Left: El Puente Romano in Cordoba (Photo by Saad Chaudhry on Unsplash) Right: My school in Villaviciosa de Córdoba
I have just finished my first term as an English assistant in Córdoba (Andalusia) and I can honestly say that it has been both the best and the most difficult thing I have ever done. If you had told me a few years ago that I would have traveled and worked in a foreign country, I would have said 100% “No way, I could never do that”.
Whereas now I feel like a much stronger and more confident person than when I landed at Malaga airport and have learned a lot about the benefits and challenges of teaching English as a language foreign.
However, while I’ve loved my experience in Spain so far, I’ve had to overcome a few challenges, especially in the first month after arriving. And so, I thought I would write this article about 5 key things that I think are essential to know about being an English language assistant in Spain and that I wish someone tell me in advance.
- Bureaucracy is an absolute nightmare.
Yes, you read that right: while moving to a new country is an exciting experience for you to improve your language skills and try new things, there is a lot of paperwork to complete before and after your trip. The two main bureaucratic formalities you need to apply for are a visa and a Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero (in English, a residence permit).
Due to Brexit you now need to apply for a visa to be able to study/work in Spain and this can unfortunately take a long time. First, you need to email your consulate to request an appointment and it may take 1-2 months to get back to you.
Afterwards, when you arrive in Spain, you have 30 days to make an appointment for your residence permit. I was a real bag of nerves when it happened, but it turned out to be nothing to worry about as the people there are usually pretty calm and understand the stress of the process.
My main advice for this is to be proactive but also patient and try not to worry too much because yes it is a stressful process and it can take a while for things to settle down but everyone is in the same boat and as long as you are ready, you will be fine.
2. The Andalusian accent is very thick and incredibly fast.
Before flying, I knew that Spanish speakers spoke quite quickly, but I never thought that the Andalusian accent would be even more difficult to understand. For example, an element of Andalusia does not pronounce every letter of every word: thus, for example, “Buenos días” would be pronounced “Bueno día”. At first I felt really baffled by this and especially the speed at which they were speaking made me feel a bit discouraged and worried that I would struggle to improve my Spanish. It also wasn’t helped by the fact that my language assistant role was primarily in English, as my mentor teacher told me not to use Spanish with students.
However, I’ve found that the best way to overcome this is to simply expose myself to as much spoken Spanish as possible, whether it’s listening to teachers’ conversations on break or hearing people talking on the street. Eventually I found that my ear didn’t take long to adapt and it became really helpful in improving my hearing comprehension as I became much more comfortable with the speed at which people were speaking.
Plus, you can perfectly remind your teachers that you’re there to learn Spanish in addition to teaching English. My teachers were very understanding about it and so usually in conversations we tend to alternate between English and Spanish which I really like because it’s like a two way thing where I can improve my Spanish and they can practice their English.
3. You are expected to interact a lot verbally with your students
One of the main things my teachers always ask me to do is talk to students either asking them questions about what is covered in the lessons or trying to have a conversation with them about general topics such as family, Christmas, etc.
I’d be lying if I said this is the task I always dread or feel nervous about doing, mainly because spoiler alert, it’s like pulling teeth! As my students have a very low level of English, when asked to contribute in class, many hesitate for fear of making a mistake and do not even try to use Spanish.
That’s why my main goal for this next semester is to try and get out of my comfort zone by building more speaking activities into my lesson planning in hopes that my students can slowly start to become more and more comfortable with oral contribution in class as well as each other in a smaller group setting.
4. When it comes to planning activities, online platforms are your best friend!
One of the best discoveries I’ve made about teaching low-level learners is that they learn best from more interactive resources, such as YouTube videos and gaming platforms like Kahoot and Hangman.
I’m sure many of you reading this will have heard of and/or played Kahoot in high school; but in a nutshell, it’s an online gaming platform where players compete in quizzes on just about anything and if there aren’t any on the topic you’re looking for, then you can create your own! It saved my life because it makes me happy when I see my students having fun while learning and competing against each other and if you have prizes (especially candy and chocolate) that’s even better !
I would also highly recommend using YouTube videos when talking about your culture so that your students can visually understand important traditions in your country such as Halloween, Bonfire Night, Christmas, etc. The best channels that I have found useful are BBC English and BBC News.
5. The first month abroad may seem both the most enjoyable and the most difficult, but that’s okay!
Before flying, I was so excited to experience a new culture and participate in a wonderful program that I didn’t think I would have felt homesick or experienced culture shock. In fact, my first weekend consisted of walking around the city with my dad, seeing all the breathtaking sites, like the Mezquita and the Roman bridge, eating lots of tapas and making the most of the weather gorgeous warm.
However, when I started my internship, I started to feel a bit lost and that’s when the homesickness set in; I started to miss my family, my dog and my friends in Leeds and Bristol. But I’ve found the best way to combat this is to keep myself busy and involved in things, like going out for drinks with the friends I’ve made through WhatsApp groups made up of other language assistants and take me on day trips to other parts of Andalusia.
So my biggest advice here is to allow yourself to feel what you feel because ultimately moving to another country is a big step and it takes you some time to find your bearings. Also, if you can, try to bring home comforts with you, whether it’s your favorite toy or photos of your support system. I took this toy bull my sister gave me as a parting gift and some photos of my friends and family back home.
Also, my teachers at my school and the other language assistants I initially met via WhatsApp became a big part of my support system as everyone made me feel welcome and always offered their kindness. support when I reached out. In other words, putting yourself forward and saying yes as much as possible has really helped me settle in faster and feel less homesick while slowly getting into a routine.
In conclusion, your year abroad is really what you make of it: there will be challenges but also great memories. I would say without a doubt that despite the many hurdles I had to overcome, this year has been the best part of my degree so far: I’ve met a lot of great people, I’m doing work that I love and I have definitely seen improvements in my language skills, especially speaking and listening.
It was also a great opportunity for me to travel and explore other amazing places in Andalucia during my long weekends (Friday to Sunday), such as Seville, Ronda and Malaga. If you’re planning to travel to Spain, I highly recommend getting a “Tarjeta Renfe Joven”, a train card that gives you up to 30% off travel and earns you points every time you book tickets.
I hope this has helped you in some way on what to look for when planning your year abroad, as well as any tips or tricks to help you get the most out of the experience !
By Robyn Davis, 3rd Year Spanish and Italian student completing a British Council assistantship in Córdoba.
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