Tag Archives: language

Practicing Spanish with Movies: A Review of Casi Divas

Everyone’s heard a story at some point in their life about a person who taught themselves to speak [insert foreign language here] by watching lots of television and movies in their target language. Especially for people learning American English, Hollywood productions and popular TV series can provide a window into American social and linguistic norms and practices that textbooks often can’t, even if it is a somewhat distorting window. We all know that watching The Help or Bridesmaids or Friends doesn’t provide the viewer with a flawless picture of how people live and communicate in America, now or in the past, but even exaggerated versions of American life on screen can provide insights into the things we as a country value and how we interact with one another. All in all, I am a strong believer that the benefits of watching movies far outweigh any risks that might be involved  (like accidentally picking up Sylvester Stallone’s weird slur/drawl after watching Rambo one too many times or thinking that “E.T. phone home” is an appropriate, colloquial way to request use of a telephone).

I watch Spanish-language movies as often as I can. While the Netflix Watch Instantly selection in this genre is quite disappointing, it still gives me instant access to way more movies than I had available to me before. Subtitles, for better or for worse, are turned on, with no option to be turned off. I’ve found that the DVD options they offer are much more complete, but I like my instant gratification so I’m sticking with the online rentals for the time being.
One movie that I discovered through the service was a Mexican comedy called Casi Divas (Almost Divas). The plot (which at times takes on a vague-mockumentary-ish feel that I wish they had pursued further) centers around a nationwide casting call for a new movie based on a fictional telenovela called Maria Enamorada. With the telenovela’s leading lady growing too old to play the part in the movie (and not happy about it at all), the studio holds an open American Idol-style casting call, complete with acting competitions and telephone voting to find the new Maria. The movie follows four hopeful contestants from different parts of Mexico and very different walks of life as they compete for the starring role.

This is not the type of movie I normally watch, but I have to confess, I love it. It’s in large part a very silly comedy, but there are very serious undertones that address a number of social issues of importance in modern Mexico.

A rich contestant from Guadalajara struggles with her self-image and relies on her wealthy family to get her through the competition, another from Oaxaca is discriminated against because of her race (she is a Zapoteca Indian), another has a secret that could eliminate her from the competition (revealed halfway through the film), and one contestant from Ciudad Juárez hopes to use the fame she’d acquire by winning the competition to escape the murderous city she’s grown up in, and the numerous disappearances and killings that have plagued the city’s women for years. I do think the film glazes over many of these issues, but their mere presence as plot elements keeps the movie from being too fluffy and adds a little heart and soul to an otherwise lighthearted story line.

This is a bit of a screwball comedy, a bit stereotypical,  and it definitely focuses on the ladies (the male characters are not necessarily painted in the most flattering light), but overall I would highly recommend it. I don’t think it got the best reviews overall, but honestly, it’s enjoyable. If you want to read some more critical perspectives, NPR and The Los Angeles Times both gave it fairly favorable, though by no means rave reviews.

Language-wise, there is a lot of fast talking, but there was clearly effort put into differentiating the characters’ different personal styles, and I think that comes through in a number of very distinctive speaking styles that are nice to see side by side. I’m not used to all the Mexican colloquialisms that appear throughout the film, but overall I think it’s a great vehicle for learning some new vocab and grammatical structures more commonly used south of the border.

Don’t have Netflix? You can also get the DVD from Walmart for $5.

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Language Practice (that you’ll actually do): Spanish Music

The single best thing I ever did for my Spanish was to move to Spain, live with Spanish people, and struggle to survive in a world where I couldn’t always default to English, even when I was seriously tired/frustrated/just wanted to get something done without pulling out a dictionary every five seconds. I highly recommend doing the same to anyone who wants to learn a foreign language or improve skills they already have, but let’s be honest, that’s only going to be feasible for a few lucky souls. (If you are one of those souls, go here!)

So now I’m back in the US and I am scared of losing what I learned. The good news is, we have a lot of Spanish speakers here. In fact, according to Wikipedia, over 12% of the population speaks Spanish. That means that the US has the 5th largest population of Spanish speakers in the world (outnumbered only by Spain, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia). That’s a lot of Spanish! And in San Francisco, it’s pretty much all around me. But here’s the bad news: it’s just not the same. Most of the people who speak Spanish also speak English, and they speak it as well as or better than I speak Spanish. It’s so easy to never speak Spanish because it’s so much easier to just speak English. I have to be honest with myself and admit that I am never going to be the person who orders from a taquería in Spanish or strikes up a conversation with the wonderful woman at my grocery store (seriously go there if you live in the neighborhood–great orange juice) who clearly is a native speaker or even tries to give directions to some obviously lost and confused Spanish tourists in Chinatown. I’m a little bit shy and a lot a bit nervous about speaking rusty Spanish, and sadly I only wriggle out of my little Anglo shell when I am forced to.

So now what? Obviously it would be best to just talk as much as possible to whoever would listen (and hopefully have them talk back), but let’s get a little less ambitious for a moment and think of things that might actually get accomplished. I’ve noticed that when I get decide to go big on practicing (taking a 3-hour night class at SFCC, joining a meet-up group, etc.), I tend to not get that far. It’s too big of a commitment and after a while I always drop it. But there are a few things that I have stuck with consistently since I left Spain, a year and a half ago now, and while they’re not going to make me fluent any time soon, they certainly are improving my vocabulary and teaching me new things all the time.

