Tor Box (right) took voluntary redundancy from her job as UK internal communication manager at an international call centre company before coming out to Barcelona for a 10-week stay, which included our four-hour-a-day, intensive Spanish course. With redundancy, she had the time and the cash in hand to do something she'd always wanted to do: learn Spanish.
When she arrived, Tor (short for Victoria) says she had "only a very basic level": she had leafed through the Spanish book she had at home, but that was about all. After she'd been here just a couple of days she started to look for voluntary work - "to practise my Spanish" and we thought it would be interesting to catch up with her at the end of her stay to find out how she had got on, as she'd obviously gone to some lengths to make herself opportunities for practise - something which second language acquisition experts seem to agree is a vital part of the process of learning a language.
As it turned out, in the end Tor had "dipped in and out", taking a total of around six weeks on the course, which she says the school were "very supportive" about. One reason for doing that was that she found that it helped to have class complemented by private tuition; another was that she wanted "time to review my notes and apply what I'd learnt".
"It's all about getting out there and interacting with Spanish people," says Tor. "Even if you're a bit nervous and self-conscious about it, you've still got to force yourself to do it."
Finding opportunities for practice
And where did she find the opportunities for practice? "Oh, just by going to the shops, for example, or opening a bank account and joining a gym and listening to the instructor and talking to people in the changing room," she says - and it's probably important that, during your stay, you do actually see it like that: shopping as language practice.
Then Tor's flatmate was Spanish (now there's another opportunity for practice!) and she'd met Spanish people through her, as well as going to her village and meeting her flatmate's family and so on.
"People have been so supportive, friendly and helpful," Tor says; waiters, and people on the Metro had helped her with her homework. It probably helps if, like Tor, you're fairly outgoing: "Er, yes, I'd like a 'café con leche' and could you possibly help me with these verb endings?"
And the voluntary work? Tor got in touch with the women's network in Barcelona and did about ten days' voluntary work at a church, helping prepare and serve food for the homeless, "an eye-opener" she says. The nuns it turned out spoke French, English, Spanish, Catalan, you name it. But she'd certainly learnt the word "caldo" (soup)!
A successful learner
One reason why Tor seems to have been a successful learner is that, although she may herself have been a little self-conscious she also saw the process of learning the language as one of "just having adventures", as she puts it. Adventure One came the day after arrival, in the form of the 14km Corte Inglés Fun Run, which she'd understood as being only 10km. So I guess you could say she failed her Day 1 listening comprehension - but it still proved to be an opportunity to try out her Spanish, jogging along there with the pack.
Then again, if you've got to be able to make yourself understood, that sure helps. Tor was desperate to get into the Norah Jones concert, and went round the queues outside the Auditorium with a sign written on the back of an envelope saying "Entrada extra? Spare ticket?", which she eventually got, with some conversation practice thrown into the bargain.
With the benefit of hindsight
"If I was to do it all over again," Tor says "I'd keep a vocabulary notebook and jot down all the words I learnt, adding to it every day, and review every week what we'd done in class." For the first month, she did make herself flash cards, with the English on one side and the Spanish on the other, and used to pull them out on the Metro and test herself every morning.
At the end of her stay, Tor says her level is "intermediate": she can get by reasonably comfortably and is able to hold a conversation - though understanding people is still sometimes hard.
And what happened to the flash cards after that first month? Too many distractions? "Yes, Barcelona is just such an amazing city!" Tor says. She found that the mix of people on the course was "phenomenal" - with people from Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Japan and the US. Why, she just hadn't had time to learn Spanish!