Every year the British Council send over two thousand undergraduates and postgraduates abroad to teach English as a foreign language, in a programme which spans four continents and fourteen countries. The Gryphon explores the challenges and rewards of undertaking an assistantship abroad.
The English Language Assistants programme began in 1905 and since its inception it has expanded across the globe, placing assistants in educational establishments across the world, from China to Chile, with the aim of promoting the study of English language and British culture to others around the world.
Last year, I undertook an assistantship in a secondary school in Colmar, France. Working for only twelve hours a week meant I had plenty of free time to explore the surrounding area. Combined with the generous monthly salary, which can vary depending on where you are, it made a great work-life balance; it can feel like the world is your oyster! Whilst abroad, I saw some of Europe’s best Christmas markets, witnessed the largest waterfall in Europe, and snowshoed in the Vosges, Alsace’s beautiful national park.
Everyone’s experiences as a language assistant are different: some soak up the sun in the south of Spain whilst others venture further afield and explore Creole culture on the Caribbean islands.
For example, Helen was a language assistant in Alcamo, Sicily; whilst it was not her preferred option, she reflected that her assistantship was, “the best thing [she had] ever done”. In addition, Deanna, who worked in a secondary school in Zwickau, Germany, comments that you can still “make the most of travelling” as she did, celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich. Wherever you end up and whatever you do, remember that your year abroad really is what you make of it.
Culture shock is also something that I, and many students who undertake a year abroad, have experienced. It can manifest itself in various ways, as it can be difficult to adapt to new social and cultural customs. When I first arrived in France, it seemed utterly nonsensical for almost everything to shut down on Sundays. Over time, I learnt to take the time to explore new places and used the SNCF, the French train network, which fortunately functioned every day of the week, but to also accept things for what they were, rather than wanting things to be like they are here in the UK.
In terms of linguistics, Hannah, who spent her year abroad in Roquetas de Mar, Spain, observed that, “in Spain they talk over one another [which] was linguistically difficult to participate and understand, but also at first appeared rude to me and took some getting used to”. Hannah advises participants to, “go with a positive attitude. If you go expecting things to go wrong and be difficult then they will be, but if you go with a positive attitude, even when things go wrong you can embrace it and learn from it”.
Whilst experiencing an initial culture shock is inevitable for many students, adjustment to the peculiarities of other cultures is a gradual and necessary process.
I lived alone whilst abroad, and would also emphasise that it is important to develop relationships with your colleagues as this can also open up exciting opportunities to you. As a common fear amongst language assistants is that they will not speak enough of their foreign language, many find the programme to be a challenging but an exciting learning curve, which offers the chance to integrate into the local community and develop a stronger awareness of regional and national cultures and traditions. Deanna recommends making “as many friends as possible, students at the local university and other language assistants, as it can be quite lonely”. Rebecca, who was based in Santiago, Chile, advises to “make the most of every moment as it’s all over before you know it”.
Take every opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture – whether that means taking advantage of cheap cinema tickets or becoming a regular in the local bakery – it will be rewarding and well worth the effort.
Applications to be a language assistant in 2016/17 opened on Monday 2nd November and will close in mid-January. Visit http://www.britishcouncil.org/language-assistants/become/apply to find out more.
Images: Rosemary Maher, British Council.