stand it that my favorite characters in The O.C. now seemed to have more or less the same voice.

But, back to the story. I needed an enterance to Spanish movies. Of course, I could turn on the subtitles, but at that time I thought that even exact Spanish subtitles would do more harm than good (in fact, later I came to the conclusion that exact Spanish subtitles are a great shortcut to watching movies). I could also just watch a movie, although I wouldn’t understand most of it. But that turned out to be another mistake, as I was bored as ****. So then what?

I HAD to get input, I WANTED to watch movies in Spanish. But HOW? The simple solution, again: dubbed movies. Like I said before, I hated dubbed movies with all my guts, but it was something that had to be done. So I’d pick a movie which I had seen countless times and get the dubbed version. For example Toy Story.

When I was little I got Toy Story on VHS for Christmas. I loved the movie and watched it over and over again. So when I grew up, I watched it now and then to get that nice feeling again. I knew the dialogues, I knew the funny parts, I knew the songs. So I got the dubbed version in Castillian Spanish on DVD and started watching it. Not once, not twice… No, every day, 2-3 times a day. Just looping it, enjoying it. Listening carefully, singing along with the songs. And it worked. I could understand a huge chunk of the dialogues the first time, and every time I watched it again I picked up more. More words, more grammar, more… just Spanish. It was great.

But still, an animated movie that’s being dubbed doesn’t look like a dubbed one. Most of the time, it’s perfect. You don’t look at the mouth, you don’t care that much with animated movies. So my next ‘project’ would be a ‘real’ movie. But which one? I’d seen American Pie countless times in English, and although some jokes are rather bland, I like the movie.

So again, I picked up the dubbed version and started watching. I watched it one time in the afternoon, and one time in the evening. Next day, I did exactly the same. Although it was weird to hear other voices, the dubbing was incredibly accurate. 9 out of 10 times the words and movement of the mouth and everything were matching perfectly.

Contrary to the German dubbing, Spanish dubbing is some kind of art, it’s almost perfect. So I watched, and watched, and watched. After a while I knew all the swearing of Stifler (cara culo, gilipollas, etc., etc.) and I loved it. So I decided to try The O.C. another time, and weird enough: I could stand it! I even liked it. Something happened: I could stand dubbed movies and was able to enjoy them! So this was the enterance I was looking for. And after a while I was able to watch movies like Volver and Las 13 Rosas.

I was able to understand original movies, in Spanish, without a sweat. So I’ll give you guys the same advice as I’ve given to other people who wanted to boost their Spanish skills.

To sum it up:

1. Get the dubbed version of a movie you really like in English (in the dialect you’re studying)

And I mean, you have to reaaaaaly like it and seen it so many times that you forgot to count. This is important, because you get bored easily if you can’t understand anything. But because you’ve seen this movie so often, you know most of the dialogues and this way you simple absorb all the Spanish vocabulary. Also, it’s important (especially in the beginning) that you focus on one dialect/accent. Want to get a Castillian accent? Get the Spanish version. Do you like hearing usted all the time and want to speak like a Mexican (which is cool, but not everyone wants to talk like that)? Get the Mexican version. Do you like… oh well, you get the point.

2. Don’t watch it once or twice, but again: countless times!

You watched it over and over again in English, right? Why wouldn’t you do the same thing with the Spanish version? Just watch and watch. Even better, look up some words during the movie. Not too much, but some. Every time you watch the movie, and look up – let’s say 5 words – you will boost your overall comprehension. The main learning factor is – of course – the dialogues you auytomatically memorized before. But looking up some words now and then isn’t a shame.

3. Take it with you

Yes, you heard me: take the movie with you. Do you commute a lot? Rip the audio and put it on your MP3 player (just ask Google for something like “DVD audio ripper”). Do you have an MP4 player? Convert the DVD to MP4 so that you can switch (listening when you want, or watching when you want) (again, Google is your friend).

