You know the drill: start learning a new language, label everything in your house with post-it notes, become the cool cultured person who listens to hip foreign-language podcasts on their commute, become the go-to source for the best foreign TV shows.
But few genres are as overlooked in language learning as the melodramatic soap opera. And as it turns out, just about every culture in the world has its own version of cheesy daytime television.
Foreign soap operas can be highly educational (and entertaining) for language learners, but what’s even more unexpected is that they can sometimes serve as tools to advance the causes of multilingualism and endangered language preservation.
To this end, the online media company Viki teamed up with the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to promote endangered languages through television (namely, by crowdsourcing translations of shows like The Heirs, a popular Korean soap opera).
Skeem Saam, a South African drama included below, won an award for being the nation’s most multilingual soap opera (or soapie, as they’re called in South Africa). You can hear the characters speaking a blend of various languages (including English), which is a testament to South Africa’s multilingual society (and 11 official languages).
Whether they’re for a good cause or just for a good laugh, here are the 9 best foreign TV shows to watch if you want to feel more worldly.
Turkish: Aşk-ı Memnu (Forbidden Love)
Did you know that Turkish soap operas are very much a thing, internationally speaking? Turkey is actually the world’s second-biggest TV drama exporter after the United States. Case in point: Aşk-ı Memnu, a show about forbidden fruit and its associated perils. Featuring national heartthrob Kıvanç Tatlıtuğ, who plays a young man in love with his uncle’s young wife, Aşk-ı Memnu serves up intrigue, drama and lots of crying.
Korean: 모두 다 김치 (Everybody, Kimchi!)
You may know this show for its most iconic scene (see above), otherwise known as “the kimchi slap heard around the world.” Everybody, Kimchi! is a TV drama about a woman named Yoo Ha-eun who starts her own kimchi business after her ex-husband betrays her. However, cabbage comes with baggage, and Yoo Ha-eun spends the show swatting away her ex, as well as a business rival. But don’t worry — she gets to fall in love again later.
Dutch: Goede Tijden, Slechte Tijden (Good Times, Bad Times)
Inspired by Australia’s The Restless Years, this series is the longest-running Dutch soap opera and was actually the first daily soap in the Netherlands. GTST follows the lives of five different families in the fictional town of Meerdijk. People break up and they make up, and they also get kidnapped, try to figure out who committed murder, uncover paternity surprises and smuggle drugs to Singapore. They also fight dirty, as depicted above.
Germany adapted the show into its own version, called Gute Zeiten, schlechte Zeiten, which takes place in a fictional area in central Berlin.
Hindi: Sasural Simar Ka (Simar’s In-Laws)
One of India’s best melodramas is Sasural Simar Ka, a show that serves up a revolving cast of supernatural creatures and evil people for the main family to defeat. At one point, Simar even gets cursed and turns into a fly, and the special effects are breathtaking (watch it all go down above). The plot is punctuated by more than one “sad demise,” but what will come of fly-woman? Only one way to find out.
Norwegian: Hotel Cæsar
This show was created by two Swedes, and it ended up becoming the longest-running television drama in Scandinavia. The plot revolves around a fictional hotel in Oslo, the people who work there and the Anker-Hansen family. The meandering plot includes fun storylines, such as the family patriarch’s romance with an escort, his daughter’s alcoholism, and an accidental romance between two half-siblings who didn’t know they were related. Hotel Cæsar has also built its brand around its willingness to confront controversial topics like racism, rape, abortion, trafficking, drugs and more.
Russian: Кармелита (Karmelita)
Long story short: gypsy woman loves Russian man. Gypsy woman must go against the wishes of her family and shirk tradition to be with Russian man. There’s jealousy, revenge, murderous rampages, near-death experiences, full-death experiences, babies switched at birth and unpredictable emotions. Oh, and a whole lot of Russian gypsy music.
Spanish: María la del Barrio (Maria of the Slums)
Spanish-language soap operas are their own form of high art, but the telenovela that lives in the halls of internet infamy is probably this Mexican series. María la del Barrio is one of the most popular and successful shows period, and it’s been broadcast in over 180 countries. The plot is pretty twisted and convoluted, but it did bring us this epic scene above, where evil step-mom Soraya goes on an incredible rampage after discovering that her boy-lover Nando (but seriously, he looks 14) is actually in love with her disabled stepdaughter.
Various South African Languages: Skeem Saam
Skeem Saam, as noted above, has won awards for its linguistic diversity. South Africa is home to 11 official languages, and you can hear a blend of them spoken in this TV drama, including bits and pieces of South African English. This coming-of-age drama focuses on three teenage boys navigating their way through life, and the journey to manhood in particular. On the way, they have to confront issues related to masculinity, relationships, self-esteem and more. Watch above as one protagonist deals with texting drama, and another finds out something he wasn’t supposed to know about his mom.
Italian: Un Posto al Sole (A Place in the Sun)
On air since 1996, Un Posto al Sole is part soap opera, part crime drama. Homicides, attempted murders, robberies and kidnappings punctuate the plot, and the action revolves around the people who inhabit a palace by the sea in Naples. Glamorous! In the opening scene above, Valentina is not taking the news well. What’s the news? Find out by watching (and learning Italian).