About Language Assistants

Every year, around 2,500 Language Assistants from the UK support the teaching of English in 14 countries around the world.

Each one is taking part in a programme that traces its heritage back to 1905. It began as an exchange programme to allow graduates from France to help English students learn French, with 'young Masters in English secondary schools' heading to France to perform a similar role. Shortly afterwards, a similar agreement was reached with the government of Prussia.

Since those early days, the programme has endured major global events, two World Wars, and the Great Depression to name a few.

But while the global political, social and economic landscapes may have changed over the years, the Language Assistants initiative has remained committed to increasing language skills across the world. 

 

Eileen Coleman's experience of being a Language Assistant in France, 1934

It was autumn 1934. I had graduated in French from Cardiff University, and completed my teacher training year, but in the Depression years teaching posts were very few and far between. I was unemployed and penniless, and went to the University employment office to inquire about jobs. They had just heard that the Lycée Pasteur in Besançon needed an English Assistant because the American girl initially appointed to the Lycée de Jeunes Filles had fled within days, proclaiming that ‘no civilised person could be expected to work in those conditions’.

I wasn’t so fussy, everything was hurried up, and in 10 days I was in the historic town in eastern France. The post was not paid: in fact once a month I had to go to the local police station to sign a statement that I was not earning any money. But I received board and lodging in return for teaching. 

My room was on the top floor of the old convent in the Rue des Écoles – the only single room. The surveillantes (students at Besançon University who looked after discipline in the Lycée) had to share in twos and threes. My bedroom was just under the roof, and had a big window with a large sill on which one could sit and watch the birds. This was very popular with the other girls on sunny days, so I had plenty of company. Furniture was simple: a kitchen-type table and chair, a divan bed, and a large built-in cupboard with a rail for coat hangers – other clothes stayed in one’s trunk in the room.

There was a ewer, basin and slop pail. At eight, all the dormitories were locked, so no lavatories were available – hence the need for the slop pail. I don’t know what would have happened if there had ever been a fire, nobody seemed to have thought of the possibility.

Altogether a bit primitive, but the building was 200 years old even then. It was on the river bank so that when in the winter the snow in the mountains thawed, the river Doubs overflowed and flooded our cellars. The resident rats didn’t like getting wet, so came upstairs. 

Breakfast was a bowl of milky coffee and bread rolls with a minute pack of butter. Lunch was a cooked meal, though I remember one rabbit stew when one of the surveillantes was put off by finding a rabbit embryo on her plate. I saw it, but I was always so hungry I just ate mine anyway. Dinner in the evening was quite a reasonable cooked meal, though the helpings were not large. 

At the Lycée, the Directrice introduced me to the teacher who led the English Department. She showed me the room where at certain times I had to be available to talk English to any girls who turned up, and that was it. The only thing the French people seemed to be interested in was our Royal Family. There was a royal wedding while I was there – Princess Marina.

There were quite a few foreign students in the town, and one kind lady invited us all round for coffee and a chat once a week. I gave some private English lessons, although the mothers of male students would remain in the room as a chaperone, and I could never be paid except in kind. One elderly lady gave me a cup of tea for an hour’s conversation!

At weekends in the winter, a group of us would go skiing. Because we had no money, a local café owner took pity, and would keep Saturday’s stale bread and cakes for us to take on our Sunday outings. If we could afford it, we would take the cheap train which got back at about five to nine.

If I had had any money, it would have been grand, but I had only the very little that they could spare me from home and had to be very careful, though once I splurged on mandarin oranges, which were cheap and gorgeous. Postage stamps were the chief expense: I wrote long letters home. 

Overall, it was a wonderful year. On return, after a couple of short-term postings, I landed a job teaching French in Morley, near Leeds, but had to resign when I became engaged: married women were not allowed to teach. 

Eileen Coleman, née Wills - Language Assistant in Besançon, France 1934-35