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Our Whirlwind Month of Intensive Spanish

In Gentle Journeys by Susan & Jamie11 Comments


After a young friend of ours reported she’d had a positive experience with an intensive Spanish class, we each signed up for our own month long class at the Centro de Idiomas de la Universdad de Valencia.

Jamie enrolled in the morning class and Susan opted for the afternoon class.  We imagined interesting opportunities to enhance our very basic Spanish speaking and listening skills in an engaging environment, replete with innovative and enjoyable lessons and activities.  What we ended up getting was a month long slog through Spanish grammar delivered at fire hose intensity.

We’ve captured our reactions both positive and negative in the following parallel stories.

Susan's Story

I was in a class with 14 Erasmus students from Ireland, Hungary, Germany, Taiwan, Finland, Holland, and Italy. The oldest Erasmus student in the class was 24. These polyglot “kids” came into the class with their native language, fluent English, at least one other language and enough Spanish to respond to the teacher’s questions in full sentences. Plus, they seemed to have an ear for language. All that plus ears that still worked, unlike mine.

Classes are limited to 16 students and our 16th student showed up on the second day as a complete beginner in Spanish language study. I could relate to him. Unfortunately, he didn’t return the next day leaving me the honor of being the slowest in class.

What is an intensive language class?

An intensive class means two things – fast pace and complete immersion. Spanish is the only language spoken in class. You want an explanation? For better or worse, you get it in Spanish. Word definitions proved a little easier. I never knew so many words could be acted out without the rules of Charades (first word, two syllables, etc.) I could usually guess the meaning of the word from the superstar acting of our teacher, Marie Angeles.

One of the first exercises entailed introducing ourselves. Thankfully, that’s no longer a problem for me. I’ve done it many times. But this time, we were asked to include our age…that was a little embarrassing.

By the end of the month we were answering moral questions such as, “The bank deposits an extra 200€ in your account. Do you say anything or let it go and why?” Answering a question like this takes a lot of vocabulary! Listening comprehension was even more difficult. Prerecorded interviews sounded like a 78 rmp record. Spoiler - I failed. Those darn ears again.

I did love the variety of exercises. To learn a future tense we used special playing cards to tell the future of our compañero. We played tick, tack, toe with a twist. In order to claim the box with an X or O we first had to conjugate the past tense verb. We wrote about our trips, our apartments, even the differences between our home country and Spain.

Class started to get dicey when the teacher introduced three past tenses in one week. I thought I would make it through this class without crying until we were tasked with the absurd exercise of using multiple past tenses in the same complex sentence. All of a sudden I was flooded by the same feelings of hopelessness that I had in calculus class.

The day didn’t end when class was over. It may have been a three hour class but it was a full day experience. In addition to homework I spent hours scouring my texts and the internet for grammar explanations in English. It was just beyond my vocabulary and listening comprehension to understand the lessons explained in Spanish.

What did I get out of this?

I developed strong study habits and a renewed motivation to finally learn Spanish. I even think I will get this material embedded in my brain with a few months of solid practice.

One gets a little lazy in retirement and I actually enjoyed the routine of the month. But I also wasn’t unhappy that it was over.

The highlight of the class was meeting the young students embarking on their most exciting adventure to date – a year in a foreign country. Some of the students arrived the day before class started and still had temporary housing. Others were negotiating leases, finding roommates, and setting up house while beginning classes. They were such fun to be around and their brave, bright, cheerful attitudes were contagious.

What would I have prefered?

There were so many times I wanted to have something explained to me in English. For each lesson I actually grasped, I know I also missed that much and more. I missed a lot of nuance and I definitely missed the jokes. Several times each class I thought, “Why is everyone laughing?”

Because my reading comprehension is much stronger than my listening comprehension, having the verbal presentation backed up in writing would also help. It reinforces my learning to see the correct answer. Having correct answers in writing would also have helped with my inability to hear the students who spoke with soft and mumbled voices.

At the end of each class I would ask for clarification on the homework assignment. Then, hallelujah, the teacher started writing it on the board. No more excuses for me.

Would I do it again?

This one month intensive class is something I am glad I did for the experience but I wouldn’t do again. My teacher even agreed that an intensive class is very difficult for a student’s first class. She indicated that the other students had experience in verbal comprehension and expression. At least that’s what I think she told me.

My own self-study proved beneficial for building vocabulary and basic concepts but left me woefully underprepared for this class.

I do want to continue formal classes because I now recognize their value. But, I’ll be looking for a slower paced class in the future. 

Susan writes about the things that make life meaningful for her. This includes places we’ve been and what we’ve experienced as nomads these last several years. And now, includes finding a place to call home.

As we come closer to a “settled” life, Susan will begin to emphasize aging gracefully with a plant based diet, plenty of yoga, and physical activity. She is certified to teach Hatha, Vinyasa, and Yin yoga. Adaptive and Senior yoga certification is coming soon.

Jamie’s Story

Worn out, I completed an intensive Spanish language course with much less enthusiasm than I began it 28 days earlier.

