In The Deep End: Becoming a Foreign Language Assistant

For a language learner, spending time in a country where that language is spoken is a truly amazing experience. All that you have been studying suddenly becomes real, and these strange words and sounds now allow you to actually communicate with other people. Of course, even better than just visiting that country, is actually living there. Below, I’m going to talk about a project in which I participated in Spain, which could bring this possibility closer to reality for students of Spanish in the U.S.

Despite having studied Architecture at university, after taking a short course in Spanish at the end of my second year, all I wanted to do by the time I graduated was go to Spain and become fluent. English teaching is the natural path for natives working abroad, but I had no teaching experience and no idea of where to start. After a bit of Internet searching I found the solution, to work as an English Language Assistant, or ‘Auxiliar de Conversación’.

The job involves spending 12 hours per week assisting other teachers in the classroom with speaking activities, games, or even planning and carrying out lessons yourself. I learned a lot about English grammar and teaching methodology, and my confidence and public speaking skills improved greatly after standing up every day in front of 30+ teenagers. However, the main benefit of the program undoubtedly has less to do with language teaching and more with the cultural exchange that inevitably takes place between the assistant, the students, the teachers, and the whole community.

This is especially the case in the smaller towns all over the country which, unlike the big cities, have had little contact with tourists. I had requested a smaller town in the hope of a more ‘authentic’ experience, and my placement in Baeza, Andalucia fulfilled every expectation I had, and more. Although smaller towns don’t offer the variety of cultural activities that big cities do, living here meant that I actually got to know people, and every time I left the house I would bump into someone I knew. This familiarity made me feel that I was actually living a real life there, and that I formed part of the fabric of the town, rather than simply living on the outskirts of a culture and looking inwards with curiosity.

The other great advantage of smaller towns is that few people other than the English teachers actually speak English. Although exhausting at first, having to speak Spanish in order to survive meant that after my first year (I ended up staying for three!) I was totally fluent. This of course also had a lot to do with my making a conscious decision from the start to try to socialize more with locals than the other assistants. I held out and looked for locals to share an apartment with, and I was constantly on the lookout for ‘intercambios’ or language exchanges with people interested in learning English. I always accepted any social invitations I received (even for things that didn’t interest me at all), as it provided contact with the culture. It’s a lot more challenging than just hanging out with the other assistants, but it’s much more enriching in the end.

I took part in the program from 2006-2008, and since then it has grown hugely, thanks in part to another exciting project taking place in schools across Spain, in which other subjects are being taught in English. I was involved in preparing materials for Art and History, and in translating some of the paperwork for the project. You receive a monthly stipend of €700 which is almost enough to live on in small towns and villages, but not in cities. Most people manage to supplement their income eventually by giving private classes (after all, you have plenty of spare time). Applications for 2013 open in January, but one word of warning – there are many agencies in the US charging a fee to enroll on the project, apply directly to the Ministry of Education here.

When I’m on tour, I like to tell the students about my experience in the hope it will inspire them to do something similar one day. But perhaps there are even some teachers out there thinking of taking a gap year?!

Article written by Sarah Wyland

Sarah Wyland
Sarah never gets in trouble for being on Facebook and Instagram at work, because its her job. As social media manager, she gets to tell the stories of travelers, teachers, and interesting places. Other titles she enjoys include dog mom to Knox, barre instructor, Crossfit athlete, avid reader, and world traveler.
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