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iLoveLanguages Review: Puerta del Sol from Champs-Elysées

Puerta del Sol
Champs-Elysées is a publisher of monthly and bi-monthly "audiomagazines" in French, German, Italian, and Spanish.  Each issue comes with a CD or cassette containing that month's program and a booklet with a written transcription of all the audio.  Having studied both Spanish and French for a while in college, I was interested in giving their audiomagazine a try to see how useful it really is.  Being stronger in Spanish, I got a copy of Puerta del Sol to test out.

When it arrived, I got a CD and a 72-page book with a full color picture of Alejandro Amenábar on the cover (the rest of the book is in black-and-white).  Inside the book was the complete transcription of audio from the CD along with the super-useful glossary, which I'll describe a little later.  No longer owning a portable CD player, the first thing I did was rip the CD to MP3 files so that I could listen to it on the go.  Transcription and book in hand, I was ready for the next morning's commute to work to begin brushing up on my Spanish.

The first thing I noticed was how professional the audio program sounded.  I guess I was expecting something like I remember from the language lab in college - an introduction and instructions, followed by the listening lesson, all with crackly, muddled sound.  Instead, I felt like I was listening to a Spanish news program from the radio or TV.  The CD had 9 different articles (stories), with alternating announcers (a man and a woman), sound bites from news sources, interviews, and short musical interludes between articles.  It was like listening to a Spanish version of NPR or the BBC.

The second thing I realized is how little Spanish I really knew, and how hard it was to follow along with the spoken audio alone (especially  when listening to native Spanish speakers, who can talk quite fast).  So I read along in the book while I listened to the audio, which is of course the point of a product like this.  Even though it's been a while since I officially studied Spanish, I was able to follow along fairly well and get the gist of the articles, even if I didn't know all the vocabulary that was being used   But this is definitely not something for learning Spanish from scratch - the focus is on native speakers covering current events, and there's no dumbing-down (or slowing-down) for people just starting with Spanish.  The benefit to this is that you're listening to real Spanish spoken by real Spanish speakers in a realistic way - like you'd hear if you were actually in Spain or Mexico.  The down side is that it's going to help if you've already got some Spanish under your belt before tackling a product like this.

While reading through the book as I listened to the audio, I made frequent use of the glossary that appears on each right-hand page of the book.  In each issue of Puerta del Sol, Champs-Elysées has highlighted several hundred difficult, special, or idiomatic words and phrases in the audio transcript, and provides English translations and often further descriptions of the significance or history of the term.  This was a great way to get introduced to terms that I hadn't learned before, and to be able to see them in the context of an actual article or story (as well as hear them spoken, since there are no pronunciation guides for the glossary items in the book).  I did, however, lose my place in the text whenever I would look over at the glossary definition for a new term, since when I got done reading the glossary, the audio program would be a good several sentences beyond where I left off.  Pausing the audio as soon as I came to something I wanted to read further was a necessity, and I also found myself rewinding frequently to listen to particular passages over again.  The glossary is a tremendous help for anybody who isn't fluent in Spanish (which, if you were, you wouldn't need this product) because it points out words or phrases which may be troublesome or new, and tells you what they mean so you don't have to pull out your Spanish-English dictionary for each one.

One thing I found hard to ignore while I was listening to the audio on the Puerta del Sol CD was the pronunciation, primarily of the soft "c" sound (as in cine).  The Champs-Elysées products are based on European languages, and that means that the Spanish that the native speakers are using is from Spain, not Latin America.  Having studied exclusively from Latin American Spanish teachers, the pronunciation (where the soft "c" is spoken as a "th", so cine sounds like "theenay") struck me as odd, but it didn't interfere with my ability to listen to and understand the audio.  However, since I live in the US where Latin American Spanish is much more commonly used, I'd love it if Champs-Elysées had a Latin American version of Puerta del Sol.

After listening through the whole CD and following along in the book, I'd picked up some vocabulary that I hadn't known before, and I had a better idea who Alejandro Amenábar was (he directs films, or películas, but I didn't catch what they are about).  I found that listening through it a 2nd and 3rd time, I was able to catch a little more than I'd done the first time through, but my Spanish ability became the limiting factor because there was just too much vocabulary that I didn't recognize.

I'd also picked up two additional products that go along with Puerta del Sol - the issue's Audio Flashcards CD, and its Study Supplement.  The Audio Flashcards CD is a more direct learning aid - about 100 of the highlighted phrases from the glossary are presented in English and Spanish (first one direction, then the other), with a pause in between to give you a chance to repeat it (or try to remember and speak the translation).  Going through this repeatedly definitely gave me a leg up on the more difficult vocabulary from the Puerta del Sol audio and text, and the Audio Flashcards are spoken slower to make hearing and focusing on the phrase easier than it is while listening to the full audio program.  The Study Supplement is 8 double-sided pages of exercises related to the various articles in the audio program, similar to what you might expect in a language lab workbook.  The exercises, which range from fill-in-the-blank to summarize-the-article-you-just-heard, are designed to help you evaluate your listening/reading comprehension, since in order to answer the questions you've got to really pay attention to what is being said in the articles.  (And yes, an answer key is provided.)  These two additions go well with the Puerta del Sol audiomagazine (CD and book), but they do cost extra.

So, is Puerta del Sol, or Champs-Elysées' other audiomagazines (in French, German, and Italian), worth buying?  That depends.  Puerta del Sol is a quality product - the audio on the CD is excellent and has all the trappings of a high-production radio news program, and the transcriptions and glossary are top-notch additions.  But it's definitely not for beginners - this is not so much a product for learning Spanish as it is for improving your Spanish (primarily your listening and pronunciation skills).  Even someone just starting Spanish could benefit Puerta del Sol's native-Spanish speakers and radio/TV-like presentation (which is, I'll admit, a lot more entertaining than the tapes you're likely to listen to in the school's language lab), but it must be used in conjunction with Spanish language instruction, because there is very little teaching involved (some of the glossary entries discuss grammar points and etymology related to the word or phrase being highlighted).  Using Puerta del Sol is a lot like listening to a Spanish-language radio or TV station (with no commercials), but with a very-helpful transcript (so you can read anything that is difficult to understand or unfamiliar in the audio) and glossary (which can help define terms you may not be familiar with).  (It would be even better, in my opinion, if there was also an English translation of the entire Spanish text.)  If you've been studying Spanish in an organized setting for a year or more, Puerta del Sol offers a comfortable middle-ground between Spanish Internet radio stations and the audiotapes that came with your Spanish textbook.  But it also requires a determination and willingness to try to learn from the audiomagazine, since just popping in the CD and listening to it once probably isn't going to do you much good.  If you've been looking for a way to listen to, and learn from, native Spanish speakers, Puerta del Sol could be a useful tool for you.

  • Un País de Gordos sample article from Puerta del Sol (in PDF).  Includes the transcription of the audio (the audio link is below), the glossary, and the article's footnotes.
  • Un País de Gordos audio from Puerta del Sol CD (MP3 streaming audio).  Open the transcript (in the link above), then click on the audio link to follow along.
  • Puerta del Sol Website
  • Champs-Elysées Website (which includes Spanish, French, German, and Italian audiomagazines).
Tyler Chambers, 9/1/2005

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