How I Became a Language Assistant in Spain

It was 2018. I was a few months away from graduating from Durham University with my languages degree, and I had to decide what to do next. Since I was six years old, I’d wanted to be a teacher. I always assumed I would go straight into studying for a PGCE, then on to a standard teaching job. However, for some reason, I didn’t feel ready for that. I wanted to do something else instead of plain old teaching straight away. This is how I fell into being a language assistant in Spain. But I had to make a decision about my future first.

Being a language student, my possible plans mainly involved travelling. I drew up a list of five options, including: 

  1. Becoming a language assistant through the British Council.
  2. Doing a masters in translation, potentially abroad.
  3. “Bits and Pieces” — volunteering at a local Steiner school, volunteering abroad with refugees, and working with a mountain activity company in Italy. 
  4. “Another year abroad” — two six-month placements abroad in countries where they spoke a language I’d studied or wanted to learn.
  5. Another degree! I studied two languages and two sciences at A-Level. I felt tempted to go abroad (double benefit of practising my languages and cheaper fees!) and study something related to Biology, Chemistry, or Linguistics.

What to Choose

As I can see looking back on this list, I obviously didn’t feel ready to start a standard full-time job! In the end, I chose the first option. Apparently, I’m drawn to teaching so much that even when I don’t want to teach yet, I end up being a teaching assistant! I think I chose this option because it was the easiest to organise. Plus, I’d be paid rather than paying for it. It also seemed relevant to my career path, so I guess it was easier to justify and to feel confident enough that it was a good decision!

There’s a lot of pressure to go straight into a full-time job after graduating. But I would strongly recommend going abroad first if it is something you’re considering. There will be plenty of time for a standard job during the rest of your life, and you will get so much out of living abroad! 

Graduating from Durham University

The British Council

Many English speakers from all over the world decide to spend a year (or more) abroad helping teach English through the language assistant programme. It is a great way to immerse yourself in another country’s culture and language while working part-time to cover costs. As a native speaker, it’s also easy to find private lessons on the side to earn a bit more money.

Depending on where you’re from, there are different ways to get a placement. However, for those of us coming from the UK, we usually apply through the British Council. This involves a fairly long but simple application form. Along with this form, you will also need a reference, and, for some countries, a video interview (but not Spain, where I ended up applying). The British Council currently organises placements in 15 countries around the world, from South America to Asia. 

Where to Go

I decided that I wanted to stay in Europe to be closer to my friends in England. However, I couldn’t decide whether to go to Spain or Italy (having studied both languages). Much as I love Italy, in the end, I chose to be a language assistant in Spain. This is because there were many more placements available there, and I would be able to practise not only Spanish, but also Catalan. Through the British Council you can also put preferences of the region of Spain you would like to be in, whether you want to be in a city or a small pueblo, and what age you would like to teach. They say they take this into account, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get your first choices. 

Leaving home ready to start a new life in Spain

Application Sent

So, I sent off my application form in December, my reference was sent off by February, and then I just had to wait. In April, I heard back from the British Council that my application to become a teaching assistant in Spain had been successful. Now they would pass my application onto the Ministry of Education in Spain. Both of those agencies would work together to assign me to a specific region. In May, I found out I’d got my first choice region and would be heading to the Comunitat Valenciana in October. All that was left was to wait for the ministerio to allocate me a school.

Spain is notorious for taking a while to tell you where exactly you have been placed. They are working on this, but some people only found out which locality they would be in a few weeks before starting teaching! Luckily, I found out at the beginning of July. I was originally placed in the city of Alicante, but realising that they don’t speak much Valencià (the Valencian dialect of Catalan) in the city, I was lucky to be able to swap schools with my friend. She had also applied for the programme and was keen to be in Alicante. You’re not officially allowed to swap, but sometimes it’s possible! So, my confirmed destination was Castelló de la Plana.

Castelló de la Plana

I had never heard of Castelló when they assigned me to a school there. But it turns out that Carme, my Catalan teacher’s friend, was from there. I got in contact with her to find out what it was like. She put me in touch with a student who had been there on Erasmus. They convinced me that it would be better for my Valencià than Alicante and that it wasn’t too small, so I decided to go for it. Looking back, I had no idea what it would really be like, but I figured eight months wasn’t too much of a commitment. 

Moving Abroad to be a Language Assistant in Spain

As a previous language student, the whole experience wasn’t as daunting as it might have been for some people. I’d done placements and Erasmus abroad before as part of my degree, including in Spain. I spoke the language fairly well. I also knew Carme, and she helped with logistical things like the strange workings of the RENFE train websites (yes, plural: there are different web pages and places to search for different kinds of trains, even between the same two stations!). I’d found a flat online but only rented it from the start of October. Fortunately, I was able to stay with her parents for a week first. Her dad helped me carry my big suitcases up the three flights of stairs when I finally moved into my flat.

Before flying over there, my dad helped me sort out as much of the paperwork as he could from the UK. I carefully read the auxiliar guide and country notes I’d been sent by the British Council. Nonetheless, I don’t think you can ever be that prepared to move to a place you’ve never been before. I guess that’s all part of the adventure. So, I set off with an open mind and as much patience as I could muster for the inevitable challenges. I had a better time than I’d ever imagined. 

And that’s how I became a language assistant in Spain. 

by Kira Browne

Languages Spoken in Spain: Learning Valenciano

edgar llivisupa profile photoUpon reading my placement letter from the Valencian Community, I noticed it was odd. I assumed I was reading a Spanish-written letter. However, there were dashes within words, a notable lack of the letter “ñ,” a reverse accent mark I’d never come across (`), and words that appeared to be misspelled by a letter or two.

