A Language Assistant in Germany

by Kate Jones

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Language Assistant Jobs in Germany


The very thing that attracted me to a degree in modern Languages very nearly made me jack the whole thing in and work in the local supermarket for the rest of my life! A year ago, when I first applied to the Central Bureau for a placement as an English Language Assistant in Germany, the enormity of uprooting myself and being fully immersed in a foreign country for a whole year hadn't hit me.

However, about a month before I was due to leave my cosy, safe life in England, the reality of the situation suddenly jumped up and punched me square in the face. I became convinced I'd hate it there, no one would like me because I'm foreign, I'd be so lonely and miserable, it would be really cold and rain a lot, etc, etc.

Luckily I pushed these thoughts to the back of my mind, and am currently enjoying my third month working in a Gymnasium (Grammar School) on the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein in northern Germany. Despite the rapid decline in the weather since my arrival (unfortunately the fear that it would be cold and rainy proved all too true!), everything else is looking brighter by the day.

I originally decided to spend my third year of university - a compulsory 'Year Abroad' for Modern Languages students in most British universities - as a Language Assistant because I have it in the back of my mind that I would like to pursue a career in teaching. There are, however, many Assistants who have no desire to enter the teaching profession, and simply see this as a fantastic experience, which just so happens to look very impressive on their CV!

The other choices offered to me when I was considering my Year Abroad were to either study here, or get a 'proper' job (ie: in an office). Based on the following, you may well agree that I made a good choice...

The thing that surpasses every other advantage of being an Assistant is that my timetable comprises 12 lessons a week, each of which is 45 minutes long, and I have every Friday off! Compare this to a friend of mine who is working in an office from 8 am to 5 pm every day, and actually earning less than I am. Although my wage is 'only' about 450 pounds a month*, this translates to about 10 pounds an hour, and I can charge the same for any extra tuition I do. This serves to fatten my wallet somewhat and feed my travelling habit. So far I have been to Denmark a couple of times, Berlin, Hamburg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, Essen, Dijon and Paris - and that was only the first 2 months!

If you like kids and teenagers, this is definitely a fabulous way to spend a year - you get the fun part of teaching without any boring responsibilities. My job description stipulates that I do not do any marking, give out grades or punishments, I must always be accompanied by a teacher in the classroom, or I take out small groups (of up to 10) by myself. Some of my fellow assistants have found that they have to take whole classes, or cover lessons when teachers are absent, but so far I have been lucky in this respect. I was allowed to sit and observe classes for the first couple of weeks, which enabled me to ease my way in gently. This appears to be normal procedure - most assistants will not have any teaching experience as such.

The content of my lessons depends very much on the level of the students. One of the hardest things I have been asked to do is to correct the teachers when they make mistakes. However,  I did feel compelled to correct a teacher immediately when they innocently inquired whether the word 'teaspoon' had a 'hymen' in the middle! So far I have done everything from songs, to texts, to games and role-plays - all activities are designed to improve the students' speaking and listening abilities and to raise their awareness of British culture and life-style (hence my landmark lesson on Hear'Say!).

The level of enthusiasm among kids varies greatly - the less they know, the more enthusiastic they are. The younger ones still find it new and exciting, they feel they are making rapid progress, and they nearly fall off their chairs trying to raise their hands the highest so I will pick them to answer a question / perform a role-play. By the age of about 14, the novelty has worn off somewhat, though, and they have the knack of making me feel as if they would rather I was extracting their teeth one by one, with no anaesthetic, than trying to make them speak English. Their language level is surprisingly good, however, which makes it possible to make the work as varied and interesting as possible for them.

The oldest students in my school are 19 and 20 - the same age as me (some have repeated a year at school, and a couple of the girls have spent a year in America). I found this a little unnerving at first, but I have found that the best way to cope is to treat them as equals, speak to them on a level, but maintain a professional air (in the classroom at least) to keep that division between student and teacher.

I find the job thoroughly rewarding, and if you fit the criteria set by the Central Bureau (see below), I would thoroughly recommend giving it a go. Living in Germany is an experience and a half - although it's not a million miles from Britain, or warm, or exotic, the culture is in many ways different to our own. I've found it fascinating to note even the smallest peculiarities, such as the fact that they eat a big meal at lunch-time and not in the evening (it's still a shock to me if I go to a cafe for a snack at lunch-time and am presented with a full-blown meal!). Nevertheless, it is also noteworthy that an increasing amount of British and American culture is seeping into German everyday life and language - random English words adorn billboards and TV screens the length and breadth of the country. My favourites are those words that we don't actually use in Britain: 'Handy' for mobile phone; and the completely fabricated word 'Wellness', which the Germans appear to be obsessed with!

Overall, the best way to make the most of an experience like this is to throw yourself into it, don't be shy, accept the new culture (and terrible pop-music!) warts and all, and don't feel a failure if you get homesick now and then - just don't forget to pack your Marmite and Cadbury's chocolate!

Further Information
* Candidates for an Assistantship should be between 20 and 30 years old.

* They have to have completed at least 2 years of a degree / diploma course, usually in the language of the country for which they are applying - the minimum language requirement is A level or equivalent.

* Candidates must be students at or graduates of a British University, and English must be their first language.

* If you are at university, studying Modern Languages, you can get relevant information from your Year Abroad Coordinator. Other people can deal directly with the Central Bureau

* You have to cover your own travel costs and find your own accommodation.

* You will go on an induction course near Cologne before you start your Assistantship, which is extremely useful, and great fun!  

* Wages and some other details may have changed since this article was first published

Image courtesy The LEAF Project