This post is a bit of a departure from my usual material, but it´s been requested by a couple of people so I thought it might be useful to get out there.
This is not a general “Year Abroad Advice” post. It is merely an account of what I am doing and why I chose to do it, and is not intended to influence or guide the reader in any way.
I feel there are a few broad fields everyone needs to consider when planning a year abroad: time, country, city, and occupation. You can approach the planning in one of two ways: actively, or passively. By passively, I mean choosing to follow a scheme or programme that effectively takes the work out of your hands. This does not, of course, mean you will necessarily have less fun; it just makes your life slightly easier, although it can limit you in certain ways.
Most people study two languages – for those who study one or three, or who are studying one language ab initio, the process is obviously different – and therefore choose to spend six months in one language area and six months in another. My German, however, is far better than my Spanish. I´ve been to Germany countless times since the age of fourteen, whether on exchanges, work experience, study trips or to visit my then boyfriend, and while my academic writing in the language may still need work, I generally score highly in language work and can survive absolutely fine in a German-speaking country.
Before I arrived, I had so many feelings about Spanish. It´s always been my weaker language, even though it has the reputation of being far easier than German. While I was relatively confident with speaking in sixth form, that confidence took a nosedive during the last two years at Oxford, and my comprehension has always been terrible. It reached the point where I would skip the precious few language classes I had at Oxford out of anxiety at having missed so many due to my high workload, which only made my speaking fear worsen when I did attend. The classes were useful but the environment was one of very high pressure: the speaking situations felt forced, there was no real class camaraderie of the type that motivates you in school, and because the time was so limited, it seemed as if everyone around me were competing to show off their language, in a way, which made me even more nervous and unwilling to speak. I personally need enough headspace to be able to work on a language – from Years Eight to Twelve, I taught myself German grammar both in lessons and in my own time, and I had time to speak to my German friends online, work on translating songs, watching films, et cetera, and so I was able to learn in a quick yet low-pressure way. However, I have never had this luxury with Spanish. At Oxford, you do not have the time to work intensively on a language – which is what the year abroad is intended for. I knew it would be the easy way out to go to Germany for my year abroad, and resolved to spend the whole year in a Spanish-speaking country.
Understandably, my tutors were initially dubious. Oxford specifies you need to spend at least three months in each language area, so I promised I would aim to complete an internship of that duration following my year in Spain. They agreed, as they were aware of my feelings about my level of Spanish, but there were also other reasons for my decision to spend the full year in Spain. Since I began my undergraduate degree, I haven´t stayed in any one place for longer than two months. I was constantly moving between Oxford, my home in Surrey, Germany (to visit my boyfriend and to do a university course) and, this summer, India. It sounds dynamic and exciting, which it is, but it also involves unholy amounts of packing and unpacking, and medical or dental care is also quite difficult if you´re never stationary. I didn´t want the same for this year: I wanted to settle in properly, make friends, get to know the area like the back of my hand – in this case, too, I wanted to accompany my pupils through the entire academic year, as I´d probably be heartbroken if I had to leave them in, say, February. I just don´t think a few months – what with the unbelievable amount of organisation, bureaucracy and adjustment that comes with moving abroad – is enough to properly deepen your profiency of a perhaps weaker language.
Once I had settled on spending my official year in one country, the next decision was in which. This probably varies from university to university, country to country, but the impression I received from my coursemates was that South America was very much in when it came to planning the year abroad – everyone I asked seemed to be going to Argentina, Chile, Paraguay, as they were more “exciting” destinations. Spain seemed to have garnered the reputation of being uncool, boring, unadventurous. My opinion on this – which is probably not shared by many – is that it´s actually okay – more than okay – to not be incredibly adventurous with everything. It´s easy to underestimate the huge upheaval that comes with moving to any foreign country, especially one in which you are constantly speaking a language that is not your own. Sometimes going all out with the most far-flung destination can be a bit too overwhelming when you realise just how far from home you are and can´t find any food you like. Of course, some people have very specific reasons for going to South or Central America – already having travelled extensively in Spain, having family there, wanting a certain ethnic, racial or cultural environment – and that´s absolutely fine. For my part, I have several allergies and health conditions that mean I need easy and affordable access to healthcare, medicines, and foods suitable for my dietary requirements, so I needed a country both covered by the EHIC and familiar with gluten-free products. Things like the cost of flights, wanting to be relatively close to home in case of any emergency, the hassle of visas, and preferred climate also contributed to my decision.
