Castle at Antwerp, Belgium ©

Rick Lighthelm under Creative Commons License

I’d always planned to become a Language Assistant with the British Council after finishing my degree, as I wanted the opportunity to improve upon my A-level French. In Belgium, I taught at an Haute Ecole which is the equivalent of a vocational university (what used to be called polytechnics in the UK). I taught students aged 18 plus who were studying business, IT, library science and economics.

On a day-to-day basis teaching involved basic grammar and one-to-one speaking exercises as well as leading discussions with small groups. In general my most enjoyable teaching experiences were when my lessons were well prepared and the students were enthusiastic and ‘got’ me!

Belgian people are very friendly to people who speak good levels of French. Before I arrived in Belgium I made friends with a Belgian girl while looking for accommodation. I met up with her a few times and she showed me the local tea shop, which was good for taking other friends.

My responsable was amazingly helpful and introduced me to local culture and cuisine and took me to the local tourist spots before I started teaching properly in Belgium. Another of the teachers would invite me to the cinema with her weekly. The other teachers in the English department would also routinely invite me for meals and not let me pay a penny.

After the Christmas break I started feeling more confident in my French ability and so applied to work for a local Belgian charity. I attended their meetings and also translated articles from French to English for them for their website. 

I feel my language abilities have definitely improved. I already spoke French well before I went to Belgium but my understanding has improved, especially when people use slang or colloquial expressions. I think the biggest change though has been in my confidence to speak French. Before I was forced into speaking French I would feel very embarrassed about my mistakes and pronunciation but now I have more confidence to speak even though I’m making mistakes. For others to improve their French I would recommend really just putting yourself out there. 

Apart from travelling to France, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Slovakia, the Netherlands and Italy, which I would not have normally done if I wasn’t in Belgium, I also volunteered to be a translator at a series of European Seminars on Social Work which were held at our school. I had to do simultaneous translation from French to English for the Bulgarian and Portuguese students who didn’t understand French. I’m still shocked at myself for managing to do that!

I also had the opportunity to follow Spanish lessons completely free of charge with students at my school which has really boosted my aural comprehension in Spanish.

The Language Assistantship is really what you make of it. Things will be very different to how they are back home even though it’s still Europe. People may not make the biggest effort to make you feel welcome, especially if you don’t have a great grasp of the language, but these two things can be overcome if you keep a positive outlook and really put yourself out there when it comes to making friends.

I think this experience has given me increased confidence in myself and my abilities. At my school the teachers were kind enough to constantly praise work I had done well but it was also a learning experience for me too as they were honest enough to point out ways where I could improve. At the end of my assistantship when I was presented with presents, praise and certificates for my service to the school I felt so proud and I think that sense of pride will stay with me.

Employers really do look favourably on a year abroad and I would encourage anyone even someone who has a non-linguistic background like me to get up to the required language level and do an assistantship. It’s great fun and it’ll improve your employability.