Viva La Telenova!

Spanish is in demand as a subject to study, and TV shows the reason why.

"Come talk to Natalia Oreiro!" say commercials aired recently on Israeli radio stations with the Argentine singer's hit song "Cambio dolore" playing in the background.

Oreiro is the star of the telenovela "Wild Doll" which was broadcast on the Viva cable station. According to Carlos Vidal, the director of the Cervantes Institute for Spanish Language and Culture in Israel, for over two years the show has served as the best promotion in Israel for Spanish language studies. During the last two years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people studying Spanish here, and a large number say they came to do so after watching the telenovela.

Vidal offers some statistics: In 1998, 140 students registered for classes at the Spanish institute; in 1999, 600 signed up; and in 2000, the number of students hit 1,200. The Cervantes Institute had to rent additional classroom space in Tel Aviv, even if just for a few hours a day. During the summer, Municipal School 5 is hosting the institute's Spanish classes, but after the vacation ends, it will have to look for another venue.

The increasing number of Spanish students parallels the Viva cable television station's entry into the Israeli television market in April 1999 and also parallels the Israeli audience's first encounter with Natalia Oreiro, who is not considered a top singer, but she is the star of the popular television series, "Wild Doll." Oreiro even visited Israel last year and this year - both times to do a series of six concerts, and all were sold out in advance.

Oreiro is just about the most successful international singer in Israel, slightly more than Madonna and slightly less than Alanis Morissette. The sound track for the series "Wild Doll" sold over 60,000 copies, and her latest disk, "Your Poison," has sold over 30,000 copies.

Vidal admits he is ambivalent about a telenovela being the main promoter of the Spanish language in Israel. "But you don't argue with facts," he says. "It's true that we teach the language to high-tech companies to facilitate communications when doing business with South America, and it's true that there are also students who want to be able to converse with their grandparents, but most of the students come because of the television programs."

The telenovela, he says, is a reincarnation of the short novellas sold as pocket books on street stands in Spain around 15 years ago. "Then, too, there was a debate over whether these books are harmful or helpful to readers.

Mario Vargas Llosa was one of their biggest advocates. He argued that is the way people still bought books and moved closer to literature," relates Vidal.

According to him, telenovelas level and unify the Spanish language and its ideas because they are produced in various South American countries (Argentina, Peru, Venezuela and others), but are intended for a wide audience. "When I open a book, such as "The Greenhouse" by Mario Vargas Llosa, I have to look up half the words in a dictionary, because he mentions flowers that grow in the region and various usages for those words. On television this wealth of vocabulary isn't possible: the details have to be minimal and understood by all. This creates a kind of South American world that you can love or not love, but you can't argue with its popularity."

"To the best of my knowledge," says Dalia Mistchekin, the manger of Viva (which is owned by Liora Nir and Yair Dori), "there is no station like this in Europe or the U.S. The channel was not built according to a specific model, but there was a desire to create the right mix of telenovelas: there are viewing hours for women and for the whole family, broadcast slots for telenovelas that have become classics such as `Harvest of Sins,' `Black Pearl' or `Cafe con Aroma de Mujer' (coffee with the scent of a woman) and new, more daring telenovelas, such as `Yo soy Betty la Fea' (I am Betty the Ugly) and `Mirada de Mujer' (Woman in a Mirror).

Viva's schedule is based on the rerun method: all the evening programs that are aired from 7:00 P.M. to 1:00 A.M. are rerun the following morning. Mistchekin, like Vidal of the Cervantes Institute, is aware of the leveling and unifying that Spanish undergoes in the telenovelas, but she also notes some actual positive influences on some of the series.

For example, the series with the somewhat loaded name, "Yo soy Betty la Fea," describes a young economist's path to the top of the company where she works. Betty the economist is indeed kind-hearted and very knowledgeable, but she unfortunately has thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a bridge on her teeth. At the end of the series, she, of course, gets rid of the bridge, removes her glasses, lets her hair loose and works her way up to the top.

This is a series that has revolutionary foundations: the heroine does not need beauty to make her way to the top, but actually needs economic knowledge - exactly like men. The series makes references to AIDS, drugs and violence, and the outside world enters the series and makes it more open.

"In Israel of recent years, Viva has gained momentum because it provides a suitable opportunity for escaping from reality," says Mistchekin. The station's viewers are very involved and active. Each month, there is another issue of the magazine Viva Plus with tens of thousands of copies distributed. It keeps viewers up to date on upcoming developments on their favorite telenovela, which is broadcast simultaneously in other countries, such as Spain and Russia. "If for some reason they don't like one episode, they immediately phone and the switchboards crash," says Mistchekin.

Television's power as a promoter of the popularity of the Spanish language necessarily influences its immediate target audience: children. For two years, since Viva began broadcasting, the popularity of the language has actually increased among eight- to 12-year-old children. At the same time as Viva's broadcasts, each day at 2:00 P.M., the Children's Channel airs an Argentine telenovela, "Chiquititas," which is also in and of itself a key factor in the increased number of people studying Spanish.

Batya Shnezak and Marcela Pritzler, Spanish instructors at the Cervantes Institute and at the Open University, relate that children eight years old and above have started calling the institute and asking about Spanish classes.

"Last year, we had our first, less successful, attempt at giving Spanish lessons to children," says Pritzler. "It was difficult to establish different levels of learning in this age group: some were excellent and some less so. This year, interest in the language has increased, and the students can be separated according to age and level." The children's classes have 15 or more kids and they study using textbooks and pamphlets published by the institute and they also include the lyrics to Natalia Oreiro's hits and dialogues from beloved telenovelas.

"Children absorb languages quickly and after watching television they are able to speak wonderfully and accumulate an extensive vocabulary," relates Shnezak.

"The telenovelas are a tool - a means and not an end. If, for example, you have to ask questions about a given figure, some of students can chose a television character that everyone is familiar with. The Spanish language itself is actually slightly different, it's not exactly the language of telenovelas, but it still sounds familiar to them."

One afternoon last week, the Cervantes Institute was abuzz with the sound of children's voices and resembled a typical school where kids rush through the corridors, go up and down the stairs and exchange favorite CDs. Vered Yoav, 12-and-a-half years old, comes to the institute once a week from Be'er Yaakov and says that the distance and the fact that she travels on her own to get there do not deter her at all. Kim Web, 13-and-a-half, from Tel Aviv, already wants to take a bat mitzvah trip to Argentina, whereas Re'ut Cohen, also 13-and-a-half, from Tel Aviv, says she came to study Spanish "not because of the telenovelas," but admits that she still watches one of the series and that is what brought here to the institute.

Avel Dikler owns the Dikler bookstore in Tel Aviv, which specializes in Spanish books. "The age of the students has gotten younger over the last few years," he says. "They come mostly to buy beginner's text books from me, but they also ask about summaries or scripts of telenovelas, and I don't have that in the store. These programs are schmaltz. Children have rapid absorption, and I hope that they'll also want to delve deeper in their study of this language."

Tzahi Kanze, the director of the Spanish department of the America Friendship Institute, also notes a connection between the popularity of telenovelas and the growing interest in Spanish.

The institute has over 100 students in every semester, which lasts several months. He divides the students into groups: teenagers and adults who come to the institute because of the telenovelas, soldiers who have completed their compulsory military service and are heading off on backpacking treks through South America and business people interested in short courses to acquire basic knowledge of the language.

Over the last two weeks, the America Friendship Institute has opened a new Spanish class where about 80 people gather each week, split up into groups and talk Spanish among themselves in order not to forget what they learned in the past regardless of how they learned it - while traveling or by watching telenovelas.