[EDIT: the lack or availability of an Erasmus grant is frequently another decisive factor in the choice of whether or not to remain in Europe. Consider your financial situation wisely.]
One highly important factor many language students forget – or ignore – when planning their year abroad is the type of Spanish you´ll be surrounded by. If I hadn´t already made up my mind for Spain, this would have been the clincher. My Spanish is not the strongest, as I have mentioned, and I didn´t want to make my life any more difficult than it needed to be. Yet even within Spain, there is huge linguistic diversity, and I had no desire to live in a place where a strong dialect – or, in some cases, another language entirely – was the norm. Again, well-meaning people will encourage you to choose Barcelona, but unless you have an interest in Catalan, that may not be the wisest of ideas. My aim for the year is to work intensively on my Spanish, improving it as much as possible, as this really is my last chance before Finals, and so I wanted the best environment for that. You can easily visit other places without living there for a year. Therefore, I knew I needed to go to Madrid.
You may not think it, but your choice of destination and your choice of occupation are heavily linked. Let me explain.
- British Council Assistent Scheme – easily the most popular choice among my coursemates at Oxford, pushed by the university because it means less organisation for you and for them. This is usually a good choice; you get paid a lot for not working very many hours, and you have the support of the British Council behind you. However, it does limit you in that you do not get the final say in where you work. You do get to specify a preference, of course, and some people do end up exactly where they want, but that isn´t particularly common. It´s possible for you to end up in a little village in the middle of nowhere that can only be reached by a combination of bus, train and boat, where the Spanish that is spoken is as thick as cement and consonants are nowhere to be seen. If you´re a confident speaker – as I am with German – then this probably won´t matter, but if you´re wobbly, or just really want to live in the place you´ve picked out, it may not be for you. Additionally, you only find out exactly where you´re living and working relatively late in the day, and if you´re not keen on last-minute accommodation searches (which do usually turn out absolutely fine), or if you´re someone who needs everything planned months in advance, this also may not be for you.
- University study – if you want to attend a university with which your own institution has an Erasmus link? Fantastic! Go for it. If you want to attend a university which has no link whatsoever with your own – forget it. Seriously. Unless both institutions are extraordinarily helpful and accommodating, you will probably find yourself, like me, scouring through small-print websites with a magnifying glass, waiting weeks for replies to emails, tearing your hair out over both the curtness of the Spanish administration and the hopelessness of your own. My tutors were not at all helpful while I was attempting to apply to the Complutense in Madrid for a variety of courses, asking bemusedly why I wasn´t simply going to Salamanca or applying for British Council instead. I think the Oxford tutors want to deal with as little of the year abroad as possible. Obviously this doesn´t apply to all of them as I was only sorting the Spanish side of things, but it was a total nightmare and I would have appreciated more support from them. Initially my plan was to study either Translation and Interpreting or a language ab initio at either the Autónoma or the Complutense, but said plan fell apart so spectacularly that I knew I had to arrange an alternative, or risk ending up with nothing.
- Work – this field is so broad and so dependent on location that I can´t say very much about it in general. In my case, I was sitting in bed, very ill, and incredibly distraught at the failure of my year abroad plans, when I suddenly remembered having seen a job advert for a school in Madrid the previous day. It hadn´t interested me because I didn´t want to teach, and it was a British school, but now I knew I could no longer be picky. I rang the number instantly and as soon as I managed to speak to the Head of Primary, I sold myself over the phone as enthusiastically as possible, arranged to send in my CV, and it went from there.
I come under the category of “Work” but everyone thinks I´m an English language assistant: I´m not. I do not teach English. I am a teaching assistant in a British school here in Madrid, and it runs just the same as a school in Britain. I work with Years Five and Six, mainly working with the ones who need extra help in Maths, and doing Guided Reading, but I also take classes to the library and help with Literacy, Art, and so on. It is a mainly Anglophone environment but I don´t mind: it´s nice having that security/sense of comfort, and I get to chat to the Spanish teachers here. I also live in the centre of Madrid, so I´m using my language constantly outside of work.
I think that I´ve explained the whole of my personal planning process in terms of the main areas you have to consider when planning a year abroad. If you have any questions, or if you would like to know more about any aspect of my life in Madrid, please leave me a comment.