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Learn Spanish The Narcos Way: Netflix Star's Secrets Revealed

Learn Spanish The Narcos Way: Netflix Star’s Language Learning Secrets Revealed

learn spanish like narcos wagner moura

Wagner Moura in Narcos. Image used under Fair Use Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

You don’t need to learn Spanish!

Just speak English with a Latino accent!

Don’t worry, that’s not my advice for how to learn Spanish!

That’s how Brazilian actor Wagner Moura was told to prepare for his role as Pablo Escobar in the blockbuster Netflix series Narcos.

Just speak English … with a Spanish accent!

But like any good TV series, there was a twist…

You can imagine his surprise when, just 3 months before shooting started, he was told:

So there’s been a change of plan.

Instead of speaking English with a Latino accent, all of your lines are now going to be in Spanish.

You’re Brazilian, so you shouldn’t have a problem, right?

That is exactly what happened to Wagner Moura.

Except, of course, Moura’s native language is Portuguese…

And he didn’t speak Spanish.

So what did he do?

Simple – he learned how to speak Spanish quickly.

And he did it by following timeless principles of effective language learning.

This is the story of how he did it.

I’ve dissected Moura’s many TV interviews about preparing for his role as Pablo Escobar, and figured out how he managed to learn Spanish fast.

There are eight language learning secrets.

Steal these, and replicate Moura’s success to learn Spanish in 3 months yourself!

Let’s get into it!


Secret 1: Immerse Yourself In The Culture

Moura went to live in Pablo Escobar’s hometown of Medellin, Colombia to prepare for the role.

He put himself in the shoes of the world’s most famous drug trafficker, in order to see the world from his perspective:

  • The environment he grew up in
  • The people around him
  • What he did to grow the most lucrative drug trafficking business in the world

In order to learn Spanish, he took the traditional step of enrolling in classes at a local university.

Hear him talk briefly about his experience with Jimmy Fallon:

But when you look beyond the funny stories he tells for the cameras, you discover he went to much greater lengths to learn Spanish fast:

I went to the Barrio Pablo Escobar, the neighbourhood that he built for the poor, and stayed there and made friends. I went to the stadium of the soccer team he supported. I was just trying to learn Spanish and learn about Pablo. It was pretty intense.

And it’s here, when we dig a bit deeper, that we can find the real secret behind learning Spanish quickly.

Secret 2: Set Specific Goals

For Moura, this was not just a bit of fun.

This was the biggest opportunity of his career, and the whole world was going to see the results when he spoke Spanish on screen.

But this pressure was also an opportunity that not everyone creates for themselves when learning a language: He had clear and specific goals to learn Spanish.

He had to…

  • Be able to read and understand the script in Spanish
  • Memorise his lines
  • Be able to understand what his co-stars were saying in a scene
  • Replicate a Colombian, Paisa accent

With clear language learning goals like these, it’s easier to determine what you need to study every day.

Secret 3: Focus On What You Need To Learn

This is important because Moura goals defined exactly what he needed to do to learn Spanish.

He didn’t have to learn the entire dictionary.

In the same way a tourist needs to order food in a restaurant, Moura had a few common themes he had to master:

  • Drug trafficking
  • Politics
  • Family

Y bien, me gano la vida haciendo negocios. Así que pues, fresco. Tranquilo. Ustedes pueden aceptar mi negocio o aceptar las consecuencias. Plata o plomo.

I make deals for a living. Now, you can stay calm and accept my deal … or accept the consequences. Silver or lead.

In this scene from Episode 1, you can see the sort of lines he had to learn for the role.

Pretty standard for a Colombian drug trafficker!

But there’s a great lesson here.

You might think that, by learning this kind of Spanish, Moura would have a very limited range of conversation topics in Spanish!

“How can you learn Spanish if you only learn about drug trafficking?”

But if you break this line up, you’ll notice it’s packed with very useful basic vocabulary that can be applied to any topic:

  • bien – good/well
  • vida – life
  • hacer – to do/make
  • negocios – business/deal
  • tranquilo – calm
  • poder – to be able to
  • aceptar – to accept
  • consecuencias – consequences

So, by learning real Spanish, Moura also got a solid grounding in the basics of the language.

Not only that, but by being interesting and relevant for him and his character, everything he learned would have been much more memorable and harder to forget. It’s without a doubt the best way to learn Spanish fast.

Secret 4: Choose A Role Model

Pablo Escobarhow to learn spanish quickly the narcos way was Wagner Moura’s role model.

Moura needed to be Escobar on screen, which meant delivering his lines just like Pablo Escobar would have: accent, demeanour, energy, and posture.