When studying a language you can’t master something new every day (at least I can’t)

My professor was kind and I think she was committed to helping her students each and every day. And even though I was a bit surprised to be one of only two non-university students, I did enjoy meeting the eleven students who were enrolled in the Erasmus program, an EU-wide study abroad program. My class was made up of students from Ireland, Italy, Germany, France, Kosovo, and Belgium. I was the only American. Except for our professor, the common language was English. Despite an age difference of more than four decades, I formed a few friendships that I think will last.

Spanish Language Study Materials

We needed to consult our library of study aids as well as online resources to understand the materials presented in class.

A range of student experience in Spanish

There was such a broad range of abilities and experiences among the students in my class that at least half of the students were either bewildered or bored.

I think all of the other students had formal coursework in Spanish before they came to Spain and the three Italians had a marked advantage in being native speakers of a remarkably similar language. While the Italians sought clarification on fine grammatical points, we English speakers were trying to puzzle out just when we should use the pretérito imperfecto versus the pretérito indefinido, or in my case trying to understand why I ever thought I might want to study Spanish in the first place.

Immersion and compressed time

After getting through beginning level Spanish by way of self-study and a weekly hour of tutoring, I thought I might be able to handle the second level in a formal classroom environment. What I hadn’t planned on was how difficult it would be for me to face the onslaught of new materials every day with limited time to process between classes.

My Spanish vocabulary was so weak that I had to spend a couple hours each morning previewing the materials I expected to be covered in class just to be able to comprehend my professor. And it worked. Almost everyday I walked home with a clear idea of what had been covered during the previous three hours. Unfortunately, with a couple hours of homework and a couple hours of preview, I really didn’t have time enough to review before I was faced with another helping of new materials. Within a few days I had a hard time integrating my fading memory of older lessons with the new materials I was learning.

Because the course was complete immersion in Spanish, I, unfortunately, found it difficult to ask questions. I was usually too tongue-tied or shy. When I did manage to struggle through asking a question, I rarely understood more than half the answer. Which is not to say my professor was insensitive. She constantly asked if things were clear. I liked her and wish I could have taken better advantage of Inma’s obvious desire to help her students learn.

As I walked home after the last lesson of a month of something that felt like past tense purgatory, I was feeling sad. I thought about how I would miss my classmates and my professor. Though I often felt frustrated with the progress I wasn’t making, I did learn an awful lot in four weeks. In fact, Susan and I spent three hours with Spanish friends the day after our classes ended and we actually managed half or more of the time in mostly comprehensible Spanish conversation.

With a couple hours of review and study each day I think that I’ll be able to convert the grammatical framework I learned into useful language skills.  It may take some months but I'll get there.  Spanish is  just more difficult than I thought it would be. 

Jamie  wants “life on gentle cycle” to be a story of enough rather than a search for more.  His focus is on simplicity, quiet presence, low impact travel, and mostly on living gently. He also manages the technical aspects of GentleCycle.net


Centro de Idiomas de la Universidad de Valencia

Intensive Course - Spanish A2

60 hours of instruction over four weeks (3 hours/day, 5 days/week)

COST: 330€ + Registration fees: 40€ (Non-refundable)

Address: Calle Serpis, 25 Valencia 46022,

Telephone: 963 06 77 81


Just for Fun

Enjoy this Estrella Damm commercial called Vale.  It’s about one man’s search for the right words in a foreign language – something we relate to daily.   Watch Vale on YouTube.

Students Heading to Class on the Valencia Metro


  1. Hi, Jamie,

    My husband, Rich, and I will arrive December 5th from Portland, Oregon. I feel like I’ve been stalking you and Susan; we are copying almost everything you do from the Visa application (which went very smoothly, thanks to you) to how to look for an apartment. And I want to take the Paella class you wrote about. Thank you for all of your help, your website is fantastic! We will be your neighbors in the next week or so, and we promise not to stalk you too much in person.

    1. Hi Victoria,
      Thanks for your delightful note. Let us know when you get to Valencia, we can have a coffee or drink together.
      See you soon!

  2. Thank you Jamie! That’s helpful advice. Is this the best platform to ask questions or do you have an email you prefer to use as well? You mentioned the additional cards. What will we use those for in Spain? Thank again and look forward to learning more. Have a great week! Deanna.

    1. Hi Deanna,
      To be honest with you, I cannot remember why we needed the additional fingerprints cards, but do remember being glad we had an extra set. Sorry to be vague, but our first few months in Spain were hard to manage as we tried to overcome our language shortcomings and adapt to city living (which at first was troublesome for me) so there are weeks there where our memories are quite clear on exactly what we did

  3. Hi Jamie and Susan,
    I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog and sharing your journey. I’ve found it all extremely helpful as we contemplate and plan a move to Valencia next year. I know you mentioned you’ve moved since your first apartment. In what area are you living now? We really want to start our time in Valencia in the City, but have concerns about doing so with our 2 dogs (one small, and one Large – 70/80lb Goldendoodle). In addition to apprehension about apartment living (and even the ability to find a suitable place with dogs), we worry about lack of “off leash” dog areas. We are coming from Costa Rica where our pups get lots of free range time at our house and on the beach. Aside from Turia park (which requires leash, although I’ve seen lots of dogs off leash on our recent visit), and some of the outer beaches (ie. Playa Puig?), have you found other dog friendly or off leash exercise areas? Muchas Gracias, Jeff

    1. Hi Jeff,
      We live in Mestalla just a couple of blocks north of the Túria near the stadium. We walk/run/chase the ball with Lizzie in the park almost every day. There are several off-leash play areas in Túria and other parks around town. Some even have agility equipment.