The first and easiest of these things is listening to Spanish music. I used to not really like Spanish music, but that was because I had only heard Mariachi bands (and even those are growing on me now that my comprehension is better) and Reggaeton. But in Spain I was exposed to a fuller spectrum of Spanish music and now I listen to it almost exclusively. I’ve often posted music and music videos on this blog, and most of them are great resources for maintaining language skills and perhaps for adding a little Spanish flair to your day. I sometimes have to remind myself not to get too discouraged by lyrics that I can’t understand because they are a little abstracted (Um, example! And here is an example of something I never would have fully understood from just listening to that song and only ever looked up because I listened to that song.) But still, a great way to add unexpected words to your brain, like funambulista. Where else would I ever have learned that?!

If you don’t know where to begin, music services like Spotify and Pandora are great places to find new Spanish music if you have a song or artist as a starting point (you can also check out current top hits in Spain via Spotify, though many of them are American songs, so it’s not always the most helpful resource). If you don’t have a starting point and have only ever heard Spanish songs in the discouraging Mariachi or Reggaeton genres….well, that’s what I’m here for! Here are a few bands that I’ve been listening to that should get you started (all links are to Spotify tracks):

Juieta Venegas: Female vocalist from Mexico, formerly more independent but gained success when she went a little more mainstream. Clear pronunciation, reasonably intelligible lyrics, catchy songs!

My favorite tracks: Limón y Sal, Lento (even better are the live MTV Unplugged acoustic versions!)

Vetusta Morla: Spanish alt-rock that kinda reminds me of a Coldplay mixed with Radiohead mixed with something else in Spanish. Their lyrics can be hard to fully comprehend, but they are a vocab GOLDMINE.

My favorite tracks: Too many to name! Copenhague, Los Días Raros,  Baldosas Amarillas, Un Día en el Mundo, Año Nuevo

Love of Lesbian: Kind of kooky Catalan band with very distinctive vocals (lyrics are in Castellano, don’t worry). Kind of an 80s-ish vibe, totally awesome. For some reason their album 1999 isn’t available in the US on Spotify, but this song is great too.

My favorite tracks: Un Día en el Parque, Shiwa, Me Amo, Noches Reversibles, Marlene, la vecina del ático.

Juanes: Colombian pop-rocker with lots of fans in the US and around the world and a constantly evolving ‘do.

My favorite tracks: They are kinda the same song, really….La Paga, La Camisa Negra

La Bien Querida: A recent find on my part, female vocals, kind of has a modern-indie-raspy thing going on. Slower and easy to follow, lyrically speaking.

Favorite Tracks: De Momento Abril, Ya No

Ojos de Brujo: Pop flamenco collective that refers to their genre-defying style as “jip-jop flamenkillo.” Good luck getting all these lyrics down (they’ve cut the back end off half the words, even in the song titles!), but it’s very Spanish and Na En La Nevera is a great challenge if you want to practice listening to a less intelligible, truncated version of the language….if you’ve ever lamented not being able to follow a quick-paced, slang-laced convo among nativos, this is a good resource.

My favorite tracks: Na En La Nevera, Sultanas de Merkaíllo, Corriente Vital

Carla Morrison: Adorable Mexican singer songwriter with girly vocals and plenty of delicate acoustic guitar.

Favorite Tracks: Pajarito del Amor, Una SalidaTu Luz

There are also plenty of other artists who I am just getting to know, and while I am not familiar with too many of their songs, I can at least share the few that I know and like so far:

Ely Guerra: Te Amo, I Love You: Don’t let the intro fool you, this girl starts belting it out about a minute in.

Ellos: No Te Enamores: Kinda 80s pop vibe that reminds me of this joint in Madrid and its soundtrack of 80s and 90s Spanish pop hits.

La Casa Azul: Todas Tus Amigas: Another one that picks up a bit as you go along. Modern disco throwback that is still providing me with vocab challenges. Ugh.

Jarabe de Palo and Chambao: Dejame Vivir: A current flamenco-ish fave with super easy lyrics (though a bit muddled and andaluza on the pronunciation if I do say so myself).

Estrella Morente: Volver: Tango turned flamenco by way of the Almodóvar soundtrack.

Buika: No Habra Nadie en el Mundo: Coolest raspiest voice ever! Born in Mallorca to parents from Equatorial Guinea, she developed her vocal style among gitanos (Spanish Romani) in her neighborhood, resulting in a super distinct style that mixes a little bit of everything, including flamenco and jazz.

So there you go! Get listening! Doing a “similar artists” search on any of these or popping them into Pandora or Spotify radio should have you on your way to a library of Spanish music just bursting at the seams!

And once you find a word you don’t know, or a phrase/idiom/sentence/entire set of lyrics, remember: Google and WordReference are your friends. The latter I use pretty much exclusively to look things up, especially in the language forums all the way at the bottom of the page. They are invaluable for understanding the nuances of a new word or phrase, plus you can always ask for help there yourself. And if you’re just looking to get a transcription of lyrics, most any of those can be found online by typing in a string of a few words that you understand from the song, or by googling the song title and the word letras, Spanish for lyrics.

Happy Listening and Learning!

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