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A Linguistic Analysis of Telenovela Spanish - What are the most frequent phrases in telenovelas?

A Very Informal Corpus Linguistic Analysis of Telenovela Spanish: Pasión y Poder

A Linguistic Analysis of Telenovela Spanish, or How this Nerdy Linguist Spent her Friday Night

Ever since I discovered that Univision started including transcripts of their telenovelas online, I had been wanting to experiment with the free corpus linguistics software AntConc to analyze the most common phrases used in telenovela Spanish. I chose Pasión y Poder because it had the most transcripts still available on the website, even though I rarely watched it. It was a fairly typical telenovela, unlike El Hotel de Los Secretos or Yago, with plenty of fighting and drama and a (mostly) happy ending. Unfortunately Telemundo does not provide transcripts of their telenovelas (which tend to be better) which is a shame since I’d love to analyze the language of La Esclava Blanca, a Colombian telenovela set in the mid 1800’s.

Here’s how I created the corpus and found the most frequent phrases, if you feel inclined to be as nerdy…

How to be a linguistics/telenovela nerd:

  1. Downloading the html files was easy and quick thanks to the DownThemAll add-on for Firefox and the fact that the URL of each episode only differs by the number so I was able to use batch descriptors. (I know webscraping is possible with Python, but my programming knowledge is still pretty basic and I knew that I could get the files with the add-on in about 20 seconds.)
  2. Then I needed to find a way to extract the text from all of the <p> tags – since the transcript was the only text enclosed in these tags in all of the html code – and create text files for each episode. I managed to find some Python/BeautifulSoup code online after an hour of searching that did what I needed, after a couple tweaks, a few tears, and many error messages.
  3. Finally, I loaded the 117 text files into AntConc and played around with the Clusters/N-Grams option and N-Gram Size to find the most frequent phrases between five and ten words.

Most Frequent Phrases in Pasión y Poder

So here are the most frequent phrases used in Pasión y Poder, starting with ten word phrases and ending with five word phrases. Keep in mind that some of the phrases are typically Mexican, and some are overly dramatic because, well, they’re from a telenovela!

  • A ver, a ver, a ver, a ver, a ver. (A ver is usually translated as let’s see, but I have no idea what a good translation for this many a vers together would be in natural English.)
  • No te metas en lo que no te importa. (Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong./Mind your own business.)
  • No sabes el gusto que me da que… (You don’t know how happy it makes me that…)
    ¿No te das cuenta? ¿No te das cuenta? (Don’t you realize? Don’t you realize?)
  • Esto no se va a quedar así. (This isn’t over. [said as a threat of revenge])
    No me lo tomes a mal, pero… (Don’t take this the wrong way, but…)
  • … lo que te voy a decir. (… what I’m going to tell you.)
    Lo único que quiero es que… (The only thing I want is that…)
    No, eso no va a pasar. (No, that is not going to happen.)
    No tiene nada que ver con… (It has nothing to do with…)
    Lo que pasa es que no…  (What is happening is that … not)
    No te lo voy a perdonar. (I’m not going to forgive you for it.)
    No te voy a permitir que… (I won’t allow you to…)
    Eres el amor de mi vida. (You are the love of my life.)
    No tiene la culpa de nada. (S/he is not guilty of anything.)
    A pesar de todo, lo que… (In spite of everything, what…)
    Creo que lo mejor es que… (I think the best thing is that/to…)
    Lo que me preocupa es que… (What worries me is that…)
    Lo único que espero es que… (The only thing I hope is that…)
  • Todo va a estar bien. (Everything will be fine.)
    Me da mucho gusto que… (I’m very happy that…)
    No voy a dejar que… (I’m not going to let…)
    No, por supuesto que no. (No, of course not.)
    ¿Que fue lo que pasó? (What happened?)
    Sí, lo sé, lo sé. (Yes, I know, I know.)
    Ya me tengo que ir. (I have to go now.)
    No me importa lo que… (I don’t care what…)
    … lo que vas a hacer. (…what you’re going to do.)
    Te pido por favor que… (I am asking you please to…)
    Ya me di cuenta que… (I already realized that…)
    De una vez por todas. (Once and for all.)
    ¿No te das cuenta que…? (Don’t you realize that…?)
    Yo no tengo nada que… (I have nothing that…)
    Y lo peor es que… (And the worst is that…)

Telenovela Battle of Screams and Insults

I was also interested in finding out which words I heard yelled all the time were more frequent:

In the battle suéltame (let go of me) vs. lárgate (get out), the winner is: ¡lárgate! (59 vs. 61)

And in the battle infeliz (fool) vs. desgraciado (bastard), the winner is: ¡infeliz! (74 vs. 69)

However, the winner of them all was ¡No puede ser! (It can’t be!) with a frequency count of 151.