4. Memorize it

Most of the memorization is done automatically because you watch the movie over and over again. But adding cool phrases you want to remember to your SRS is always a wise thing to do, so do it. I recently added some slang and really weird sentences to Anki, and I laugh every time Anki shows them to me: it really makes doing reps more fun.

There, this should get your television addiction up and running (which is good, but only if it’s in Spanish, hehe).

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A Spanish teacher by trade, Ramses is a true language learning addict. He started Spanish-Only.com and The Language Dojo, and isn't even thinking about quitting language learning; it's in his blood!

Latest posts by Ramses (see all)

17 Comments…

Jeff August 27, 2008 at 7:34 pm

I have to agree that the worst part about dubbed movies is how unnatural the voices sound, especially since I am so familiar with how the actors actually sound in English.

Obviously it is quite important to pick movies that you know really well, and movies that you like/that interest you, because that way it makes it easier to pick up on the vocab in the target language. It is quite annoying to hear the dubbed voices, but maybe I’ll give it a try with “Toy Story.”

Some time in the near future I’ll also have to get an MP3 player, so that I can benefit from ripped audio lessons. I know that I would use it a lot for Spanish and Portuguese.

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Ramses August 27, 2008 at 8:08 pm

Trust me; you get used to the voices. I have some seasons of Friends (Colegas) and at first it still sounded a bit weird, but I got used to it and now it sounds normal (for me at least). With “That 70’s show” (Aquellos maravillosos 70) I liked it right away. They even gave Fez the somewhat gay voice, it’s just hilarious.

Ripping audio is a great way to get deeper into the dialogues. I used to turn off the screen of my PSP. The movie was still running, but only the audio came through. This way I memorized almost everything of Toy Story without forcing anything (that means, just enjoying it the whole time). Starting from next week (start of the new semester) I’ll listen to “Bad Boys I” and II (Dos policías rebeldes I y II) while commuting. I’ve seen II so many times, but I just can’t get enough of it :-).

If you do want to get some extra practice try podcasts, maybe even the ones for natives (if you can handle them) or take the SpanishPod podcasts according to your level. Ok, podcasts for natives aren’t lessons, but it’s something different. For the lessons: if you’re not going through a book, try SpanishPod. If you’re going through a textbook or some kind of program, listen to the audio of the course when you can.

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goldfish August 28, 2008 at 9:17 pm

¿Conoces este sitio? http://www.filmaffinity.com/es/main.html

Tiene una de las mejores bases de datos de películas, yo lo uso más que nada para llevar un registro de las pelis que he visto o quiero ver, aunque el tema de la afinidad también está muy bien. Para lo que comentabas, quizás sea la manera más rápida de encontrar el título español de una película extranjera.

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Ramses August 29, 2008 at 10:21 am

Jeje, no conocía esa página antes de unos días :). Pero me gusta porque tiene mucha información sobre las películas. Y lo mejor es… ¡tiene todo en español! Gracias por mencionar :).

(He usado la página para buscar información sobre unas pelis. Sí, es muy útil).

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Chris September 2, 2008 at 8:43 pm

I find that I don’t enjoy watching movies more than once, so unfortunately this technique won’t work well for me (despite that it would definitely work quite well, I imagine).

Because I need new stuff to keep my interest (and I much prefer native material even if I only understand some), I’ve found some good sources of television.

One is at the RTVE site, http://www.rtve.es which has archived videos of many of their shows. I go to TV a la carta and choose Amar en Tiempos Revueltos, a highly rated TV show in Spain which comes out with a new episode per day. Might be worth checking out for those interested

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Crystal December 8, 2008 at 7:51 pm

Ramses, Love your learning strategy. The more I immerse myself the more I learn, and I’m starting to have fun with it. Reading, listening to music, blogs, etc. is way more cool than sitting in front of a book all day. Although grammer is very important, I think instructors forget to inform students on the importance of “FUN”. So you have to merge the two together. I was wondering how long have you been learning/speaking Spanish? I saw you mention something about seeing results in year or so.

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Ramses December 8, 2008 at 8:33 pm

I saw results in about half a year, within 10 months I was able to pull off conversations with natives. Now, one and a half years later, I can have fast-paced conversations with natives. So yeah, it works.

