The Year Abroad : More than just a language lesson

Freya Hoppe, BA Modern Languages and History graduate tells us about the year abroad she spent in Seville, Spain, from September 2018 - June 2019.

Written by Freya Hoppe

When you’re attending a university open day or flicking through a prospectus and come across the phrase “year abroad”, what comes to mind? For me, throughout my A-levels and first year studying Hispanic Studies and History at the University of Birmingham, I had always pictured myself working studiously in a picturesque university library, perhaps in Madrid, Buenos Aires or Barcelona. However, when the time came to choose a Year Abroad pathway in second year, I found myself wanting to try something different, as I was conscious of my lack of work experience to aid me in the future. I soon settled on a work placement in Seville, Spain; I’d be spending the year teaching English to adults.

Freya

Freya admiring Seville skyline from the rooftop of her apartment building

Arriving in Seville was an instant test of the Spanish skills I had been developing, as I faced my first challenge: Signing a housing contract in Spanish, whilst acting as the translator between my landlord and parents! My language skills were not the only things put to the test as I settled into my new lifestyle. Whilst I may have spent hours discussing Spanish culture in class, it’s safe to say that experiencing it up-close and being immersed in a culture so different to the one in which I grew up seemed daunting at first. However, it was something I soon recognised as an opportunity to become more open-minded and adaptable. I’ll never forget the first time my boss treated me to a tapas lunch of garlic prawns and salmorejo (a cold vegetable typical of Andalucía), two of my previous pet hates! Whilst I don’t believe it’s always best to disregard your own wants and feelings in order to accommodate others, I’m glad that I chose to politely sample the free lunch kindly provided by my boss. This seemingly insignificant experience opened my eyes to the benefits of being open minded to food, customs and traditions that I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. It’s an attitude that has stayed with me since my year abroad and I am now a seasoned fan of Spanish cuisine!

Meanwhile, inside the classroom at the language school, where I worked as an Asistente de Inglés, my skill set was put to the test in other ways. I had worked with young children in an educational setting before, which of course brings its own challenges, but never with adults. It was clear that my students were hungry to learn English, so it was time for me to step up and be the teaching assistant they deserved. I won’t lie, there was certainly a learning curve; I had never taught English before, let alone to students who were twice or even three times my age! However, with some encouraging words from my friendly colleagues, I soon found my own rhythm and teaching style, and the results were beneficial not just for my students’ language skills, but for mine too. I observed that some of the most confident students were those who weren’t afraid to make mistakes when speaking in class or in front of me, a native English speaker, so I adopted the same approach and I became fairly fearless when speaking Spanish. I’d chat to locals on the train to work, or to other Erasmus students during the day trips organised by a local student exchange society, and of course my Spanish skills came on leaps and bounds as a result.

It may surprise you to know that my language development was not, for me, the top takeaway from my incredible year abroad. In my view, the improvement to my Spanish that I gained during those 10 months in Seville happened as a result of the wide range of experiences I encountered, from learning new teaching skills on the job, to dealing with foreign bureaucratic processes or adopting a new daily routine. These elevated my confidence at a rate I’d never experienced before, as a result of facing those frequent but manageable challenges, and I became less afraid to make mistakes or to start a conversation.

For me, the year abroad is unmatched as a university experience which presents participants with opportunities for personal improvement, far beyond just their foreign language skills. As I move into the world of job searching, having graduated this year, I reflect fondly upon my year abroad as if it were yesterday, and it sits proudly at the top of my CV.