So what have we learned?

To sum up, Telenovela Spanish is hilarious and corpus linguistics is amazing.

If you’d like to learn more about Corpus Linguistics, there is a free MOOC at Futurelearn starting in September and the hands-on exercises in the new textbook Practical Corpus Linguistics will get you started with AntConc, plus there are tutorials on Youtube on how to use this software.

Learn Spanish by Watching Telenovelas

Learn Spanish by Watching Telenovelas

The most entertaining way to learn Spanish

It’s quite easy and fun to learn Spanish by watching telenovelas, fast-paced Spanish-language soap operas that are as ridiculous as they are addictive. Armed with closed captioning, Wordreference, and a few other websites, you can easily learn or improve your Spanish while love/hate-watching soap operas. 

Most of the telenovelas I watch are Mexican or American, since I’m most familiar with the telenovelas broadcast on the US channels Univision and Telemundo. Many other Spanish-speaking countries produce their own telenovelas that you may be able to find on DVD, Youtube, Dailymotion, Viki, etc. However, you are less likely to be able to find closed captioning or subtitles in Spanish and the DVD versions will almost always be edited versions since most telenovelas run for over 100 episodes and that would fill a LOT of DVDs.

The good thing about Univision and Telemundo is that you do not need a cable subscription to watch their telenovelas since you can stream them online if you live in the US or use a VPN to seem like you are in the US. If you do watch on a TV, you should be able to turn on the closed captioning in either Spanish or English – if your TV has the option to change to English, that is. Closed captioning in Spanish is available for the streaming videos, though Univision’s is somewhat unreliable. The site Ark TV also has what appears to be (mostly messy and unreliable) text of the closed captioning for the Univision telenovelas up to September 10, 2015. If you want English language recaps of the four main Univision telenovelas and some discussions of the Telemundo telenovelas, head over to the blog Caray, Caray! so you’ll still be able to follow along with the plot even if you miss or can’t understand some episodes.

There are four telenovelas broadcast every weeknight on Univision, but I don’t have time to watch all of them. I started with Lo Imperdonable (The Unforgiveable) since the scenery is really pretty and I liked the juxtaposition of big city and small town. Some parts were filmed in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí near the gorgeous Tamul waterfall. Also, Ana Brenda and Ivan Sanchez make the hottest couple ever.

Lo Imperdonable

These people are too pretty to be real.

I have an intense love/hate relationship with this telenovela because there are quite a few things that piss me off about the storylines, like “Hey, I just met you and this is crazy but I think you’re responsible for my brother’s suicide so marry me maybe (so I can treat you like crap),” slut-shaming of adult women who may or may not be virgins (who cares?!), and the child abuse of a 17 year old girl. The most offensive thing about this telenovela may just be the horribly miscast 48 year-old Sergio Sendel in a role where the character is supposedly in his late 20’s. Yet I cannot stop watching!

Cascada de Tamul @ Tanchachin, SLP, Mexico

Yes, this is a real place in Mexico.

The other Univision telenovelas that I catch from time to time are:

Muchacha italiana viene a casarse (Italian girl comes to get married) – If you like Italy and want to learn a tiny bit of Italian with Spanish, check out this telenovela that has already aired in Mexico but started in the US last month. There are a whopping 176 episodes overall, but Univision is cutting out a lot of scenes for the US broadcast in order to shorten it. Two of the main characters are Italian and frequently code-switch between Italian and Spanish, so it can be a tiny bit confusing for beginning Spanish learners.

Antes Muerta que Lichita (I’d rather be dead than be Lichita) – If comedies are more your thing, I’d check out this adorable telenovela. Supposedly, it is NOT an Ugly Betty remake but there are quite a few similarities so far. Comedies tend to have much faster speech, however, with more slang and informal language so even with closed captioning, I have trouble following some conversations. There is also a hilarious telenovela-within-a-telenovela that basically exists to makes fun of telenovelas, available only on Univision’s website, called Corazón Enamorado. There are no subtitles for this webnovela though, and the main character speaks with an American accent, which you’d think would make it easier for English speakers to understand her Spanish but I actually find it harder.

