12 minutes to read

Train Your Ears for the Telenovela Spanish with Destinos

Actively Absorb Spanish by Watching the Spanish Learning Show the Right Way

The story of Destinos begins at Don Fernando’s idyllic hacienda.

Photo credit: Gildardo Sánchez licensed cc by 2.0

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Watching original Spanish-language videos, be it movies or telenovelas, is integral to a well-rounded language program and the idea just can’t be stressed enough. Nothing beats immersion when it comes to efficiency in language absorption; and nothing beats watching native-language programming when it comes to immersion on a shoestring. Developing an ear for the sounds and patterns of Spanish is much harder and important than being able to speak any. You can speak slowly if you’re not fluent enough; but the world isn’t always going to slow down if you can’t comprehend what you hear well enough. And Spanish speakers tend to speak at a much higher rate of speech than English speakers like you and I. And short of engaging with a native Spanish-speaking friend, videos are your best bet.

Having said that, someone who’s just starting out with Spanish looking for some armchair-immersion through videos is way too spoilt for choice. Thanks to the Internet and it’s shady underbellies (a.k.a. torrents), the sheer variety available at your fingertips is nothing short of overwhelming! YouTube alone has thousands, if not millions, of videos that qualify as excellent practice material. In such a crowded landscape, how does one even begin to identify the most appropriate ones for their level? You can’t just watch them all, can you? Well, in case you’re just starting out, here is one of my two top recommendations for you.

Introducing Destinos

Destinos is basically a telenovela in slow motion. And by slow, I mean slow. Native Spanish speakers speak ridiculously fast; so fast, it would be an achievement of sorts if you could make out where one word ends and another begins. When they speak, it’s almost like their entire rant was a single, very long word! And this isn’t just because you’re a rookie with no listening comprehension practice, they do indeed speak that fast which is what makes Destinos a welcome starting point for those looking to hone their listening skills.

Everything about this show revolves around learning Spanish – the plotline, the vocabulary, the accents, the format. Of course, to an extent, it also tries to be entertaining while doing that because, what else could keep you hooked otherwise? There are 52 episodes in total, each running about 30 minutes in length. That’s long enough to keep you hooked without losing your attention.

Plot Synopsis

The main protagonist of the story also doubles as the narrator and a raconteur and she’s essentially teacher guiding you all along. Her name is Rachel Rodriguez. She’s a gringa from California, a lawyer who’s enlisted by Don Fernando Castillo Savedra in Mexico to investigate a family secret. This family secret defines the central theme of the entire series. This Don Fernando is a retired businessman who had fled the Spanish Civil War and during his heyday and settled in Mexico ever since. Over the years, he has amassed quite a fortune and bought himself a beautiful hacienda just outside Mexico City named La Gavia. This is where he lives with his daughter and one of his four sons.

Don Fernando has been enjoying a relatively content and happily retired life when one day he receives a letter from Spain that drags him down a long-winding memory trail. This letter informs him that his first wife from Spain didn’t died during the Civil War as he had thought. She had gone missing during the war which had led Don Fernando to assume she was dead. That’s why, although riddled with grief, he decided to start a new life once he came to Mexico and remarried another woman. It’s been quite a while since his new wife had died as well. Nobody in his family knows about Don Fernando’s married past from Spain. Until now. The letter obviously throws him back in grief and guilt for having given up on her so easily.

Now, he must find out what happened to her after he fled and what remains of her family today, if any. To that end, he discusses the issue with his family and on his brother’s recommendation, hires Raquel to conduct the investigation. Raquel immediately agrees and gets going. The entire series from here on revolves around this very investigation that takes Raquel from one Spanish-speaking country to another.

Concept and Presentation

Destinos is the brainchild of a University of Illinois professor named Bill van Patten. He came up with the idea specifically for language learners like you and I and Destinos was released in 1992. Despite being over two decades old, the program continues to prove just as effective when it comes to training English ears for the sounds and cadence of Spanish. It works just as wonderfully today as it did back in the day. This is the reason PBS® still continues to air it every now and then. The show was produced by WGBH Boston® and funded by Annenberg Media® and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation®.

Destinos was such a revolution in Spanish learning when it came out in the 90s that it earned its executive producer three Emmys, the Venice Film Award, and a Peabody Award! When someone has hoarded up that many recognitions, you can rest assured that they must have done a mighty good job.

Now speaking of the show’s presentation, it can have one of the two effects on you depending on your age and personal sensibilities. Remember, it was shot in the 90s; this shows. The clothing, the video resolution, the dialogs – everything is as you would expect from a telenovelaesque production from 24 years ago. This could either make you nostalgic for the good old days, or make you cringe and laugh at how contrived and stupid everything feels.

I admit the presentation comes off as more than a wee bit cheesy and dated. The plotline is super-contrived and the costumes, especially that of Raquel, would make even the 80s cringe! Also given how old the production is, don’t expect a crisp 1080p resolution. But none of these shortcomings take away from the show’s effectiveness. And by the way, Destinos isn’t really all that predictable or deliberate if you know what telenovelas are like even today. Your reason for watching this is to improve your Spanish comprehension and that’s why these production gremlins (not exactly gremlins if you ask me) shouldn’t bother you much.

The 52 episodes of Destinos are designed in a way to expose you to the Spanish spoken in different countries. Raquel’s investigation takes her to Spain, Argentina, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. Every country gets at least one entire episode, giving you enough time to get a feel of the Spanish spoken there. Each episode opens with a pretty detailed background and summary of the story thus far and ends with a monologue by Raquel. In this monologue, Raquel helps consolidate the new concepts learned in that episode through a brief question-answer session. These questions test you for comprehension and are quite easy to answer. The language and the characters’ rate of speech are easy enough for any elementary-level learner to understand without much effort; but they grow gradually more challenging as the show advances. This is what makes Destinos a perfect jumping board for learners looking to start using Spanish-language programming for immersion. The show does not cover enough groundwork for you to be able to start watching regular telenovelas and make some sense out of them; however, it does advance you quite a bit in that direction.