In order to study his role model, he watched hours of Escobar speaking, and read books in Spanish about his life.

Like any actor would do, Moura envisioned himself as Pablo Escobar – saw himself in his shoes.

He paid attention to Escobar’s unique nuances and attempted to recreate them for himself:

I was able to really understand who this guy was, and to understand what was going on [in Colombia] politically.

But then I forgot all that – I threw it in the garbage in order to create my own Pablo.

When asked about the challenge of acting in a different language he said:

Part of your mind wants your Spanish to be perfect. The other part is there in the drama, in the scene interacting with the other actors. Then a moment arrived when I relaxed, it was really hard at first.

By modelling his Spanish on one specific persona, Moura was able to produce a very convincing result.

Secret 5: Set Deadlines & Hold Yourself Accountable

Moura didn’t have much of a choice regarding his deadline.

For him, learning Spanish in 3 months was plata o plomo.

With filming to start in 3 months, he didn’t have much trouble keeping himself accountable.

But just to make sure, he went one step further and enrolled in a university Spanish class when he arrived in Medellin.

He probably wasn’t too concerned with the final grade from the university…

But the weekly deadlines set by his university class would have certainly helped to keep him on track.

With the impending start date for filming, together with regular assignments from the university, he had a powerful combination of deadlines and accountability that would have turbo-charged his progress in learning Spanish.

how to learn spanish quickly narcos pablo escobar

Wagner Moura in Narcos. Image used under Fair Use Act: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_use

Secret 6: Learn Spanish With The Four Skills

When learning Spanish, Moura didn’t just sit at home and memorise his lines.

He did it all, and involved all four skills in the learning process: Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking.

Reading

Naturally, he would read the script for Narcos itself, but he also read books about Pablo Escobar’s life in Spanish.

There are so many books about Pablo in Spanish, especially in Colombia. Everybody wrote a book about him: the waiter, the guy who fixed his car.

Writing

Moura would use his Spanish in text messages and emails. He’d also complete written homework assignments for class.

Writing in your target language helps you process all the new information in your head, and experiment with putting sentences together without the pressure of speaking to someone.

Speaking

In addition to rehearsing his lines over and over again, he spoke extensively with Medellin locals as part of his research.

Those conversations helped him understand who Pablo Escobar actually was, and what life was like in Medellin.

Listening

Moura spent a lot of time listening to the Spanish of his role model, often by watching countless hours of film footage of Pablo Escobar.

Extensive listening is essential to getting used to the sounds, melodies, and rhythms of the language. It ultimately helps you to sound more natural when you come to speak.

Overall, by taking a comprehensive approach to learning involving all four skills – Moura really landed on the best way to learn Spanish, and strengthened his overall fluency as a result.

Secret 7: Speak With Real People From The Start

As we just heard, Moura started having conversations with the locals right from the start.

When he was out and about in Medellin, speaking to locals about Escobar’s life, he would have many hours of practice listening to natural conversation, learning how to speak Spanish and interact naturally.

I didn’t know a single word of Spanish!

Although this may seem like an obvious thing to do, many people put off speaking with real people until they “feel ready”.

By getting stuck in right at the start, Moura had a full three months of practice interacting with real people This undoubtedly helped him get over any fear of speaking Spanish, and quickly start to sound more natural.

Secret 8: Nail Your Pronunciation

Moura worked with a Spanish dialect coach to help reduce his Brazilian accent.

He said:

Spanish is kind of similar to Portuguese, actually.

But actually that’s a difficult thing, because sometimes you think that a word is the same. It’s not. It’s something else.

Some have said there are still traces of Portuguese present in Moura’s Spanish accent.

However, there’s no doubt he does an impressive job – especially after only 3 months.

By working deliberately on your accent from the start, you learn the main sounds you need to focus on to sound natural in the language.

This not only helps you sound more natural, but helps you speak with confidence!


After all that, you might be wondering if learning how to speak Spanish was easy for Wagner Moura?

In his own words:

it was the hardest thing I ever done in my life. And I am extremely proud of what I accomplished.

So, why don’t we have a look at what he achieved?

After all, the proof is in the pudding!

Check out this interview of him speaking candidly in Spanish, and see if you’re convinced by his performance…

How To Learn Spanish Quickly

Wagner Moura used these 8 secrets to learn Spanish in 3 months.

In return for his efforts, he earned his first Golden Globe nomination for his outstanding performance.

He said of his experience:

Esta serie me trajo un sentimiento de pertenecer a una cultura más grande de solamente la brasilera porque somos muy aislados culturalmente

This series made me feel like I belong to a culture greater than just the Brazilian one, because we’re quote isolated, culturally speaking.