Antes Muerta Que Lichita

Totally not Ugly Betty, you guys…

Some telenovelas that recently ended are still available on Univision’s website if you feel like binge-watching 100 hours or more. You can also buy edited version of telenovelas on DVD (usually between 12 and 15 hours total), but they only come with English subtitles. But at least you don’t have to sit through the filler scenes with minor characters that you don’t care about!

I mostly watch comedies, so I definitely recommend Pour Ella Soy EvaLos Tontas No Van al Cielo, and La Fea Más Bella (the Mexican Ugly Betty) – which coincidentally all star Jaime Camil as the male lead. (You should also check out the American and mostly English-language series Jane the Virgin in which he is currently playing an exaggerated version of himself, a Mexican telenovela star.)

Lastly, not a comedy, but a drama about drug-trafficking that was filmed in both Mexico and Spain, La Reina del Sur is also highly recommended by many people, although I have only seen a few episodes. You can buy the DVD set, which includes all 63 unedited episodes (42 hours!), but there are NO subtitles at all.  Supposedly there are English subtitles on the hard to find and expensive Blu-Ray version, however. Luckily, Telemundo still has 15-20 minute versions of the episodes on their Youtube account, with Spanish subtitles.

Previously on ielanguages.com blog: Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language Learning

Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language Learning

The Telenovela Method, as explained by Andrew, is a great way to learn languages quickly, which a recent study suggests actually helps your brain grow. The main reason I like this method is the authenticity of language and culture which is usually lacking from language learning resources. Finding subtitles to go along with the movies or TV series can be a problem though, especially with telenovelas.

Ugly Betty Adaptations in Spanish

The most famous telenovela and the original Ugly Betty, Yo soy Betty, la fea, was made in Colombia and you can watch all of the episodes (many with subtitles in Spanish and English) at viki.com. The European Spanish version, Yo soy Bea, also has a quite a few episodes on viki.com though not all have Spanish subtitles yet.

The Mexican version, La Fea Más Bella, is available on DVD through Amazon.com as a shortened/edited version with English subtitles only.

Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language Learning Mexican version of Ugly Betty

Mexican Telenovelas

If you are interested in using Mexican telenovelas to learn Spanish, I highly recommend Las Tontas No Van al Cielo. It is actually better than La Fea Más Bella, even funnier and much more addictive. The DVD available on Amazon.com is, of course, a shortened version of just over 15 hours but the editing was actually done quite well. There was only one storyline that I don’t remember seeing the end to, but everything else made sense.

Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language Learning Best telenovela ever.

The male lead is Jaime Camil, who was also the male lead in La Fea Más Bella. The female lead is Jacqueline Bracamontes… who also had a small role in La Fea Más Bella. I was also pleasantly surprised to find out that the theme song, Esto es lo que soy, is sung by Jesse y Joy, my favorite Mexican band.

Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language LearningThis dude is hilarious.

If you prefer to have actual DVDs so you’re not stuck in front of a computer all the time, there are a lot of Mexican televenovelas sold on Amazon.com for less than $10 each. They will be the edited versions because the full versions that aired on TV are more than 100 hours long and that is a LOT of DVDs. They tend to only have English subtitles but their price is rather cheap for how many hours of Spanish you’ll get to hear. If you don’t mind using the computer, Andrew also has lists of sites for watching Spanish-language TV online as well as Spanish videos with Spanish subtitles.

Ugly Betty Adaptations in Languages Other than Spanish

For Portuguese, Brazil has Bela, a Feia and many clips can also be found on Youtube. There are no French or Italian versions, but Germany has Verliebt in Berlin and you can get the (many) DVDs which include every single episode on Amazon.de from third-party sellers (region 2 only though!).

There are two versions in Dutch, Sara from Flemish-speaking Belgium and Lotte from the Netherlands. A few clips from Sara can be found on VTM’s site and LotteTVChannel is still uploading all of the episodes of Lotte to Youtube. Plus Lars Oostveen is the male lead. You should recognize him as Sam Scott, a.k.a the American, from the Extr@ series. Now you get to hear him speak his native language.

Ugly Betty Adaptations and Other Telenovelas for Language Learning

And he’s instantly ten times cuter when he speaks Dutch.

A few other adaptations of Ugly Betty exist in languages such as Greek, Croatian, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Mandarin, etc. but I don’t think they’re available on DVD. Some clips may be available online though.

Update: Learn Spanish by Watching Telenovelas (with recommendations for more telenovelas to watch)