The first piece of advice I would give to anyone heading off for a year abroad is not to get your hopes up for an easy, dream-like year. But, at the same time, do go into it with a positive, optimistic attitude. A year abroad, wherever you are in the world, is no easy ride but it could be one of the most rewarding, extraordinary and special experiences if you take a realistic and enthusiastic approach.
Whilst applying to the British Council Language Assistant scheme for my Spanish year abroad, I selected a city as my preferred environment, imagining a year in exciting Sevilla, Madrid or Granada. I was placed in La Herradura (yes, that really well-known place!), a seaside town with a population a quarter of the size of St Andrews. It looked like I was set to move from one seaside bubble to another (admittedly much warmer) one.
I arrived on my own and, taking the advice of the British Council, booked myself into a budget hotel so I could suss out the town and view flats in person, before choosing where to live, as my school did not offer much help in finding accommodation. These first two weeks turned out to be, by far, the toughest of the entire year — starting a new job, sorting out a place to live, trying to meet new people and, to top it all off, being nowhere near fluent in the language. But it gets better!
I moved into a flat by myself. Ideally, I wanted to share with Spanish speakers, but there was little opportunity of doing so in La Herradura. Most of my teacher colleagues lived in Malaga or Granada and commuted to work. Don’t be scared to live on your own however; it is not as bad as it sounds and much better than settling for somewhere you don’t feel safe or happy. I weighed up the options of living with two other English language assistants in the neighbouring town. It might have made for a superficially comfier start, but also would have meant speaking less Spanish and having to commute every day. I decided I could not pass up on the opportunity to live a five-minute walk along the beach from work.
So, after a month, I had sorted the boring but essential stuff; I had a Spanish ID, bank account, phone number, doctors and, most importantly, Wifi in my flat. But I had no amigos!
In terms of friends, the advice is to start at work. For me, this proved difficult as most of the teachers lived further away and were significantly older. But I accepted every social offer from my colleagues and became close to a few who did live in the town and looked out for me.
The best decision I made was to join the town’s tennis club and a local gym. The club’s owners were a local couple who had a son about my age, and they became like a second family. Through tennis I made lots of different contacts within the town, and began to know several faces when I was out and about. Importantly, it was not just the people I played with that I got to know, they also introduced me to their friends and families. For example, I met my soon-to-be best friend through playing tennis with her older sister. From there, I was lucky enough to be introduced to a group of friends my age all from La Herradura, some who lived at home and studied online distance university courses and others who studied at Granada University (less than an hour away) but regularly came down to the coast.
I would advise anyone doing a language year abroad to go out of your way to make native friends if you can. Having Spanish friends was no doubt what improved my language the most, and learning text slang, local accents and sayings are fun add-ons that you don’t learn in tutorials. Also, it gave me the opportunity to actually experience real Spanish life—going to “ferias” (festivals) in other towns at the weekends, meeting for “tintos de verano” on the beach and going on nights out where the club opens rather than closes at 2 am. It gave me such a deeper understanding of Spanish culture, from their love of partying to the central importance of family.
On the other hand, be prepared to be friends with people not your age. I joined a gym where all of the ladies there were at least 15 years older than me. Yes, I was a member of a middle-aged Zumba group chat, who’s judging? Although I wasn’t spending my weekends with them, they provided an incredible support network for me, included me in dinners and introduced me to more people. Several of them were also parents of the children I was teaching, which helped me feel more welcome and part of their community.
Saying all this, I did not refuse to befriend English speakers. I got in touch with another English language assistant in the next town over and we took a few tourist trips together, and visited each other from time to time. You do sometimes need a break from constantly thinking and speaking in another language!
Although I do not particularly plan to go into teaching, I loved my job in a primary school. I was only meant to be the language “assistant” but my role actually consisted of taking the English section of bilingual natural and social science classes. This was a lot more responsibility than I was expecting and meant I did have to put in the hours to prepare. But the better I prepared the more I enjoyed and gained from teaching. I only had nine different classes, ranging from three- to eight-year-olds, which meant I was able to build up a good relationship with the children. Teaching the Gay Gordons to a class of seven-year-olds was a particular highlight.
Even if you don’t think teaching is your future, I would recommend it to anyone doing a language year abroad, as you not only learn new vocabulary from the kids but also a lot about the country. I definitely knew I was far away from Scotland when it rained for the first time since I’d arrived and the kids were so excited we had to close the classroom shutters so they would stop sticking their hands and faces out the window. I think the school I worked in reflected a lot about Spain. At the end of break times, instead of a school bell, music played across the playground and all the kids literally danced back into the classroom. There was also no staff room; all the teachers sat outside in the sun between classes.
At the end of second year in St Andrews, I was having such a great time that I did question why I was leaving. But having a year out of the bubble allows you to take a step back and properly reflect on your first two years, knowing you have another two when you come back. I decided I would do things slightly differently when I came back, one of those being starting a Spanish-themed radio show (Súbeme La Radio on STAR—tune in!).
Writing this has made me want to relive all the ups and downs of my year abroad. It is the most challenging but rewarding thing I have done so far and has definitely positively impacted the way I approach life. I made a new life for myself in a tiny Spanish coastal village and made some of the funniest and happiest memories I have. For anyone swithering over doing a year abroad, just go for it! Even if you don’t enjoy all of it, I can guarantee you will learn a thing or two about the real world and, more importantly, yourself.