After some research, I learned that my assigned region utilized a co-official language, valenciano, alongside Spanish. What I originally envisioned as an opportunity to improve my first language by living in a country where it was primarily spoken now also presented a second opportunity to experience one of the most challenging yet redeeming aspects of living abroad: learning the local language.

History of Languages Spoken in Spain

At the time, I was completely unaware of the linguistic diversity in the country. Obviously, the average Spaniard knows that a few other languages are commonly spoken in Spain. Like many, I knew that the region of Catalonia speaks Catalan a significant amount. However, I came to discover that there are other regions that similarly promote the use of their traditional language.

For those unaware, Spain isn’t homogenous when it comes to culture. There are different foods, traditions, festivals, and languages across the country. This stems from medieval history. The Iberian Peninsula once composed itself of distinct kingdoms that utilized languages derived from Vulgar Latin. Townsfolk of the time spoke Vulgar Latin, the non-standardized version of Latin spoken during the medieval era.

Ultimately, Spanish became the most prestigious, widely spoken, and heavily associated with the country. It originated from the Kingdom of Castile, which is where the alternative term for the language, Castilian, derives from. Originally located in central Spain, it grew during the Reconquista, a period where Catholic rulers attempted to rid the peninsula of Moorish rule. During this time, Alfonso X (The Wise) began favoring one language over others. Spanish became the language of higher education, science, law, and more rather than Latin.

Bilingual marketing posters in Ontinyent, Spain
Bilingual marketing posters in Ontinyent, Spain.

Spain Unifies

Centuries later, the crown would unite with the neighboring Crown of Aragon through the marriage of Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, unifying most of Spain under one dynasty. The pair would later finance Columbus’ voyage to the New World. Succeeding journeys eventually enabled the spreading of Spanish throughout the world. In the peninsula, other languages met a similar fate to Latin, and private conversations are the only place to find such languages.

Bilingual regions make efforts to revitalize historical languages. The regime of General Franco restricted the use of other languages with nationalist policies. Other languages were further limited to private use. Book burnings and a ban on foreign names limited the use of other languages. As the country transitioned to a democracy, the newly-created autonomous communities received the freedom to express their cultural heritage.

The Co-Official Languages of Spain

While every community has Spanish as an official language, six more utilize another in their educational systems, in an official capacity in different levels of government, or in everyday speech. In the Basque Country and parts of Navarra, the Basque language has co-official status. In Galicia, it’s Galician, which some consider being the cousin of Portuguese due to their similar phonology and morphology. Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and the Valencia Community all use Catalan. However, some prefer to refer to their variety of Catalan as balear or valenciano, to differentiate the dialects.

Thousands speak the other unofficial languages found in Spain. Some find themselves classified under the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. These include Aragonese, Asturian-Leonese, and Gascon.

This means that things like traffic signs, supermarket displays, public service announcements, and public school instruction, present both languages. Bilingual regions expect service workers to understand and speak both languages fluently. In addition, public television airs in the local language, with programming varying from movies, cooking shows, news programs, and live music.

Bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia showing a supermarket’s operating hours and day
Here is a bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia showing a supermarket’s operating hours and day.

What is Valenciano?

A return to medieval history is required to understand the origins of valenciano. Two entities ruled the eastern side of the Iberian Peninsula: the Kingdom of Aragon and the County of Barcelona. They eventually unified under the name the Crown of Aragon around the early 12th century after the marriage of Petronilla of Aragon and Raymond Berenguer IV of Barcelona. In line with other kingdoms, expansion was a goal and as a Catholic crown, they also joined in Reconquista efforts.

In the 13th century, King James I of Aragon conquered territories south of its location, including Valencia and the Balearic Islands. He incorporated them into the Crown of Aragon. While northerners settled the acquired territories, Catalan became more common. Over time, the Catalan dialect spoken in these regions evolved and differentiated itself from standardized Catalan. That is why today the terms catalán, valenciano, and balear can be problematic. To some, each can be their own language, all part of a family, or simply different dialects. All three stem from a strong cultural identity or reluctance to use a term associated with another region.

The Difference Between Valenciano and Catalán?

Bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia listing different ATM signs
Here is another example of a bilingual sign in Ontinyent, Valencia listing different ATM signs.

While both Valencian and Catalan have distinct academies that regulate and promote the use of the language, the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua defines valenciano as another term for catalán. For what it’s worth, the Real Academia Española, the Spanish-language regulating body, describes valenciano as “the variety of Catalan spoken in the former Kingdom of Valencia and is commonly felt as its proper language.”

The differences between valenciano and catalán include vocabulary, conjugations, and pronunciation. They are minor enough that speakers can understand each other, and language teachers can work in either region.

Compared to Spanish, valenciano has two more vowels: (à) (è), the letter (ç), and the letters “ny” replace the iconic Spanish letter, “ñ.” There are more orthographic differences, but as a Romance derived language, they share a lot of similarities including conjugations for person, tense and number, gender, etc. 

It’s been very exciting learning about valenciano and how it became the co-official language of the area where I teach. It’s fascinating to see the long-lasting effects that history has had on the language.

Deciding to Learn the Language

I discovered all this information weeks before relocating to Spain as I felt curious to see the extent of other languages spoken in Spain in my assigned area. Upon arriving at my worksite I realized citizens spoke valenciano as much as Spanish. This encouraged me to learn the language.