How many of Moura’s secrets are you using in your own language learning?

Now, you may not be able to pick up and jet off to Medellin tomorrow (although you can if you want), but by adopting the strategies Moura used, you can quickly learn how to speak Spanish faster than you thought.

Why not pick one, and integrate it into your language learning routine:

  1. Immerse yourself in the culture
  2. Set specific goals
  3. Focus on what you need to learn
  4. Choose a role model
  5. Set deadlines & hold yourself accountable
  6. Learn Spanish with the 4 skills
  7. Speak with real people from the start
  8. Nail your pronunciation

Want to learn a language in 3 months? Now the secret is out!

Which of these 8 secrets would help you the most? Let me know in a comment below!

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  • Nick Adams

    There’s actually quite a lot of overlap between method acting and speaking a foreign language – at least in the early days. I’d imagine that as you progress with a language it gradually feels more integrated into who you are, and you feel less and less as if you playing a role. Great article by the way!

    • Hey Nick – that’s a great point. I can relate to taking on a new character in every language I’ve learnt in an effort to “fit in”, and in the early days it’s rather forced, as you say!

  • Andreas Lingue

    Congratulations!! This is a very cool article Ollie. I believe most of these ideas are the essence of learning multiple languages, at least for me who gets easily distracted, gets bored quickly, and struggle with routines. There is more than meets the eye… I used to be an actor for a TV show years ago, and you learn so many things about impersonating people, that you can literally learn how to absorb languages. I always hear people talking about working hard, having discipline, meeting goals, and so on; but nobody has a clear definition of these words. I did a lot of hard labor work in my life, but I never thought it was hard at all; because I did it by choice, and I knew my future was going to be exciting. I believe everything is a matter of perceptions, because they control the physical reality. Nobody really works hard…What we really hate is boring routines, and tedious time without learning meaningful things. We hate no having a purpose to live by, and sometimes we say it’s hard, because we don’t have the resources we need, the health, or the physical energy. In most cases is just about having an emotional breakthrough. Everything is about energy, emotions, and thought. We are driven by our beliefs and values, and those values are primarily emotional states. Pain or difficult is a relative feeling we get based on our perceptions of life. I mean, we are not breaking rocks, and even then, it could be worst. It’s important to have a vision, and work with flexible goal settings, but focusing in accomplishing and achieving could create stress, and people will forget to have fun, and that’s how we learn…By finding pleasure in what we do. Reading, Writing, Listening, Speaking, and learning Prosody are the essential tools, but more than that it’s purpose; When we find that purpose, our minds will open to a new world of possibility. We must live the language(s) on a daily basis, by experiencing our subject of study with practical applications, by touching, connecting feelings, and creating emotional associations by opening our perceptions. Learning is about falling in love, and falling in love is establishing a spiritual connection when we open our hearts. I don’t believe Wagner didn’t know a single word in Spanish, because Brazilians can understand almost every Spanish word, and we forgot to mention the help of speech prompters in the movie making business. Either way, he did a really good job. I don’t think I’d take all that pressure on TV, but I guess I’ll do the same for the sake of languages.

  • Owain Clarke

    Maybe, though, there is something to this “speak English with a Spanish accent”. When my son was little he brought home his Polish friend from school. We said “do you want some orange juice?” he looked puzzled. My son said “He doesn’t understand English – I’ll translate,” then turned to him and repeated the question with a thick accent. That did the trick!!

    • I’d like to know their decision making process for Spanish vs English. Using Spanish definitely makes it more authentic, but given that, I do find it a bit odd they chose international actors (Brazilian, Mexican) over Colombians.

  • Markito Barrito

    I remember you said about turning off the subtitles. But in Narcos I can’t turn them off when they speak Spanish..grrrrrrrr

    • Yes, this is one of the difficulties with foreign language TV and movies – having the ability to actually turn the subtitles on and off! DVD sets are the best because then you usually have the choice.

      • Andreas Lingue

        That’s correct, but the subtitles usually don’t match the speech. In America we need to buy foreign DVD players in order to watch those foreign movies with matching subtitles. Most NTSC movies sold in the US come with French and Spanish audio options, but again, it’s very hard to find a movie matching those 2 elements, which I believe is one of the best ways to learn languages.

        • Subtitles are shortened because it makes the reading experience much better (there’s less to read), and it might not even be possible to fit every word on the screen.

