“What’s the point of doing a year abroad?” you may ask. “I’m not even a Modern Languages student, so why should I waste a year of my time doing something I won’t gain anything from?”
I’m here to answer all of these questions. I am currently a fourth year Modern Languages student, and have just come back from one of the most amazing experiences of a lifetime, all thanks to my year abroad. What you may not realise is that a year abroad is not just for Modern Languages students – any student can get involved.
Of course there are some criteria that must be followed. For example, you must be a native-level English speaker and have completed two years of Higher Education by the time you start your post. You will also need an AS Level/equivalent or higher in a foreign language (except for China, for which there is no language requirement). For more information, see the British Council website.
The majority of people reading this will be native English speakers. If you’re reading this, and are at university, then you’ve most likely already completed 2 years of higher education, or if not, you know this opportunity will be available to you soon, so get applying. Finally, if you have an AS in a language, just think about at the places you could go to. The British Council has 2,500 posts available each year across 14 countries, so possibilities are endless, even if you’re not doing a languages degree.
So now you know what qualifications you need to apply, I’m going to get to the interesting stuff.
For those of you who say “Ok, I have the qualifications, but still, isn’t it a waste of a year?”, it is not a waste at all. There are so many important things to learn and experience that will not only give you valuable life experiences, but will also look great on a CV.
What can a year abroad teach me?
Problem solving skills
First and foremost, my year abroad in Paris taught me some very useful problem solving skills. As a language student, yes, I was obliged to do a year abroad. I was made to think about where I wanted to go, and what age group I wanted to teach in my second year of university. I had applied to work in a high school in Grenoble, and ended up pretty much the other side of the country near Paris teaching in a middle school.
So my first “problem” was learning how to adapt myself to teaching a different age group than expected, and having to do a lot of last minute research about a different part of the country which I didn’t know a lot about. Travelling abroad anyway can be scary, let alone when you’re not familiar with where you’re going. I was especially worried about going to this “small town” called Epone, as when googled, it came up was a photo of a large green hill with one house on it; a vastly different place to the busy Grenoble to which I had applied. Little did I know that my “small” town was only a 45 minute train ride from one of the words most stunning and interesting capitals.
Learning to live with other people and taking on their culture
Another skill that you will inevitably learn with doing a year abroad is how to live with people other than your family. This is especially useful for those university commuters among you who are craving a year away from your family to be able to go out and explore the world.
There are so many options for accommodation. You can rent an apartment and share it with fellow Erasmus students, find your own place and settle down for a year (for the more quiet students), or even live with a family, as I did. I was lucky enough that the house I lived in was a large 4-floor traditional French house with a gym (which in all honesty went largely unused by myself over the Christmas period), and a football table.
Living with a family allowed me to completely immerse myself into the French culture and language. I spoke French everyday, and learnt all the little but useful words for things that you’re not taught at university, like “clothes line”, “mop” and many others. As silly as it may seem, it teaches you that although you may be able to teach a whole class and have a very academic conversation, there are still some small things out that that you wouldn’t know, or possible even think about in your everyday life in England.
I was also enough to be sharing the French family with the Spanish language assistant, Rajib, who also helped add many useful and “colourful” words to my Spanish vocabulary.
The family took me to some amazing places that I would never have seen without out them. For example, my landlady took Rajib and myself to a champagne event at La Geode (an amazing geodesic come in the City of Science and Industry) in Paris. We went to Christmas fares, food-tasting events, and even saw my favourite French comedian, Gad Elmaleh, live in Paris. I even got to try French “delicacies” such as foie gras, frog legs, snails and Galette de rois; a cake normally eaten in January, which was eaten pretty much every day at my school and largely accounts for my buying a gym card this year.
Working in a college
As a language assistant, your job is to come to school and between 12 and 20 hours a week and teach English. Working in a school or university is a fantastic opportunity, both socially and educationally. Educationally, it is fantastic as by teaching your own language, you learn more and more about it, and will find aspects of your language that you never even thought about before. On a social level, you will learn skills that enable you to interact with your students and other staff.
You can put in as little or as much as you want, but the more you put in the more you get out. To exemplify, I normally worked 14 hours a week, but if I had gaps between lessons, I would help out at various clubs and classes. I did Disney choir (great for improving a foreign language, although slightly bizarre hearing the little mermaid in French!), bracelet club, football, volleyball and dance; none of which I was particularly talented at, but great experiences all the same.
Outside of school time, I also did lots of other activities with my fellow colleagues. We went for Indian meals (who knew French naan bread has cheese in it?), saw plays in Paris, and went bowling and clubbing. It turns out that even at the tender age of 21, I was being massively shown up on the dance floor by both the technology and games teacher.
Exploring another country
So you’re on your year abroad and there’s a whole new country out there to explore. Having made lots of new friends abroad, I found myself invited out more and more often. There were many trips I went on that I would never have been able to do if it weren’t for working at the school and making these new friends. For example, with my friends Marif, Jb and Rajib, I was able to go and explore the fabulous chateaus in the Loire Valley.
There was a fantastic trip to the costal commune “Étretat”, which involved lots of paddling, ice cream and hill climbing.
I also went to Rouen and saw the place where Joan of Arc was executed in 1431 – not a bad find for a history lover!
Set yourself goals
Living so close to the French capital, I decided to challenge myself. I had read many guide books about hidden passages, deserted railway tracks with walks over the city and artists drinking wine and picnicking by the Canal St-Martin and the glittering Eiffel Tower. I decided that whenever I could, I would go and find all of these places before I came back to good old Blighty. The amazing thing about traveling around is that you will get lost eventually, and it’s usually when you get lost that you find the most incredible things. So set yourself goals, try to complete them and find new things on the way.
Visit other nearby countries
Another fantastic thing about working for the British Council is that you’re getting PAID! This means that even after paying your rent, gas, water, food and electric bills you should still have money to travel. I was paid €800 monthly, 400 of which went towards the above bills, meaning that I had 400 left to spend on travel.
Being on the continent means that travel to other countries was very cheap and so I decided to visit many amazing places which I’d never been to before, such as Amsterdam (where I found possibly the world’s largest clogs), and Cologne, where myself and Rajib met an amazing group of people at a hostel and went on a sort of unplanned German pub crawl.
I was also able to explore Spain and visited Murcia, Cartagena, Ronda, Mijas and went along the Costa del Sol, making the most of not having to pay those extortionate flight prices from Britain!
Hopefully by now I have your attention and have persuaded you all to do a year abroad and work for the British Council. You get the experience of teaching and working with new and interesting people from a different culture and with a language. You earn enough money to pay your bills, travel and party (as I did, very often), and have job security and will be able to participate in many activities both in and out of school. So why not take a year abroad now before you have a family and long-term job – not only to better your CV, but to gain all of these new skills and life experiences?