By Shereen Chenia

16 December 2014 - 08:39

'Work experience abroad is an increasingly impressive and desired characteristic for employees.' Photo (c), licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Work experience abroad is an increasingly impressive and desired characteristic for employees.'  ©, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Shereen Chenia, who has returned to the role of English language assistant for a second time, explains the benefits of this opportunity.

Having enjoyed one of the best years of my life as an English language assistant in Madrid in 2010, I have a lot of good things to say about this opportunity — so much so that I have decided to do it all again in Milan this year. I think the role is really something, both on an individual level for the assistant, and in terms of teaching English to thousands of young people across the world. Here are ten reasons why I recommend becoming an English language assistant.

1. See the world

This is probably the most obvious and alluring reason of all, but nonetheless, travel should never be underestimated. As a language assistant, you have the opportunity to work in many diverse countries across two continents. The British Council network within countries is extensive, and you can opt for specific regions and demographics to really pinpoint what you want. Whether you seek the buzzing cosmopolitan hub of a big city, or would prefer the more laid-back, authentic charm of a rural town, there will be something for you.

I am completely biased, but I think not having travelled enough is a very common regret for many people. There may come a time when casually leaving the UK for a year will become more difficult (but not impossible!). Here you have the opportunity to not just travel but live as a resident for nine months. And in one way or another, it will be life-changing.

2. Learn a new language

Forget everything you learned in the classroom (I say this in jest). Academic teaching of languages can offer a solid framework, particularly for grammar. But there is nothing like getting right in the thick of it and learning on the spot. You will spend hours frustrated but tirelessly trying to express yourself. You will make mistakes, and yes, at some point you will probably say something inappropriate by mistake. But before long, you will find yourself absent-mindedly spinning off a complex compound verb formation or casually dropping in a local expression you’ve picked up. Again, it’s what you make of it. Resist speaking English even with a proficient English speaker. Do language exchanges and make an effort to make friends with colleagues or natives. And my personal favourite: find a significant other in the spoken language. No better way to learn!

3. Start a new career path

Even if you’ve never seen yourself teaching, a year spent working with children and young adults might change your mind. You may discover talents you never knew you had! I think the assistantship is a very good ‘taster’ of teaching. You will get the gist of it, without the overwhelming responsibility of your fellow teachers. Teaching English as a foreign language has certainly opened my eyes to the importance of being bilingual, and especially having a good level of English. It only takes one inspiring teacher to light the spark that could determine a child’s future success in a language, and even their career. Speaking English well will have a real impact on the students’ future employability. The keenness of both students and their parents for the kids to spend time with the language assistant is charming and a real motivator in work.

4. Boost your employability

Don’t look at this assistantship as a sabbatical, as a year abroad to ‘find yourself’ before you get down to the serious stuff. Work experience abroad is an increasingly impressive and desired characteristic for employees to have. It’s no secret that business is globalising by the day, and future candidates will need to be a part of this momentum. It’s not just the language skills, but the ability to work with different cultures — to adapt and communicate with people from different backgrounds. This will do nothing but good things for your employability.

5. Build a network

Most people taking an opportunity such as this will be nearing the end of their time in higher education. I don’t think I can exaggerate how important professional networking is at this point. Make the most of the opportunity to network with other assistants. Make use of social media, and don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. We are all in the same boat, and these forums can offer a real support network.

Another perk of remaining in contact is the possibility of travel — make use of free accommodation wherever possible. As important as it is to be settled in your own city, the opportunity of travelling the length and breadth of the country will make your experience in the country even more enriching.

6. Take steps to further work abroad

As I said before, you will have the opportunity to meet important people in the education sector which can be great for networking. But you can also use the opportunity to network in other areas. As a student of marketing, I am using this time to gain experience in sectors which will both improve my career prospects, and possibly lead to a job. I am looking to gain experience within a fashion giant such as Gucci, and also am looking into Expo, here in Milan. By mid-2015, Expo will create an international buzz, but here there is already a growing excitement. This is just one example of a great opportunity that could only be possible by having been in Milan.

7. Become more culturally aware

For me, culture is one of the highlights of living abroad, and I am all for adapting to a new way of life. It’s surprising how much is different in another country — not just the language and currency, but the sense of humour, popular beliefs, customs and traditions and what is considered the ‘norm’ (tonnes of room for social faux pas).

As a resident, you will experience the city or town in a way you could not imagine as a tourist. The potential for social and cultural immersion is infinite. In terms of my media-fuelled expectations of Milan, it was not what I expected. The city is not just a fashion capital, it is not all glamour and expensive shopping districts. In fact it is a diverse, multi-cultural and lived-in city. I have come to prefer it this way.

8. Experience a new cuisine

Really, I could have covered this under culture, but as an unashamedly gluttonous food aficionado, I feel the need to expand on this point. Speaking of Italy, its reputation as a world leader of cuisine is truly deserved. Experiencing a new cuisine in all its home-made, locally sourced glory is perhaps the most amazing thing about living abroad. And the best part is that you don’t even have to frequent swanky, over-priced restaurants, as you’ll find the most delicious, authentic dishes from street vendors and dodgy-back-street cafes.

9. Make a bit of money

For those of us studying, we are pretty well used to just getting by on a student budget. Making some money is a very welcome break from that, and can also teach you a thing or two about the real cost of living. Make sure you scope out any opportunity for additional funding such as the Erasmus grant. An extra €400-500 a month can go a long way.

10. Get the support of the British Council

As a young person, the prospect of suddenly uprooting yourself to another country is a very daunting one. For this reason, it is reassuring that we have the support of the British Council, and are not completely alone. If something goes wrong or you are not coping well, whether at school or more personally, you need not suffer in silence. There is someone who can offer advice and will be very willing to help. When my babysitter upped and left with four days’ notice, the British Council was a first port of call. Similarly, a friend having difficulties with her school was greatly reassured by the swift and sympathetic response of the British Council.

Apply to become an English language assistant.

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