      You’re right, there is a leash law in Valencia and dogs must be kept tethered. On the other hand you are also right that many dogs are off leash. The fine for having a dog off leash is somewhere between 100 and 300 euros, depending on factors that none of our friends have been able to determine. The police don’t seem to patrol the parks before 9am or after about 6 pm (hint). And there is a pretty good cooperative warning network when they are in the park. Pragmatic common sense helps too. We see that dog owners stay away from people places, find a quiet corner to exercise their dogs and keep them under strict voice command. And they keep a look out for the police.

      Like many others, we walk Lizzie off lead through the boulevards along Av.Blasco Ibanez, Alameda, etc. or whenever it is safe and there aren’t many other people around. When in Rome… etc.

      If your dogs are well trained, you probably won’t have trouble getting them exercised.

      Regarding rentals, you will almost certainly find it necessary to rent an unfurnished flat, but I wouldn’t worry. We rented twice with Lizzie and 3 or 4 cats. Many of our friends rent with 1 or 2 dogs too.

      Thanks for contacting us, I’ll write up a post about life in Valencia with a dog and try to pull together some better information just as soon as our US visitor stream drys up.

  4. Jamie – I’m so excited I found your site! I love all the details you share! It’s been so helpful. My husband and I have 2 kids – 11 and 8 year old girls. We’ve been to Spain a few times and after 2 visits to Valencia, we’ve decided to spend next school year there. We want to put the girls in a public school and spend the time experiencing life abroad. At least that’s the plan! We’ve got to go through the VISA application process of course. And to that end, I’ve got a few questions about the application process you outlined – would you mind if I bounced some ideas off you? For starters, the Finger Print process. I know I need to get prints done, but where do I send them for a background check? Will the police station know where I should send it? I also heard some stations supply cards while others do not. What did you 2 find to be the case for you in OR? Thanks so much Jamie! Super awesome we found someone that’s blazing the trail for people like us! 🙂

    1. Hi Deanna,
      I’m happy you found GentleCycle and think our writings are useful. You are more than welcome to bounce questions our way.

      The Spanish visa process requires a criminal background check from the state police, if you have lived in the sames state for the past five years, or otherwise from the FBI. In Oregon, we stopped by the Oregon State Police office near our home in Salem to be finger printed and at the same time filled out a form to request the background check. We turned one copy of the fingerprint card and the background check request in at the same office. We received the results by mail within a week. By the way, when the state police officer asks if you want additional fingerprint cards, say yes. Get three copies each, you’ll use them when you get to Spain.

      Background checks are commonly requested from people who volunteer with children’s groups or in schools and for many different kinds of jobs, so I am certain there is a well defined protocol in every state — just search your state police website.

      As you plan and anticipate your year in Valencia, you might find the folks on the Americans Living in Valencia Facebook page helpful too. There are folks there who can help you with questions about schools and activities for your daughters.
      Good luck in your planning and do indeed keep asking questions.

      Kind Regards

  5. Hi Jamie,

    We are using Moving to Valencia for the permits, but we are planning to use Engels and Voelker for the apartment search since we would like it to move along reasonably quickly, but safely. We need the permanent address to finish the visa and our furniture is coming mid-November. I wish I would have read your Sell it… post before we moved. Thankfully, we brought fairly little furniture, both in amount and size, but mementos and books are harder to part with. Still, by the time of the move we wished we would have just let go of everything. I suspect I will be glad to see my stuff and find it all worth the bother; I’m not so sure about Jim. 🙂

    Karen (and Jim)

  6. Hola Susan and Jaime,

    My husband, Jim, and I just moved to Spain about 10 days ago from Washington state. I just said to him this morning that I’m not taking an intensive course, that at age 61, my ability to absorb and retain data given that quickly has definitely diminished. I was then excited to read your articles.

    We have enjoyed reading your posts and we have learned a great deal. Our next great step (nice neutral word to be used instead of adventure or ordeal) is to learn from your ‘renting an apartment’ post so we can get a lease and the padrone and the resident card. Those things that still need to be checked off from the moving list. Thankfully, opening bank account was checked off this week; thank you also for recommending Moving to Valencia.



    1. Hello Karen,
      It really helps to hear that our blog posts are helping. Thank your for you kind words and welcome to Spain.

      Oh, and if you take your time, I’m fairly certain that you will find a flat that suits you and Jim, especially if you’re working with Linda and her team at Moving to Valencia. Once you get the apartment, the other steps will go quite quickly.

      Jamie (and Susan)

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