          Regarding turning off subtitles, in my view it depends on your level in the language. I’ve gone into lots of detail on that here: http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/watching-movies-for-language-learning/

          • Andreas Lingue

            I don’t think the story of paraphrasing is accurate, because I have plenty of movies with the complete dialogs inside the captions. Try the LEGO movie with the Spanish speech matching the subtitles (very rare) Your article regarding subtitles is also very interesting. I have so many things to talk about this topic that I’ll probably need to write a whole article. 🙂 Thanks for sharing Ollie, you’re the best

  • Andreas Lingue

    Congratulations!! This is a very cool article Ollie. I believe most of these ideas are the essence of learning multiple languages, at least for me who gets easily distracted, gets bored quickly, and struggle with routines. There is more than meets the eye… I used to be an actor for a TV show years ago, and you learn so many things about impersonating people, that you can literally teach yourself how to absorb languages by using acting techniques. I always hear people talking about studying hard, having discipline, pushing your limits, meeting goals, and so on; but I feel that nobody has a clear definition of these words, and a clarity of purpose for their efforts. I don’t believe Wagner didn’t know a single word in Spanish, because Brazilians can understand almost every Spanish word, and we forgot to mention the help of prompters in the movie making business; but either way, he did a good job in spite of his weird accent in the beginning, and some grammar mistakes . I don’t think I’d take all that pressure to just appear on TV, but I’ll definitely do the same for the sake of breaking boundaries, and for the love of languages. This story reminds me of Milla Jovovich(The fifth element), when she learnt how to speak a nonexistent alien language in just 3 months. It’s amazing what we can achieve when we know exactly what we want.

    • Hi Andreas, thanks for your comment. Yes, it’s definitely easy to pick holes in Wagner Moura’s Spanish, but really, when you consider the time frame, and the pressure involved in starring in a show like this, I defy anyone to do a better job!

      It’s really interesting what you say about having clear definitions of these “buzzwords” – studying hard, motivation, discipline etc. I absolutely agree with you. I feel like I’ve experienced these qualities myself in various degrees, but I’m also aware that whenever I write about them, and how important they are, I do know in my heart of hearts that most people will not truly understand their significance.

      When you have pressure like that which Moura must have felt for this role – that’s when you really appreciate (or develop an appreciation of) the meaning of these words … that’s what I was getting at when I recorded this podcast, I think: http://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/audacious-language-goals/

      • Andreas Lingue

        It’s even more interesting what you are saying… I believe that most people are looking for difficult things to do because they underestimate themselves, or they have been conditioned to respond to compulsive educational models. If we don’t believe that something could be done easily, then we’ll do it the hard way or just give up. What I find especially intriguing is the fact that you have a clear purpose with languages, but most people won’t be able to see that. I bet that you went through a defining moment of great pain, when a message was revealed to you, because of your sincere and selfless desire to contribute. Here’s when we discover life’s deepest joy. Regarding your Chinese TV show, you should get in contact with Anxo Perez(8 belts) who did just that, singing in Chinese TV with his guitar years ago. Maybe you can do something similar with your own guitar. I can see you already doing it. Thank you for taking the time to speak out your truth and wisdom. He’s probably your friend already, I don’t know, but here’s his Tedx just in case: https://youtu.be/Avcligc5Cjo

  • Pete G

    Great article, Olly. I’m a huge fan of Narcos and of Wagner Moura ever since I watched Tropa de Elite. I’m not a native speaker of either language but his Spanish came across really well on screen and I had no idea he had to learn so quickly. Truly inspirational.

    • Thanks Pete. I only found out about Narcos recently myself, and it was through discovering that Wagner Moura had to learn Spanish so quickly. It’s reinforced my belief about setting audacious language goals, and how they can motivate you to get incredible results.

  • Tamara

    This is fascinating! I started reading this article a few months ago and finally got around to finishing it. I didn’t know he learned in 3 months. I was addicted to Narcos and binge watched it several times. When I was watching it with one of my friends from Mexico he mentioned to me that he could hear his Portuguese accent. As a non-native Spanish speaker I couldn’t detect that at all haha. Love this article Olly, looking forward to reading more. And I might watch Narcos a 4th time now 🙂

    • Haha… the new season is coming out in September! Still time to watch it once more before then! Moura definitely has a slight Portuguese accent, but it’s great considering the time frame. I don’t really understand why the producers chose a Brazilian for the role, but there you go…

  • Kevin Goetz

    yes I admire the entrepreneurial spirit & capitalistic success of Escobar..do what ya gotta do eh?

  • Kevin Goetz

    ESCOBAR ALSO SET GOALS & ACCOMPLISHED THEM..become the premier narco no matter who had to be killed or was in the way
    a determined role model to be admired, emulated & copied for sure..
    his top killers el Quica and Popeye, cool guys too!! 🙂
    plata o plomo?