Recently, I found that learning grammar became really easy for me. Before, I crammed some rules but quit bothering. Because I had a grammar test some weeks ago, I had to be able to explain pretty much every tense and combinations. By just reading the grammar book ONCE I was able to get a A-. Not that bad…

Knowing grammar (being able to explain it) is nice, but isn’t necessary for a good foundation. Focus on input first, the whys will come later. If it’s time for grammar, you’ll understand everything easily.

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TexasAggie July 14, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Ramses, I just found your blog about a week ago. I really like it. I have consumed about 50 hours of Spanish in the past seven days. It has been fun, and I'm understanding more and more.

Last night, I was talking with my kids and came up with an idea to help them learn Spanish. I told them I'd give them a quarter for every 15 minutes they watch in Spanish. We went to the video store and rented Shrek and watched the entire thing last night with the Spanish audio track. They enjoyed it and are now eager to watch more. They had watched Shrek several times before in English, so they already knew what was going on.

I have now downloaded the English and Spanish subtitle files for Shrek and am creating sentences from them. I'm planning to listen to or watch Shrek at least 10 times in the next few weeks and start using the sentences as well. This should be fun.

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Matt July 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Nice!

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Ramses July 17, 2012 at 6:52 pm

Wow, that's AWESOME. Haha I love how you get your kids involved, but you might end up broke as the TV method is addictive ;-)

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george January 31, 2013 at 7:43 pm

wow, yo que tu, I’d be bankrupt in no time, jejeje
not so long ago I downloaded an ap for my phone called “E flash span for kids”
it has pictures(photos) of stuff like animals body parts and the alphabet, she loves it (she is 4). Its not hard for kids to be interested in these I noticed.

Yo about the shrek, can you place a downloadable link here? like a 3gp or mp4 vid? por favor?

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Ross July 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm

So I got the DVD of Shrek and ripped it with the Spanish dubbing. I then got the English subtitles and the Spanish subtitles so I could create sentences and dump them into Supermemo for my iphone. The thing is, the subtitles don't match the dubbed audio. In some places, they are not even close. Has anybody else encountered this? Is it an issue of one being Latin-american Spanish and the other being for a Spanish audience? Thanks in advance.

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Ramses July 26, 2012 at 8:41 pm

Hey Ross,

That's possible, or it's of a different version or the beginning is a bit off. What program do you use to rip the picture and audio? I know there's an automated process but personally I have no idea what it's called or how it works.

Anyway, this exact same frustration led me to not using subtitles at all. Now that I'm learning another language (Hungarian actually) I also want to rip the picture, audio and subtitle but most are just off :-(

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george January 31, 2013 at 8:18 pm

yes ramses I think that is the case. I am now on my 25th episode of my childhood favorite anime Yuyu hakusho(ghost files) in spanish: Los guereros de mas alla (i dont know if anybody here is familiar with those) but it has 2 versions: the castillan, and the Latin american (which sucks because of the choice of voices that they used for teh characters) it is not indicated what version you will be downloading but I can tell that from the accent esp from the Ce, Ci, and Zs. And one day I accidentally downloaded the Latin american for one episode (ep 8) and I noticed that there are some minor differences with the lines. So yes the versions would differ and you need to be speciffic of what version are you looking up for.

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George Mardelli January 30, 2013 at 10:29 pm

Why this doesnt work for me is that the spanish subtitles never really matches the spoken spanish audio. And if im listening to the movie, how am I to hear words that Ive never heard before and phrases , let alone write them down and look them up. I mean I first have to identify what spanish word is being spoken, this is a feat in and of itself as they talk very fast in dubbed spanish films,, let alone looking the translation up.

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Edwardo May 26, 2014 at 10:03 pm

Ramses: Where do you buy American movies dubbed in Spanish? I got online to look and all I could find was your post. Who carries them? How can I be sure I’m getting the right thing – i.e., a popular American movie with the dialogue redone entirely in Spanish?

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