The narratives are in both Spanish as well as in English at least over the first few episodes. This is to ease you into a Spanish-only situation gradually and comfortably. Starting episode 13, these narratives completely drop English and go Spanish-only. After over a dozen episodes of bilingual narration, your ears should have already acclimatized to Spanish well enough to not need English anymore.

How I Used It

The first question you need to ask yourself is, what’s your level of proficiency. And by proficiency, I mean listening comprehension skills here. If you’re an absolute beginner, you’d of course start right at the beginning and continue until the end. However, if you consider yourself slightly better than that, episode 31 is where things start to get a bit more challenging. That’s where the rate of speech goes up (still not as high as a natural conversation heard on the street though), new words get added, and more complex grammatical constructs start showing up.

In case you’re starting off at episode 31, you might not get the whole plot at once, given the higher level of comprehension skills those episodes warrant. But don’t let that throw you in a panic mode. Just keep moving no matter what. Try to absorb as much as you can. Repeat if needed. As many times as you feel like.

Speaking of repeating, that’s kind of key here. No matter how boring it might feel, don’t forget that your goal is to practice Spanish and have fun along the way, and not the other way around. So passively watching the episodes and expecting for them to somehow magic some Spanish into your head is probably not such a good idea. Involve yourself. Make notes, learn new constructs and words after watching, and replay every scene over and over again until you know it like the back of your hand. Do not move on to the next scene until you can repeat the dialogs along with the actors. Not knowing what a word means is alright, you’re not doing this to improve vocabulary or learn grammar. You are solely here to train your ears. Only focus on catching the words as they’re spoken even if you don’t know what they mean in English.

Only once you have thoroughly mastered the art of listening, get on with learning the grammar and vocabulary of that episode. Use memory hooks to internalize new words without having to cram them and then use a flashcard system to reinforce them to your memory. You could use a very simple no-frills grammar book to get an understanding of the constructs and grammatical concepts being introduced. But, I repeat, all of this must come only once you have your ears well-trained to tell the words apart when spoken.

The story of Destinos begins at Don Fernando’s idyllic hacienda. The story of Destinos begins at Don Fernando’s idyllic hacienda.
Gildardo Sánchez licensed cc by 2.0

Here’s a lowdown on what exactly you can expect to learn from each episode of this series:

Introduction (Episodes 1 through 2)

Vocabulary: Cognates; family members

Grammar: Articles; gender; the verb ser; possessives

A Journey to Seville (Episodes 3 through 6)

Vocabulary: Telling time; days of the week; animals; academic subjects; numbers (0 through 20)

Grammar: Personal a; interrogatives; adjectives; regular present tense; subject pronouns; the verbs ir and estarhay

A journey to Madrid (Episodes 7 through 11)

Vocabulary: Interrogatives; months; seasons; numbers (21 through 99); descriptive adjectives; colors

Grammar: Irregular present tense; stem-changing verbs; reflexive pronouns; demonstratives; possessives; adjectives; the verbs serestar, saber, and conocer

A journey through Argentina (Episodes 12 through 18)

Vocabulary: Writing and written works; food groups (meat, fish, veggies, etc.); numbers (100 through 1,000)

Grammar: Object pronouns (direct and indirect); verbs used reflexively and non-reflexively; prepositions, preterite tense

A journey through Puerto Rico (Episodes 19 through 26)

Vocabulary: Family members; directions; domestic appliances, parts of a house;descriptive adjectives; weather; family members; change in state or condition

Grammar: Affirmatives and negatives; comparisons; idioms with tener; imperfect, preterite, past progressive, and present progressive tenses; por and para; constructs like “al + infinitive,” “haceque,” “acabar de,” and using estar and sentirse with adjectives

A journey through Mexico (Episodes 27 through 36)

Vocabulary: Social life; professions; parts of body; medical situations; geographical features; stores; city locations

Grammar: Past participle as adjective; future tense; que and quien; present perfect tense; the subjunctive mood

A journey through Mexico: The Capital (Episodes 37 through 52)

Vocabulary: Pastimes; sports; relationships; restaurants; hotels; money; tourist needs; business; renting and buying

Grammar: Past subjunctive (simple and perfect); past perfect tense; exclamations; conditionals; adverbs

Where to Get It

Although the whole series is available for buying over at Amazon® and elsewhere, it’s more fun to get it for free, isn’t it? The Annenberg Lerner® website has an entire section dedicated to Destinos where you can not only watch the show for free but also test yourself on the Spanish you absorbed from each episode through their comprehension tests. Although you cannot download the show off this website, it should not matter if you enjoy a reasonably fast Internet connection and unlimited data allowances.

So that brings us to the end of my very long rant on a very precious resource for Spanish fanatics. I hope your experience with it proves my points. Already tried it before? Well, then I would love to know how far it helped you prepare for a more real-world comprehension. In case you haven’t, let me make one thing clear to help you manage your expectations better: Destinos is not what makes you ready for the rapid-fire Spanish of a typical movie or telenovela or even news. This show is just a starting point and should be treated as such. Not trying to discourage you here because you will certainly feel a lot of improvement in your comprehension skills by the time you’re done with the last episode. But it’s a good idea to know what to expect. There are a bunch of other shows I’ll discuss over the next few posts that could help you graduate from Destinos to regular television in fits and starts. One step at a time!


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